Ask Reeta Kaushik from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, about her inspiration and she vehemently says, “I am my own inspiration.” And why not.
After all, she’s spent her life battling social norms (even to get basic education), her relatives (who forced her to be a child bride) and casteism at every turn.
“I am a Dalit and a woman. There’s no place for people like us in this country,” she says, adding, “I had to fight every step of the way.”
Born to a rickshaw puller, she has always been a staunch believer of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s vision that only education can lead to the true emancipation of Dalits.
Today, she is the first woman in her family to get a formal education and the founder of Samudayik Kalyan Evam Vikas Sansthan (SKVS), which has reached girls in 112 Gram Panchayats across 126 communities in Kushinagar and Gorakhpur.
Her initiatives—like promoting mainstream education, providing bridge courses for dropouts and skill training—have impacted 25,026 children and youth in the Musahar, Dalit and Muslim communities.
Additionally, SKVS has helped develop women leaders, addressed hunger, malnutrition, health and sanitation issues in communities.
But one of the significant changes Reeta helped bring about in the Musahar community was to aid people to secure land rights. All this and more from a 48-year-old woman who has turned oppression into opportunity.
‘I Want To Learn’
One of the most marginalised groups, the Musahar community is known to live near rivers and drains. The word ‘Musahar’ translates to people who feed on rats. They’re a group of landless labourers, who are in constant fear of oppression.
So, education was never a priority for Reeta’s family. Her father also sold vegetables to supplement the family’s earnings. While Reeta’s elder sister was made to do household chores, Reeta had to chaperone her two younger brothers to school, which was three kilometers away.
But she refused to wait outside and requested to sit in the class. “I was about 8 when I first asked to be a part of my younger brothers’ classes but my parents kept insisting that girls don’t study.”
Her determination to study landed her a free scholarship in a private school. Even there, she endured harsh punishments from the bigotted teachers and being refused the highest rank because of her caste.
At the same time, her personal life had its own oppressive churning.
At the age of 12 she was married off. “In the villages, ‘bidai’ doesn’t happen the next day. By the time I was supposed to leave for my in-laws in 1991, I graduated school. I then ranked first in my first year BSc class.”
Having so much more she wanted to achieve, she returned home within a day of her ‘bidai’ and never went back.
However, enrolling in second year BSc was quite a financial strain. So, she dropped out, learnt shorthand and typing and got a job at a dispensary in 1996 for a monthly salary of Rs 1,500.
She then re-enrolled in the Arts section. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to manage learning Science and working full time,” she adds.
A year later, she got a job working with an organisation engaged in social work. There, she says, she witnessed the struggles of Uttar Pradesh’s Dalits first-hand. She even saw Dalit women going into labor outside hospital doors because they refused to admit ‘chamars’.
All this motivated her to study further, and by 1999, Reeta, who was a recent graduate, also decided to pursue a postgraduate course. She proudly says that she completed her education using her own savings.
When in 2000 she remarried, this time finding immense support from her husband’s family, she continued her work as an office assistant. But her maternity leave cost her her career.
After a decade of work, she was also demoted and her salary was reduced from Rs 7,000 to Rs 5,000. This led her to seriously consider registering her own organisation and work towards realising her vision where no one remains uneducated, malnourished and oppressed.
She then registered the SKVS foundation in 2003 with a primary focus on promoting education. Gradually, her work has expanded to cover developmental parameters like health, nutrition, economic empowerment, sanitation, livelihood and land rights.
“In 2007, I got a fellowship from Dalit Foundation. With many grants amounting to Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, I started the work of the organisation by 2008,” she says.
Reeta went on to fund the education of many girls from the Musahar community, one of whom is now working as a Central Manager in the One Stop Centre (OSC) scheme of the Uttar Pradesh government.
Nitu Bharti successfully completed her Masters in Social Work all thanks to Reeta. She says, “I have worked with Reeta for a decade, so you can imagine the kind of support she has given me. I witnessed her work in 2009 and was so inspired to help others in my community.”
Nitu adds, “She has been my mentor and guide. She has given me Rs 16,500 from her own savings to help me complete my two-year Master’s degree course. Today, I am at the Central Manager’s post all thanks to Reeta. Besides my parents, if there’s anyone that I would like to credit for my success, it would be Reeta didi.”
SKVS has also helped the government identify and register beneficiaries for welfare schemes.
Since 2013, the organisation has enrolled 15,118 students in mainstream education, 2,879 students from minority communities given bridge courses and 624 students provided vocational training.
Through vocational training in sewing, 373 girls are making an income of Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000, using their own sewing machines. Eighteen women Self Help Groups (SHG) have been formed, with seed investment to the tune of Rs 1,00,000 received to engage in animal husbandry.
For her efforts in helping uplift her community, Reeta received the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Exemplar Award 2021. The award is given to recognise and celebrate those who have battled the odds to emerge as leaders in their communities. For the 2021 Woman Exemplar Award, supported by CLP India, CII Foundation received 254 nominations, of which there were 15 finalists.
“My journey has been an endless lesson on what and whom I need to work for,” Reeta says, adding, “It’s sad to see that there are a lot of rapes taking place in my area. So my only wish for future generations is that every woman is respected and every girl receives an education.”
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)