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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 17:31 GMT
India's feisty untouchable woman
By Amarnath Tewary
In East Champaran, Bihar

Girija Devi's efforts have led to 125 villages becoming "alcohol free" (Pics: Prashant Ravi)
In the twilight world of Musahars, an untouchable community in India, Girija Devi is a shining exception.

After leading a spirited drive to root out alcoholism and get the government to work for her community in the troubled state of Bihar, she has become the first woman from her community of rat-eaters to address a United Nations convention.

Musahars are so poor that their staple diet often comprises mice.

On 27 February, the unlettered Girija Devi will lead five women from India at the international meeting to talk about the status of women. She will speak in her local Bhojpuri dialect.

"I will speak for the equal rights of women and try to draw the attention of the world to women in my state," she says.

Rampant habit

There's no end to the problems of women - and men - in the Musahar community.

Girija Devi with village residents
She has worked tirelessly for the improvement of her village
There are about 1.3 million Musahars in Bihar. Less than 1% of them are literate - the lowest in India, and some 98% of them are landless.

The Musahars mostly work on the farms owned by landlords and go without work for up to eight months a year.

No wonder alcoholism is rampant among Musahar men, who end up spending more than half of what they earn on cheap locally brewed liquor.

This hurts the women and children most.

But in her dirt-poor village of Bhirkia-Chhapaulia in East Champaran district, Girija Devi decided to pick up the gauntlet and launch a war against alcoholism a few years ago.

Leading a group of women, she demolished local liquor vends and toddy pots hung on the trees by their men.

When the sorority found the men drinking, they shaved their heads, garlanded them with shoes and paraded them around the village to shame them into kicking the bottle.

Girija Devi
There should be total prohibition of liquor all over the world - liquor is the cause of exploitation of women
Girija Devi

Girija Devi has always led by example - her husband Singheshwar Majhi was the first alcoholic to face her wrath.

Her untiring efforts have led to 125 Musahar villages in East Champaran to become "alcohol free".

"Earlier our men would come home drunk and beat us up. Now things have completely changed, and our husbands treat us with respect. All thanks to Girija Devi," says Dhanmati Devi, a local villager.

Indefatigable

Girija Devi did not stop with combating alcoholism alone - the mother of four children has pushed for roads, schools, teachers and doctors in her villages.

She blocked roads, locked up government offices and squatted on railroad tracks to demand for development of her village.

Now, thanks to her efforts, Bhirkia-Chhapaulia has a primary school, a brick road and drinking water supply. Seventy per cent of the villagers have got basic government-built homes.

Musahar mother and child
Musahars remain one of the poorest people in India
The indefatigable woman is still not satisfied with what she has achieved.

"I want a high school, a primary health centre, better drinking water, jobs for our men. I will not stop till I get all this from the government," she says.

Girija Devi has already been elected member of a local village council, and now aspires to stand for state elections and become a legislator to work for the people.

And she has achieved this in a state which has always been let down by its elected lawmakers and where criminalisation of politics is complete.

The government claims to be working for the development of the community, but very little of it shows on the ground.

"Since 1947, successive Bihar governments have spent over $76,000 on each Musahar through various development schemes meant for them. But they still find it difficult to eke out a decent existence," says analyst Dr Sachindra Narayan of Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences.

Girija Devi, clearly, is a beacon of hope for her unfortunate people.

Now she plans to use her pulpit at the UN to drive home the world's attention to her community.

Girija Devi and her husband
Girija Devi rid her husband (l) of alcohol
"It's a matter of pride for my community, society, village as well as India where women like me coming from the lowest rung of the society have been subject to ridicule and derision," she chuckles.

When she takes the podium on 27 February to speak at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affair's "50th Commission on the status of women", the plucky woman also plans to say that the United States should become "free of liquor".

"There should be total prohibition of liquor everywhere in the world. Liquor is the root cause behind the exploitation of women," she says.

Nobody knows that better than Girija Devi.


SEE ALSO:
Bihar's loyalties cast in stone
19 Feb 05 |  South Asia
India's village of 'political widows'
22 Mar 05 |  South Asia
Religions target female foeticide
12 Nov 05 |  South Asia
India's new pioneers: Slum architect
13 Oct 05 |  South Asia


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