Sister Wandana Dabhi’s face reflects the indomitable strength with which she overcomes all the obstacles that come in her way of empowering the Adivasi and tribal women of Gujarat. It also reflects the ease with which she finds the simplest solutions to the most daunting problems as she walks on, holding the hands of women whose lives she has charged with a rare energy by giving them the gifts of education and self-reliance.
Sister Wandana Dabhi is the recipient of the Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar for the ‘Best Rural Woman Entrepreneur’ of 2003. This honour was conferred upon her recently by the Indian Merchants’ Chamber’s Ladies Wing in Mumbai. So typical of her, Sister Wandana did not come alone to Mumbai to receive her award. She brought along with her a group of colleagues, nuns from her religious congregation, Daughters of The Cross, and a group of Adivasi women from the Narmada district in south Gujarat, to add joy and a spirit of celebration to the occasion.
Holding hands with her Adivasi friends and colleagues, she and her collaborators danced with admirable vigour, bringing the swaying grace of Adivasi dances to the mundane conference halls of a metro like Mumbai.
The Adivasi women, dressed in colourful sarees and jewellery took turns to talk about the founding of the Dediapada Vibhag Adivasi Mahila Samaj and the Loan Sahakari Mandali Ltd., which have brought phenomenal changes into their community and family lives. They described their own networking efforts and the progress they have achieved because of education, awareness of health, family planning and hygiene. Confident and assertive, they narrated how they manage their institutions and how the Mandali has helped them to send all oppressive money-lenders packing!
The Adivasi women of Dediapada in Narmada District in South Gujarat, working under the guidance of Sister Wandana and her group, are today an example to all Adivasi and tribal women in India. They illustrate how even a few dedicated, educated women can change the destiny of women living far away from cities and towns, in deep, sometimes inaccessible forest areas. They also show that Adivasi and tribal women, who never make it to the front pages of any newspaper, except as examples of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, can accept challenges in their lives with courage and come up winners, if given the right kind of opportunities!
Sister Wandana’s journey of self-discovery started early. As a young, skinny girl called Mary, she went to St Joseph’s School in Baroda, Gujarat. The turning point in her life came when she became a boarder at the Vimal Mariam High School in Anand. Here, she came into contact with a Catholic religious congregation called Daughters of the Cross, who ran the school. From her teenage days, she began to admire the spirit of service with which the nuns worked in the school. It was natural that as soon as she could, she joined this order and became a member of the Daughters of the Cross Congregation.
“This organisation has its origins in Belgium,” she says. “But in Belgium, there are not many members left now, because young women no longer wish to become nuns in an increasingly secular environment. But in India, Daughters of the Cross have a small network. In Gujarat, we have eight centres, where women work for Adivasis, tribals and Dalits. I have been in this service from 1968 and have worked to promote education, health and rural progress in several areas. I have enjoyed working with women in Adivasi communities because they are eager for change. They respond more quickly to awareness campaigns. They hear radio programmes, watch films and television and their men bring news from the urban areas where they go to work, and their lives change daily because they see urban communities change faster than ever before. Their awareness of change coming to Indian society results in their wish to change their own lives. It is easier now to convince them that education, health awareness and self reliance are necessary for progress.”
Narrating instances of how she made Adivasi women learn the basic rules of health, she says, “Most Adivasi women with whom I worked were illiterate. When I spoke to them about preventive measures for rampant diarrhoea among children, I found them looking at me with blank faces and they could remember very little of what I had said. Then, one day, suddenly, I noticed that the songs, which they sang as they danced in circles, were very repetitive and easy to remember. I immediately asked them to compose a few lines about prevention of diarrhoea and the simple remedies they should use against this common disease. I made them sing these as they danced. Soon, the steps to prevent the worst ailment of the Adivasis became part of every woman's memory and improved child health enormously!”
Sister Wandana has been eminently successful in starting balwadis, credit co-operatives and mahila samajs in the Adivasi areas of South Gujarat. Her headquarters is in a village called Nani Singloti. She founded the Dediapada Vibhag Adivasi Mahila Samaj and the Loan Sahakari Mandali Ltd. The Mandali presently has 724 members. It is the only Adivasi bank in the entire Narmada District and has brought about phenomenal changes in the Adivasi community. “We live here just like the Adivasis,” she says. “Sometimes, to get the basic necessities of life, we have to walk or ride bullock carts for nine kilometres. But the women are friendly when you start sharing their life. Today, in a short span of time, we have built confidence among the Adivasi women, not only of Nani Singloti, but almost 30 to 40 villages around, which are reached by our institutions. They are all members of the movement to empower women in this backward district. Our success has given us hope. Our achievements challenge us and the dreams and visions for the future energise us to move forward to quicken the pace of progress for the tribals. We encourage them to work for freedom and equality in society.”
Ask Sister Wandana whether there is a need to protect the tribal or the Adivasi cultures and she says that change is inevitable. “Today, all communities of Adivasis dependent on rain for a living find themselves jobless whenever there is a bad monsoon. Poachers take away their trees and encroach upon their lands. They are left with no option but to migrate to the cities in search of work. Thus, they come into close contact with urban lifestyles and come back to the forests with a desire to emulate them. Television, films, media and a new awareness of politics, even though it comes through exploitation by local political leaders, is growing. In this scenario, Adivasi cultures are changing or even vanishing. Working with these simple-hearted people, we feel there is much in their culture that deserves to be preserved. For example, they respect Nature and take care of forests and streams as they believe that these are their real wealth. They live in close contact with Nature and enjoy social freedom. The women are strong, hard working and happy.
There is little tension in their lives. This is something we can learn from them.”
Sister Wandana says that she will live in the Adivasi villages of the Narmada district as long as her congregation assigns her to do so. Her area covers many villages like Nani Singloti, Nani Pofdi and others. “I have come a long way from being a skinny schoolgirl called Mary Dabhi to being Sister Wandana Dabhi,” she laughs. “I chose the name Wandana for myself when I joined the Daughters of the Cross Congregation, because I liked it so much. I hope I can realise the true meaning of my name by working harder for the welfare of Adivasi and tribal women.”