At a time when many families still advise their women to maintain a low profile and adjust to situations, here are a few who chose to walk the path less trodden. Living the theme of International Women’s Day 2018 –#Pressforprogress — are hundreds of women in Chennai, who have been working silently towards transforming society. Today is as good a time as any other to acknowledge and celebrate such women, who have broken the shackles of gender stereotypes.
Citizen Matters turns the spotlight on six such women from various strata of society — from a tough police official to a motherly social activist and a seasoned entrepreneur — who all stand as testimony to the fact that women can excel in careers that are conventionally not associated with them and can be great catalysts of change.
S Esther Shanthi, Caretaker in Corporation burial ground
A strong stigma prevails in many parts of India around the presence of women inside burial grounds. But here is one who has defied the social mores to work amid the dead. Esther Shanthi, a native of Kerala, joined the Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO) in Chennai. When the secretary of ICWO, in a meeting with 1000 workers, asked for volunteers to work in a burial ground, no one came forward. To the shock of the crowd, Esther volunteered.
She now manages a burial ground in Otteri, a place infamous for attempts by local goons to arm-twist relatives of the dead into paying hefty amounts for performing the last rites, even though the services are completely free. In such a challenging situation, Esther arrested corruption by sticking posters to create awareness and by directly addressing the anti-social elements.
“If it is a wedding, we save money for that. Deaths are unpredictable and financial difficulties are bound to happen. Exploiting the family during such vulnerable situations is inhuman,” Esther said. Inspired by Esther, another woman has also joined her.
A S Thahira, Inspector, State Crime Records Bureau
Thahira is a multitasker. In-charge of the Computer Wing of the State Crime Records Bureau, Thahira has also been helping missing people reconnect with their families. Ever since the ADGP Seema Agarwal initiated the reunion drive, Thahira has been working relentlessly with NGOs and police stations to unite mentally unsound people with their families. It is her sensitivity and efficiency that has made Thahira, the apt person for the task.
“Reunions are heartwarming sights. I have overseen cases where missing people have been united with their families after a decade. The blend of various emotions that you see in such situations – happiness, excitement, anxiety – is difficult to describe. I am happy to be a part of the drive,” says Thahira. Before taking up this humanitarian project, Thahira dealt with hardcore criminals, working in the law and order wing of the Tamil Nadu police.
Manjula Krishnan, Animal Activist
Several dark marks on her palm prove that she has been regularly feeding the parakeets rescued from illegal trade. But the constant smile on her face shows she does not mind the scars at all. For Manjula Krishnan, who has been a saviour of captured animals for eight years, the day never ends till she has fed all the animals. She finds solace in treating and feeding the rescued animals (including squirrels, dogs and Alexander parakeets) and releasing them in their natural habitats when they are ready.
“It does disappoint me when these animals leave. But it is cruel to keep them caged for our happiness,” said Manjula. She urges citizens to be sensitive enough and at least inform local activists, when they spot an animal in need.
Virgil D’Sami, Child Rights Activist
“My strong wish is to see children as children, without being subjected to abuse and labour,” says Virgil D’Sami, a child rights activist, who is also the Executive Director of Arunodhaya Centre for Street and Working Children. She has been working on child protection, child labour and issues of street children since 1979. Currently, she is working to raise awareness about and address the recent increase in sexual assault of children and drug abuse cases (administered in the form of drug-laced chocolates) in Chennai.
Virgil D’sami’s goals were big. She believed in transforming the community, rather than a just a victim. As an example, she says, “In a 1994 case, we had rescued a ten-year-old boy, who was working in a stainless steel factory then. He was rehabilitated. Today, when I see him working in a Public Distribution System (PDS) centre and trying to rescue other children from labour, I am happy to see the spiralling effect that one intervention brought about.”
Though there are many challenges, what inspires her to continue the work is the change she has started to witness. “When I see children coming up in life, it gives me immense satisfaction. Many youngsters, who had been unprivileged children themselves, are now giving back to society,” said Virgil.
Sumithra Prasad, Social Activist
Sumithra Prasad is a dynamic woman and a proud mother of a 26-year-old son, who is suffering from autism. She is called a special mother, as she has been catering to the needs of many children, like her own.
Currently, the General Secretary of DORAI Foundation, an organisation that focuses on the needs of specially challenged, Sumithra has also been fighting towards creating a barrier-free environment for the differently abled.
“I am blessed with a special son, who changed the course of my life. His condition inspired me to reach out to many people in the fraternity, who are deprived of access” said Sumithra Prasad.
She has also started a Social All Inclusive (SAI) centre, a neighbourhood initiative that provides access to people with developmental issues. When her son aspired to start a bakery, she provided all the support. SAI bakery in Thiruvanmiyur is a hit not only for its exotic offerings, but also because the items are baked by people with special needs.
Padmaja Priyadarshini, Entrepreneur
It takes a good soul and a lot of grit to work selflessly for the development of others, even as you are trying to build your own venture. Padmaja Priyadarshini, a Chennai-based entrepreneur is one such. Padmaja started ‘Homeplanguru,’ a company that designs plans for independent houses and apartments, but alongside, she has also been helping a group of 25 women to start and expand their own small scale businesses.
“There exists a wide gap in understanding of business concepts like marketing. It is my moral responsibility to help these women grasp those, get a loan and also get a hold on theories and practice of pricing,” says Padmaja, a Nanganallur resident. Explaining the importance of such support, she recalls, “A woman who had a small tailoring shop expanded her business successfully after I explained the concept of subsidies to her. I helped her get a loan and now I am happy that she is climbing the rungs fast in the entrepreneurial ladder.”
Padmaja has been recently awarded the Visionary Women’s Award, 2018, by the Visionary Women’s Circle.