On our organizational and training trip this winter, we began by visiting a village in Chhatna—about 6 hours by train west of Kolkata. This area is the Bankura District in West Bengal and one of the most ignored areas in the region for development. The climate is arid—when we arrived it felt like a pleasant afternoon in California in the summer but in the summer here it gets upwards of 100 degrees. There has been drought here and much of the farmland is dry—filled with rice plants waiting the monsoon.
We’ve come to the village with Urmi who has done embroidery workshops with the girls in the Cross Stitch Project. Urmi told us about this village on the last visit. She had come here and helped the women translate their traditional skill of wall painting into designs on fabric. You can’t sell wall paintings but fabric embroidery can be marketed locally and developed into products for urban markets and the tourist trade.
This particular village is also a project of Shikha Roy – an Ashoka Foundation fellow—who is working on land rights for women through agricultural development and prevention of violence against women through her organization SRREOSHI. In West Bengal – and many other parts of India—women cannot own property. So inheritance passes to the men in the family and the deed of land is in the husbands name only. This is at the root of what keeps many women in poverty.
We only had a brief opportunity to meet Shika but hope to do more work with her in the future.
Two women, Reba and Loki run this village project and have built a home with a small attached guest area—much of it with bricks and stones they brought by hand from the river bed nearby. They are an open couple – very risky in the rural areas of India. But everything about Reba and Loki is tough and determined. Loki was gang raped by 16 men when she was 13. This dishonored her in the eyes of her family and—unlike many victims of rape in villages—Loki pressed charges against the men and succeeded in getting them all jailed. Reba met Loki through work at an NGO and stood up for her and cared for her even though many people saw her as a “bad woman” because of her history. Loki told us that—even when they fight like cats and dogs—she will never forget that Reba has given her everything when so many people thought she deserved nothing. Reba is a force in the community. People come to her for help in all kinds of official matters and she has a powerful, warm confidence. It was an amazing honor to meet these two incredible women and the strong women who are making great strides in this rural community.