Dalit Mahila Samiti

In Uttar Pradesh over the past two decades, dalit politics has pushed and pulled for adequate space and voice in the public domain, and succeeded in some measure: certainly in that caste is a strong political tool, if it remains a form of structural oppression; but a political tool for what and whose interest? Women also have been mobilized in Dalit networks and organizations in UP, but they are rarely at the forefront of questioning caste hierarchies. There is no investment in Dalit women themselves, enabling them to set the agenda or raise issues from their perspective. In this context, a formation like the Dalit Mahila Samiti formed, supported and mentored by Vanangana  . With a membership of over 3000 Dalit women, across two district of Bundelkhund, the DMS remains a collective of Dalit women with significance in the state state.

With the DMS, gender and caste are firmly interlaced in its positioning, its self-perception, its capacity-building and its work. If a voice and an identity have been built by this collective, they are indelibly marked by this experience of double-edged marginalization. Vanangana’s years of working with and nurturing this collective has prioritized individual leadership and capacity building with its members. This has include technical skill building, in areas considered off limits for all women, let alone Dalit – such as hand pump repair, masonry and basic civil engineering. It has also deepened their knowledge of social structure and functioning, enabling a feminist, political understanding of how and why development policies or initiatives pass them by or social and legal practices continue to exclude them. This has produced a strong and embedded leadership of women from the margins in the areas, with the ability to analyze and take initiatives on unequal ownership and access to resources, and the violence and discrimination faced by Dalit women.

The strengthening of DMS in this period and , beginning from 2007 brainstorming on the structure and objectives for it to become an autonomous organization, became critical in pushing the leadership of Vanangana to imagine a transformatory agenda for the budding collective. In the DMS’s journey, personal and collective processes of empowerment come together in the need to raise a voice against the exploitation and injustice the women may face because of their casted identities, and to build confidence to raise these issues independently.  Dalit Mahila Samiti and Vanangana together have initiated campaigns and worked on issues of violence against women, untouchability, womens participation and role in MNREGA,  Natural resource management, right to education and right to Food amongst many others.

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