A Poor Woman’s Journey – from Poverty to Empowerment

I was born in a village of 13 houses. My parents were simple people. They had no land. My parents were only educated to 1 or 2nd class. My mother was married at 15 which was the normal age in those days. I was a bit of a miracle baby. I was born after 12 years of marriage. My parents moved to Kamptee, a town 12km from Nagpur. They made beedis (cigarettes made of tobacco and leaves) from their home, which was the work of poor uneducated people.

When I was 14 my mother had a paralysis attack (stroke?). She was paralyzed in half of her body. From that day I took care of my mother’s every need, bathing, cooking, housework, bathroom etc. I attended school in the day and my father cared for my mother. After 10th class I also gave tuition classes to children to get extra money for our family. I was busy from morning till night. I understood that we were poor when my entire father’s income went to medicine for my mother. So I stayed awake till late at night trying to make extra money sewing.

Our family had abandoned Hinduism due to its inhumane treatment of our community who were ‘untouchable’. Our hero is Dr Ambedkar, who was the first of our community to get an education and lobby for our human and civil rights. We have basically been slaves for 2000 years. We occasionally went to the temple where the monk would tell us about Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar. In my area we were all Dalits (‘untouchable’) and poor so no one really treated anyone with discrimination because we were all the same.

I loved to study. My favorite subject was history. I would study under our one dim light bulb. I was 21 when my mother died. I lived with my father and his Stepmother. She didn’t like me studying and wasn’t very kind. I went to university and did two years of a commerce degree. But after my mother died I had no heart to study.

I was 23 when I married; I thought my husband was very fair and handsome. I knew he was a hard working man. It was like a ticket to freedom for me because my father’s stepmother tortured me. I took many courses to try to improve myself – sewing, typing, embroidery, bag making and so on. I studied to avoid my grandmother! When we married my husband was a diesel operator in a factory. My husband was also educated up to BA second year. He topped his college and passed an exam to get a good paying government job, but he couldn’t pay the bribe to get a job. If he had got that job, our life would have been very different. This just shows how a corrupt government fails the people at every turn.

I was 24 when my first child (a boy) was born. He had bad asthma because Kamptee was so polluted. So we moved to Nagpur. My husband couldn’t find a job. He walked the streets from morning till night looking for jobs, but even though he was educated he couldn’t find anything. He then took on the low paying and back breaking work of a labourer. After some time he found work in a factory.  My husband worked 12 hours a day to help us survive. I sewed clothes from home. A few years later I gave birth to a healthy girl and my father came to live with us. Thirteen years ago we bought a house. My husband started his own rice business, but found it was very up and down. Some days we had bricks of cash and others, nothing. We have always focused on giving our children a good education. Other than that we live fairly simply.

My son found Bodhicitta foundation when he was 14. He’s a very curious boy, always looking for new things. I came to the centre to study meditation. I had never heard the teachings Ayya Yeshe gave. My knowledge of Buddhism was very piecemeal. When I came to the centre I learned not just Buddhism, but human rights. I started to see how oppression worked, how poverty is related to injustice and the situation of women. I started to become a little brave with my husband and to speak up when I thought there was something worth discussing, though we are still very loving with each other. I have been working for Bodhicitta Foundation for 3.5 years teaching sewing and tuition for small kids. When my husband’s business was failing, I did a job secretly packing in a factory for 1200 rupees per month. I worked all day. When I started working for Bodhicitta Foundation I got a job for 2 hours a day for 2000 rupees a month. I thought it was a casual job. But then I started to take it more seriously. Then I also got the job teaching sewing, then my income tripled, because the foundation believes in fair wages for its workers.  

I’m now learning many skills as a leader and social worker and I make more than my husband! The women we are helping are very poor. They are uneducated women at the mercy of their husbands. If their husbands misbehave there is nothing they can do as they are not educated enough to get their own jobs. I can see that when women have their own money they use that money to educate their children and improve the family. They become confident and able to help themselves.  

The women in the slums are very strong. Many of their husbands are drinking or injured and the women do all the work, but get no respect. So I’m so happy to be able to help women, and in the process help their husbands have less financial burden and their children get education. Then the whole of the family, and in turn society can improve.

* Names and photos may have been changed for privacy and safety reasons.