Women Social Reformers You Should Know About

Priya Jayakumar

Remembering India’s inspirational social reformers

Annai Meenambal

Annai Meenambal was born into a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu and migrated to Rangoon (Myanmar) to escape the brutalities of caste system. Her grandfather and father were great Dalit leaders who were part of Adi-dravida movements. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman President of Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) founded by Dr. Ambedkar. She presided over two major SCF conferences in Madras and Bombay in the 1940s. Her major achievements include being the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University senate and Deputy Mayor of Chennai Corporation, honorary magistrate for Madras Province and Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank. She was the one who gave E.V. Ramasamy the title “Periyar”(the great one) and was one of the radical feminist leaders of Self-Respect movement. She worked for the welfare of Dalit-Bahujans till the age of 80. 

Hemalatha Lavanam

Dr. Hemalatha Lavanam was the daughter of a renown Dalit Telugu poet Gurram Joshua. Since childhood she faced the rigours of caste and untouchability. The Jogini system is a social evil in which the so-called untouchable girls of the villages in Telangana are dedicated to the deities Ellamma and Potamma. The children are regarded as village property and any man from that village has the right to sexually exploit these children. Dr. Hemalatha worked for the eradication of this religious custom and rehabilitation of children. Dr. Hemalatha, along with Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan, worked for the rehabilitation of criminal tribes in Chambal Valley. She also was in the forefront of various disaster reliefs and rehabilitations. She led a Unity March on foot for 1400 kilometers in 70 days, raising concern and voice against the caste violence that occurred condemning the murder of a Congress(I) MLA in coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1989.  Dr. Hemalatha’s commitment for the poor and downtrodden made her receive a number of awards. She was a well-known writer and poet and published a number of books. 

Dr. V. Shantha

Dr. Shantha was an oncologist and the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. In her medical career spanning over 60 years, she dedicated herself on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role in the development of the institute from a cottage hospital which initially had 12 beds to a comprehensive one. She started affordable and quality cancer treatment in India treating 60% of the patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates. She was the first to initiate a paediatric oncology clinic, first to establish a cancer research and treatment centre in India, first to offer postgraduate in oncology course, oversaw the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and also conducted one of the first major cancer surveys in India. She  received various prestigious awards including Magsaysay award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

Mandhakini Amte

Dr. Mandhakini Amte dedicated her life to serving the Madia-Gond tribal community in the forest of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. She left her job as a lecturer in a medical college and settled with the tribal people in a hut along with her husband, Prakash Amte. She renounced her sophisticated life and committed herself to social work. There were no roads, electricity and water and she had to harvest paddy and vegetables for food. The Madia-Gonds feared civilized people and faced difficulties connecting with them. Slowly she won the trust of the people by providing treatment and medication to their ailments. There were no facilities and there were limitations in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicine. She along with her husband started a project called the Lok Biradari Prakalp (The People’s Brotherhood) for the integrated development of Madia-Gond which now has a fully-fledged 40 bed hospital that caters to over 40000 patients annually and a residential school from 1st to 12th standard giving free education to nearly 650 tribal children. She is a recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay award.

Fatima Sheikh

Fatima Sheikh was the first woman Muslim teacher in India. When Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were asked to vacate their ancestral home by Jyotirao’s father due to their reform, it was Fatima Sheikh who opened her doors for them and it was at the same building she joined hands with Savitribai to establish the first school for girls in India called “Indigenous Library” in 1848. She not only faced challenges from the Hindus for educating girls and the untouchables, but also from the orthodox Muslims as both the groups were against the idea of access to equal education. They pelted stones and cow dung at Fatima and Savitribai on the streets. But it did not stop the women from their contribution. Fatima Sheikh went from door to door encouraging families to send their daughters to school. She used to give counselling for hours to the parents who did not agree to send their daughters to school. Today’s women owe Fatima Sheikh for their right to education. 

Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi was a Bengali writer and an activist who fought for the rights of the downtrodden and tribal communities across India. Her literary works expressed concern on the landless labourers, tribes like the Santhals, Mundas and Lodhas, beggars and Maoist rebels. She lived in the Adivasi villages, befriended and studied their lives. She edited a Bengali quarterly – Borika, which stood as an embodiment of the voiceless. She wrote only on the marginalized communities and they were the protagonists in her novels. Even her fictional works contain socio-political messages. One of her most famous books is Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the forest) based on the life of the young tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. She also voiced against the Industrial policy of CPI(M) government of West Bengal. Speaking about her inspirations, “the reason and inspiration for my writings are those people who are exploited and used, yet do not accept defeat. Why should I look for my raw materials elsewhere, once I have started knowing them?”. She was honoured with various literary awards along with Magsaysay award, Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

Mangaltai Kamble

Mangaltai Kamble was a landless Dalit woman working as a farm labourer in the farms of upper caste landlords. The Dalit in her village were treated as untouchables and they survived on the leftover food of villagers. She decided to cultivate but she had no lands. So she took control of village grazing land for farming. The villagers laughed at her for deciding to cultivate on a barren land and taunted her that she had gone mad. During that time many farmers killed themselves due to frequent droughts that led to crop failures. But Mangaltai stood strong on her decision and requested her husband to help. Fearing the upper caste villagers, he refused. So she took the help of her neighbour Sunanda Kamble and the women took control of about two acres of grazing land each. There was no money, water or resources for cultivation. They even encouraged other women to take control of the lands and formed Self-Help Groups. During monsoon, they relied on food grin and vegetable seed varieties that grow on less water. As the landless Dalits turned into cultivators, the upper caste villagers and leaders turned furious, destroyed the crops and even used police force to throw the cultivators out of the land. This did not stop her and she continued to struggle cultivating just to make-ends-meet. 

Dakshayani Velayuthan

Dakshayani Velayuthan was the youngest and the only Dalit woman among the 389 members of Indian Constituent Assembly comprising of 15 women. She was from the Pulayar community and she was the first woman to wear an upper cloth and was the first woman in her community to earn a degree. She was also the first Dalit woman graduate in India. She was the only girl student in science subjects in her college. Her upper caste teacher did not show her any experiments in Chemistry. She learnt by looking from a distance and graduated with a high position in class. She taught in an Ezhava-dominated high school and there were various instances where she was discriminated against. She called for proportionate reservation of Dalits in panchayat and municipality. Dakshayani said as long as untouchability remained, the word “Harijan” was meaningless, like calling dogs as “Napoleon”. She spoke against the centralization of power in the Constitution and wanted decentralization. She argued in favour of Article 17 of the Constitution that makes untouchability a crime by law. After serving as a member of the Constituent Assembly, she retired from politics and worked for underprivileged groups. Later, she organized a forum for Ambedkarite women called “Mahila Jagriti Parishad” in Delhi and worked with the slum dwellers.

Priya is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work from University of Delhi. She is an Ambedkarite and an intersectional feminist. 

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