CHOTI KUMARI SINGH, Ratanpur, Bihar - India

EMPOWERING THE POWERLESS

Choti, now 20, is an upper caste young woman who at 17 started social and educational work in her own village, Ratanpur, in the ranks of Amrita SeRVe, an NGO born of the well-known spiritual leader Amma's work. She started her activities with the most downtrodden of the downtrodden, the Musahar Dalit (=untouchables) community of Bihar, for which the Bihar government has even coined a new term: mahadalit, which means very oppressed. Only 6 percent of adult men and 2 percent of adult women of the community are literate. Hygiene is almost inexistent, children are never vaccinated.

There is no awareness of social welfare programs. Most are landless laborers. Children frequently marry at 10 or 12. School attendance is catastrophic – quite a few children would just come for the midday meal. Cleanliness is a quasi-inexistent notion – many children would bathe about every two weeks.

Choti has evidently had to battle tremendous odds to overcome stereotyped projections about lower casts (including the most difficult of all: those the Mahadalits hold about themselves!) and to empower the community, the main thrust of her action.

Choti started after-school tuition classes in 2014. Getting children to these classes was a herculean task, as parents showed not the slightest interest in educating their children. So Choti took upon herself to go from home to home gathering the children for her classes. The children smelled very bad and motivating them for personal hygiene was still more challenging. So Choti and her colleagues would take the children to the nearby river to bathe them. Slowly, ever so slowly, the children started acquiring new habits.

Alcohol was brewed in homes, and violence and fighting was common among the women. But after endearing herself to the mothers through her selfless work with their children, things started changing here too. Choti started self-help groups where every woman saves 20 rupees a month, which are deposited in a common bank account, in view of starting home-based activities. All pregnant women are now taken to the Primary Health Care center, and mothers educated about their child's vaccination schedule.
The tuition classes have proven a huge success. 108 children are enrolled and especially there has been a complete change in the parent's mindset concerning education. Choti expects many of the children to go on to college, which would evidently be a first for this community.

Several decades ago, Rosa Parks heralded the process of desegregation in the USA by her resolute NO to segregation in public transport. In Ratanpur village, (District Bhojpur of Bihar), Chota has been instrumental in eradicating the curse of untouchability, segregation and utter socio-economic neglect of the Musahars by her resounding YES to schooling their children.

Choti would be the youngest ever to receive the WWSF prize, and giving it to her would be a powerful sign that, as the French saying goes, "Value does not have to await the adding up of years" to be expressed. The young have also a major contribution to make to a world that works for all.