International Women's Day 2017: Meet Kurnool's 'self help woman', B Vijayabharathi

Editor's note: In the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, we profile little known women in South India who have fought against all odds in their local communities to bring forth change and transformation. While some of these women stand out as shining examples of the power of determination, there are others who must battle misogyny and harassment. With this series, we highlight not just the trials and tribulations faced by women in all walks of life, but also how individual women are triumphing against caste, patriarchy and discrimination.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said — “Women do not need to be developed. It is the other way round. Development needs the support of women.”

Bathula Vijayabharati, 60, is an embodiment of that. Since the 1990s, Vijayabharathi has worked in rural Andhra Pradesh through thrift and credit societies aimed at economic empowerment of rural women to bring about a movement of social change. For the poor of Orvakallu village of Kurnool district, she is also their ‘Amma’ (mother), who counsels them on all matters. Her apartment in Kurnool and a small room in the Samakya office at Orvakallu is always buzzing with women and men of the various Self Help Groups she has helped set up.

Vijayabharati is not known only within the confines of Kurnool or even just in Andhra Pradesh. She is a state guest in over 20 states where she is a regular visitor and consultant for anti-poverty and social change programs. She has visited all SAARC countries, regularly training community workers. “Not just me but many of Orvakallu SHG women are also trained as CRP (Community Resource Person) and in turn have trained thousands across the country and abroad,” she says.

Vijayabharathi’s efforts have transformed the once arid and water-starved area into a society throbbing with social change. “We had almost 40,000 visitors from 22 states, 7 Union Territories and also several SAARC countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Srilanka, Sudan, Pakistan and Rwanda,” she says proudly.

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Bathula Vijayabharati

During her 2016 visit to Harvard University she addressed the John F Kennedy School of  Government where she narrated her experiences in organising women thrift groups and empower them to take up self help in crucial areas such as literacy, economic empowerment, schools, child labour, child marriage, mid-day meals amongst others. “I am proud to say today that Orvakallu has become a landmark and an icon of social change,” she said at Harvard.

Humble Beginnings

A Botany lecturer at a science college in Nellore in the early 1980s, Vijayabharati caught the attention of bureaucrats Satish Chandra, M Sambashiv Rao, and K Raju, who championed women as vanguards of social change in rural AP. Her dedication and drive to conduct adult literacy classes in Dalit colonies in Nellore town in the early 1980s impressed them, especially as the trio had championed three major social transformation movements in Nellore district: literacy, anti-liquor and thrift and credit associations.

Vijayabharati was eventually deputised as a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) project manager and the AP government alongwith the UNDP began an anti-poverty pilot programme in Orvakallu village in 1995. The Orvakallu Mandal Podupu Lakshmi Ikya Sangam (Federation of Self Help Groups of Women), a women's empowerment programme under the UNDP and the Andhra government, which made a small beginning with just 200 women members and 20 groups in 1995, today has 10,000 members comprising 1000 groups and with a corpus of Rs 7 crores. Each SHG within the organisation has savings of Rs 3-5 lakhs. “It is not just a combination of thrift and credit that made the sangams important but the manner in which they were able to transform the entire region and  become a vanguard of social change around, is really remarkable,” says M Sambashiv Rao  a former collector of Nellore and champion of women's literacy and thrift movements.

The UNDP had sponsored a low-band community radio in 1995, managed and operated by villagers for spreading news of SHG activities in the 20 surrounding villages. Each village had a community radio with news written by the youth of the village on education, healthcare, marketing of their products and thrift activities. “But the radio was removed as police objected, saying that it was a Maoist area,” she says.

By 2000 she became a consultant of SERP (Society For Elimination Of Rural Poverty) floated by the AP government to give legitimacy to the SHG movement. She was also deputised to the World Bank as consultant on anti-poverty projects.

What began in Orvakallu in a small way has today grown into a huge organisation run and operated by women all over AP and in 22 other states and UTs across the country. Before bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, there were about 5.79 lakh women SHGs in the state covering nearly 74.58 lakh members with a corpus of Rs 2385.98 crores. Now divided AP alone has 18 lakh women in SHGs and a corpus of over Rs 1500 crores.

Wedded To Her Cause

Since her first love was social change and women empowerment, Vijayabharati remained wedded to her cause and opted out of family life. Her father was a farmer in Prakasam district. Her brother, a dentist, practises in Hyderabad. At the peak of her spectacular career, she lives alone in a small apartment at Kurnool town, 27 km from Orvakallu where it all began.

Reminiscing about her early days at Orvakallu, Vijayabharati says that when she first arrived there, it was a perennially drought-ridden mandal comprising 20 villages and nearly 10,000 families living below poverty level. The village is home to the Orvakal Rock Garden, which are silica and quartz rock formations and is also famous for Kethavaram Rock paintings from the Paleolithic era. It was also notorious for rural factional violence, child labour, child marriages, atrocities on women, illiteracy, and poverty. As a result, the AP govt and UNDP chose this mandal for their pilot schemes.

“There used to be days when young women were abused and killed in broad daylight and it would be later termed by police and local bigwigs as ‘suicide due to acute stomach ache’,” she recalls. Thanks to her unstinting campaign, literacy rates have improved and women have now learned to write their signatures instead of putting thumb impressions. “The schools started for rescued child labourers have now become social welfare residential schools and colleges which produce software engineers, teachers, nurses and lawyers,” she says.

The systematic campaign of the Samakhya (Federation) helped police identify culprits of gender crimes and punish them. “Police booked cases and also provided protection to women campaigners against such gender crimes,” says Vijayabharati.

The women’s groups set examples by providing pension and medicare for aged women and widows among their members. The same formula was later applied by the state government which launched the popular pension schemes in 2008.

The local community benefited from these SHGs too. “When the local panchayat did not have funds for laying pipelines of drinking water, the Samakhya donated Rs 15,000 in 2007,” says Juba Bee, an SHG president of Kalva village panchayat.

During the 2010 floods in Tungabhadra river which ravaged Kurnool district, the Samakhya contributed Rs 24 lakhs for flood relief, provided mosquito nets, bed sheets and also temporary cots produced by women groups. “For two months, women prepared food for displaced persons in Kurnool town which were flooded,” says Vijayabharati.

When the breadwinners of families passed away, Samakhya members would visit these homes and provide moral support as well as contribute towards expenses for the last rites. “We also assured that the Samakhya would provide for children’s education, social events in the family,” she explains adding that such bonding further strengthened the group and enhanced their social and economic activities.

Vijayabharati abhors publicity and self propaganda. “I am more comfortable around my women's teams than with the media,” she laughs. This, perhaps, is a reason for state honours and awards eluding her while others have won laurels. She is not bothered about the lack of recognition though. Vijayabharati says she has always opposed all politicians and those in power. She would rather pursue her goals of social change silently and with force.

Read parts one, two, three, five and six of the series.


Published Date: Mar 05, 2017 09:41 am | Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 05:05 pm