By Elizabeth Alex, community outreach and media relations director
Sushela comes from the lowest, poorest caste in Indian society. Traditionally they have been forced to sweep the streets and clean other people’s latrines by hand. Under the caste system, Sushela shouldn’t be allowed to attend religious festivals alongside her social superiors. She could never be invited to their homes. It would be unthinkable for a person of her caste to share a cup of tea with the next one up.
Add the fact she was forced into marriage as a teenager to a man she didn’t know, expected to cook and clean for his family and was isolated under the less-than-loving supervision of her mother-in-law, you might believe Sushela leads a miserable life.
Sushela represents what International Women’s Day is all about. She lives the theme #MakeItHappen.
She overcomes the obstacles facing her, facing all women suffering gender inequality, by joining forces with other women, specifically, other mothers in Unbound.
“Before joining I wasn’t accepted,” Sushela said. “Now, these women are sisters.”
The transformation began when her daughter, Anjana, became sponsored through Unbound.
While Anjana receives funds for education, her mother benefits as well.
As part of Unbound, Sushela joined a mother’s group where every woman must be equal for any woman to be empowered.
It took time — four years — for the women to set aside generations of prejudice and doubt.
“I still remember Sushela,” said Vinod K Dass, who coordinates Unbound’s program based in Delhi, India. “I said come to a meeting. Sushela said to me, ‘First will you drink tea at my house?'”
When the other mothers saw the staff going to Sushela’s home, narrow mindsets began to widen. Breaking those social and cultural barriers opened a new world of much-needed emotional support and respect for all the mothers in the group. Today they celebrate holidays together, visit the sick and stand together confronting husbands accused of domestic violence.
“We are more confident. We have decision making authority,” Sushela said.
The Unbound mothers have started a small business making jam, candles and pickled vegetables.
They also pool their money for small business loans. Sushela has used the loan program to build her business: a farm now stocked with 80 pigs she sells to a pork processing plant in a nearby city.
On this International Women’s Day we find Sushela earning a living for her entire family. Her children do well in school. Her husband is proud.
But Sushela has something else just as valuable: dignity for herself. She is no longer bound by the definition of the lowest caste.
“We are independent now,” Sushela pointed out. “We are free to grow.”
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