Stepping Into a better life - Ashalata Pandey

It does no good, to dwell on the past and a clear example of this can be found in Ashalata Pandey, a mother of two who was abandoned by her husband at the age of twenty-five. When asked how she managed to lead the arrangements for a single women conference titled ‘Apli Bharari’ held in Marathwada, she said “Hum sab leader hain, akele nahi kiya maine”.

Married at 16, an age when most teenagers would be busy figuring out the changes occurring in their lives, Asha tai, accepted life as it came. Her journey to become what she is today began after her husband left for a religious trip and never returned. The economic conditions of her family were in mayhem with two children to raise and absolutely no support from her in-laws. For them, she was no longer a family member and they too abandoned her. With her husband gone, and no property of her own, Asha tai had no hopes for a better future. In 2005, after gathering a lot of courage, she joined ‘Sathi’, an organisation working under the Grameen Vikas Mandal for three years (2005-2008). This organisation provides information about reproductive health to adolescent girls in the village. With Sathi, she earned a sum of eight hundred rupees per month thereby improving the situations a bit.

By the virtue of belonging to a higher caste (Patil), questions and allegations from all over the village, came her way. “You are not sad about the fact that he left you”, “how can you simply move on from this incident” and many such statements were made. Succumbing to such pressures, she had to leave her work. Finally in 2009, overcoming her insecurities, she became an Asha worker and decided to work against all odds. She would hide her face and take longer and deserted roads to reach her workplace so that no one could spot her and pose further questions. Asha tai then met Chitra Patil, a guide and an inspirational person who introduced her to CORO’s Grassroot Leadership Development Programme.

Asha tai had been through so much destitution, discouragement and resistance from her society that her aspirations were as low as her hopes. Chitra tai insisted her to go attend the interview for once. Initially hesitant, she went ahead and gave the interview and got selected. The next challenge for her was to come in terms with the fact that she will have to travel out of her village. Thinking about what people will say if she went ahead with the fellowship, she hesitated for a long time but with the right guidance and support, she agreed to join the programme. This was the turning point of her life.

Three days into the training, she felt better and was able to come out of the sorrow that was internalized in the past years. Her confidence improved as she came across several other women who had been through a similar hell as hers. She took up the cause of empowering single women in collaboration with the Akal Mahila Sangatna. In the third session of her training, Asha tai was taught about advocacy which is when she questioned her property rights. She then started visiting the Gram Panchayat every day. For a month, no one addressed her query but she did not lose hope because this time, she knew better. Her father-in-law’s brother then came to help her in filing a case but he kept delaying the procedure. She then found a lawyer who helped legally. The father-in-law agreed to share the property but suggested the name of Asha tai’s son as the heir. The son later said that the property is to be claimed by his mother and finally Asha tai got a land of her own. She then demanded that the insurance on her husband’s land should be in her name so that she becomes the beneficiary.

Ashalata became a Fellow of CORO’s Grassroots Leadership Development Program, Marathwada in 2015. What Ashalata went through, led her to support single women like her. She came to know of CORO’s Grassroots Leadership Development Program which she readily joined to fulfill her dream of helping these women.

As a fellow Ashalata did commendable work. She created livelihood opportunities for women through formation of 15 Self Help Groups (SHGs) of 200 women, helped 6 SHGs get subsidy of Rs 90,000/- and made available a revolving fund of Rs. 2 lakhs to 4 SHGs. She encouraged a widow with a child, to get re-married - another unimaginable and pioneering task in a rural setup. Ashalata made 160 women participate in Gramsabha (Village Meetings) for the first time, hitherto a male-dominated assembly. In the personal front she struggled & successfully registered her own house in her name. In one year, Asha tai grew from a shy, introvert and under-confident lady to an assertive, strong, independent and outgoing woman. From booking the venue for the conference to anchoring it on the stage, she managed to arrange the Single Women Conference as one of its leaders.

Today Ashalata continues to make difference in the lives of single women through a well organised Single Women’s campaign in Marathwada, of which she is one of the key-leaders and resource members. At 35, she is the true spirit of strength and continues to inspire many women in and near her village to take a stand for their rights and move on from their past into a better future.