A 20-year-old girl from Bihar has made her native Bhojpur District proud by winning international acclaim for her efforts to uplift the Musahar community, considered one of the lowest and most downtrodden in the state's caste-ridden society.
Choti Kumari Singh, hailing from an impoverished upper caste Rajput family, has won Women's Creativity in Rural Life Award from the Switzerland-based Women s World Summit Foundation.
Choti started helping with social and educational work among Musahars in her own village of Ratanpur in 2014, after joining a programme run by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math of the spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma).
The programme aimed at adopting 101 villages across the country to make them self-reliant models of sustainability, according to a release issued by the Math.
Choti is the youngest person to receive the USD 1,000 (Rs 65,000 approx.) award since it was instituted in 1994 to honour women around the world exhibiting exceptional creativity, courage and commitment for the improvement of quality of life in rural communities.
Mostly working as landless labourers, the Musahar community suffers from poverty, near-total illiteracy and lack of personal hygiene. Child marriages are rampant and school attendance is negligible.
When the programme was introduced at Ratnapur in 2014, Choti started offering free after-school tuition classes for children.
"It was a herculean task to bring Musahar children to the classes because their parents did not show the slightest interest in educating them. I went door to door gathering children and trying to convince the parents, Choti says.
Choti initiated self-help groups wherein every woman saves Rs 20 a month, which is deposited in a common bank account for starting home-based activities.
The tuition classes proved to a huge success with 108 children enrolled. This is no mean task in a village with a population of less than 1,000 people. Initially, the Musahar villagers were hostile. They used to drink, gamble and verbally abuse me. However, once they started observing the positive changes brought by our work, the situation became relatively favourable, Choti recalls.
At the tuition centre, Choti began giving basic lessons in hygiene and cleanliness. At first, the children were reluctant and habitually took bath only once a fortnight.
I had a tough time making them sit through the classes. Some of them even came to the class drunk. But with time, their attitude changed, Choti says.
The Mata Amritanandamayi Math has adopted five villages in Bihar and already commenced work in two of them Ratanpur and Hadiabad. Tuition classes were started in 2014 with students also participating in regular yoga and meditation sessions.
Free healthcare is being provided in these villages, and a trained health-worker is ensuring that all pregnant women get the required ante-natal care and that all newborn children are vaccinated.
The Math has installed hand pumps and helped women construct toilets. Consequently, the two villages of Ratanpur and Hadiabad have been verified and declared as Open Defecation Free by the government s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.
Hadiabad, in fact, became the first village in the entire Bhojpur District to gain this special status.