Published: 12th May 2020
This Vellore-based NGO is empowering Dalit women to fight for their land-rights
Thendral Movement helps Dalit women get their own land through training programmes, counselling, documentation and legal support
What am I really entitled to? For a Dalit woman, even in this day and age, this is a question that unfortunately, gives her sleepless nights.
There's no denying that Dalit women are 'twice-alienated'. First, because of their caste, and second, because of their gender. In public society, she is oppressed by her upper-caste employers and she returns home only to be oppressed by the man or men in her home. With nothing to claim as her own and always having to live at the mercy of others, her very being is ignored and her voice is silenced.
So could a piece of land registered to her name really change things around? Dr P Vedhanayagi, a Dalit activist and agro-feminist certainly believes so. In fact, the link between property ownership and civic rights has been clear throughout history, even dating back to ancient Rome where you could vote only if you owned land. While the Indian government has made attempts and provisions for women to own land, it is easier said than done. For instance, many Dalit women are not even aware of these provisions, and even if they are, they need to depend on others (mostly, their oppressors) to get access to it.
So, in 2004, Vedhanayagi decided to start a collective in Ranipet, Vellore to help Dalit women own their own land. She named it the Thendral (breeze, in Tamil) Movement. As part of this initiative, more than 50,000 individual women and their families have benefitted through various programmes, counseling sessions, campaigns, seminars, training workshops, legal counselling and support.
Explaining the importance of their work, Vedhanayagi says, "Ownership of the land, even if it is just a cent, empowers Dalit women. Land ownership was earlier possible only for men and Dalit men either lost or sold it or got cheated. History has seen how Dalits have lost land ownership and became landless, resulting in them becoming powerless and without rights. Men are less ambitious to empower women and let women have the ownership over the land. Thus, Dalit women have to face several challenges in winning this process. Owning land for a Dalit woman is a herculian task, but our struggle continues."
Thendral Movement has also been fighting for the central and state governments to amend the Land Acquisition Act. The activists are calling for ownership of all waste lands to be given to women. Vedhanayagi believes that not only will this empower them, it will also help in developing these waste lands as women will work harder, a concept she calls Agro-feminism.
She explains further, "After ownership of the land, women will not have to go to other factories to work. They would produce, distribute, disperse and develop the entire society from hamlet to hamlet, village to village, Panchayat to Panchayat. Her life and the the lives of everyone around her could change." And it all begins with owning land.