Vimla was born in 1952 in the state of Uttarakhand. Given her father’s job as an RFP in the Army, at a young age, Vimla had the chance to travel and live in different locations. Some of the cities she lived in were, Saharnpur, Meerut, Sakurbasti, Muradnagar and finally, Delhi.
Vimla had a tough childhood with limited means, her parents tried hard to make ends meet for their three children. Due to financial crisis, Vimla’s mother took her children to her maternal home in Almora where she tried to educate all her children as best as she could. Illiterate herself, Vimla’s mother, Nanda Devi had big dreams for her children. Vimla was the first one in her village to have studied till class XII.
Vimla recalls her childhood as carefree, where she hardly indulged in any ‘girly’ stuff so to say. She did all the naughty stuff a boy her age would have done. But she was also good at her studies. She saw her parents work hard so that the children could get a good life. Her mother worked laboriously from the early hours of morning, feeding, cleaning and preparing to send her children to school. They were simple people but also very liberal for their times, as she recalls. This probably helped build her personality of a woman who was strong and outgoing. Vimla never saw her parents discriminate against anyone on the basis of their caste, religion or economic status.
Vimla had to go through a lot of hardships to become the person she is today. From an early age she saw her family struggle with problems of all kinds. Her sister married for love and yet was deceived by her husband. She had to come back to her parents’ house who helped her raise her two children, unmoved by all the social pressure. Vimla also lost her father at a young age, leaving her mother alone to run the household and raise her children as well as her grandchildren. But 36 year old Nanda Devi was a strong woman, who somehow managed to make ends meet, and this inspired Vimla, to grow up and become like her mother. Nanda Devi took up odd jobs to feed her family, she started selling tea to ensure that her kids get an education. Later, with the help from some neighbors, she opened a grocery store that took care of the immediate needs of her family.
Vimla however had more trouble in store for her. She was forcefully married off to a man 14 years older. Abused in her marriage, Vimla turned bitter towards men in general. She saw herself turn into ‘Phoolan Devi’, gunning down men in order to avenge herself. She had three children from this marriage whom she struggled to raise, hoping to give them a decent education. After her first child, Vimla also suffered from a sexually transmitted disease. At this critical juncture in her life, Vimla’s mother once again stepped in to take care of her daughter. She had no support from her husband at any stage and this multiplied her hatred for him. To sustain her family, Vimla took up odd jobs. She worked for a Police DIG as a housemaid. But even in those difficult circumstances she managed to educate her children and bring them up well, so much so that people mistook her children as those of the DIG. Finally with the help from a few friends, she set up a small business of selling clothing material. This economic relief enabled her to attain self confidence, readying her to brace for further challenges in life.
Rise of a social activist
Living in Railway colony in Azad Market, Filmistan, Vimla met a dynamic woman named Tajdar Babur. Tajdar was a Congress member who was at the time, participating in an anti-dowry campaign. Vimla was encouraged by Tajdar to participate in party meetings, slowly initiating her into community welfare.
On the lookout for a job, Vimla met an old friend who introduced her to the NGO, Action India. Vimla underwent a 15-day field training with Action India, on community mobilization on women’s issues. In the course of her training, she identified with other women’s difficult circumstances and also gained a deeper understanding into men’s attitude towards women in general. At Action India, Vimla learned to mobilize women, form groups and fight for specific issues like, dowry, sanitation, reproductive health, water, ration and so on. She worked alone in C-block of Seemapuri, mobilizing a group of Bengali women living in the resettlement colony. Slowly she developed confidence, forming and mobilizing many such groups.
Vimla continued her social work in the years to come. She worked with residents of Sundernagari in 1988 after the cholera outbreak. She participated in several movements on reproductive health and even fought for the rights of widowed Sikh women after the 1984 riots. Through a series of street plays, Vimla started an awareness campaign on various issues. Some of these issues were women’s rights, communal harmony, dowry deaths and so on.
In 1993, Vimla went to Tehri Garhwal for an evaluation by Action India. In the course of retreat she realized that all laws seemed to be an outcome of a patriarchal mindset. Vimla was intrigued by the absence of a woman’s point of view in all functioning, whether it was legal framework or any other government agency. She raised her concern with the then Director of Action India and facilitated by the organization, a project on ‘Women’s Law and Social Change’ was initiated. This was also the first step towards ‘Mahila Panchayat’. Vimla worked closely with lawyers trying to understand all nuances of women’s rights in the word of law.
With a focus on media advocacy, CFAR was formed in 1993. As an Action India representative, Vimla had participated in debates organized by CFAR with various groups. In 2000, she joined CFAR, working closely with different settlements on issues like, menstrual hygiene, child labour and the impact of Television media on these issues. She organized debates between the resident groups of these settlements and renowned TV journalists, trying to raise awareness on the impact of media on the lives of common man. She worked with different groups of people, women, adolescents and even disabled, engaging them in active open debates on issues facing their settlements.
Vimla’s family life was no different than her social one. She exercised the same principles at home as she taught communities across various settlements. The lessons of menstrual hygiene were given to her daughter as she was growing up. She insisted on equal education for her sons and daughter. And she enabled her children, including her daughter-in-law to be financially independent.
Like her mother, Vimla did not suffer from any social stigma. Her daughter had a tough marriage, facing the wrath of her in-laws but social pressure did not deter Vimla from supporting and fighting for her daughter. She took the matter up with the Panchayat to help resolve issues within the families.
Vimla realized that if women taught their sons well at an early age, their patriarchal attitude could be altered towards women in general. She practiced what she preached with her sons. When she learnt that her daughter-in-law was a school dropout, Vimla helped her complete her education and become financially independent. She supported her daughter-in-law fully even when she could not conceive following two years of marriage.
Vimla even supported her sister’s daughter in her decision to marry out of her own caste. Despite resistance from the rest of the family, Vimla extended her support to her niece and helped her with the decision to marry for love.
One of her sister’s sons grew up to be like his father and abused his wife physically. Vimla could not tolerate it and she stood up in arms against her own nephew to protect the daughter-in-law.
Vimla also formed an NGO named, Sehwagi Manch which aimed at empowering women. She partnered with Maruti Udyog to help women train as drivers, under the ‘Pehla Mahila driver’ (first woman driver) scheme. Under this scheme, she trained her nephew’s wife in self defense as well. She got the daughter-in-law to train for driving thus making her financially independent. The girl who came from a remote village with no courage to voice her opinion, later turned into a driver, driving around private cars in the city. Such was Vimla’s role in touching and altering people’s lives.
Strengthening community engagement
At CFAR, Vimla worked closely with women from different settlements on issues like domestic violence. All field based planning was done under her supervision. She realized that in order to empower women, they had to be organized in active groups. She formed a group for such women, called the ‘Mahila Pragati Manch’. She then started to connect Mahila Pragati Manch with various government departments, facilitating them in taking up their own issues with the authorities. Vimla gained a lot of experience in her association with Mahila Pragati Manch, learning about new things like filing an RTI application, learning how to mobilize women and youth groups. Some of the settlements she fondly recalls working with are, Sunlight Colony Old Seemapuri, Janta Mazdoor Colony, Tigri and Kalyanpuri.
From washing dishes for a household, Vimla has come a long way, where she is working at empowering every such woman who feels weak in her domestic struggle for existence. But 63 year old Vimla feels she still has a long way to go.
She misses her mother who was her sole inspiration, and she wants to inculcate the same values in her grand children, especially her granddaughters.
In the past years of her social work, Vimla has touched many women’s lives, motivating them to stand up for themselves. She dreams of seeing every woman become an independent woman in the true sense of the word, and she wants to keep working with women to help them attain that level of self sufficiency.
By Shruti Pushkarna