Jaya Arunachalam is carrying forward the torch of India's freedom fighters. But while they fought against colonial rule, she is battling to liberate poor women. Her 30-year crusade has been dedicated to helping them find their political footing and claim a place in a globalized world threatening to race ahead of them.
As president of the Working Women's Forum, an organization she founded in 1978 in Madras, Arunachalam has worked to develop the potential of poor female workers in India's informal economic sector, a universe of street vendors and bead hawkers, washerwomen and fisherwomen, silkworm growers and silk weavers.
Jaya Arunachalam was honored last week for her work for Indian women.
"As Mahatma Gandhi said, 'Women shall have the same rights as men,' " she said. "Answering that call, I set to work to promote collective consciousness and vision -- I had to create a social platform for them. The Working Women's Forum was founded on the principle that once you empower a woman economically, you have changed her forever -- no one can ever take away her skills or her confidence."
Arunachalam was honored by the Vital Voices Global Partnership at the Kennedy Center last week for her efforts to chip away at the taboos of caste, religion and class to lift up untouchables and marginalized women. Her revolutionary system of micro-credit loans has helped women surmount the limitations of social structures, and her ideas have influenced the reshaping of the government's policy on development.
"In honoring me, you are honoring the 700,000 woman who are standing behind me," said Arunachalam, 68. "You may not see them, but they are here in spirit -- their stories, their struggles and their triumphs echo throughout this hall."
Arunachalam said poor women in her home state of Tamil Nadu were responsible for her real education. As an activist in the Congress party, she would call for political rallies to initiate change. But the women admonished her, saying their time would be better spent earning a rupee or two than listening to speeches.
In 1977, when floods hit her home region, her friends collected clothing, blankets and sheets and distributed free rice for a whole year before realizing that "it was not the flood but poverty that is the greatest disaster," she said.
What women needed, Arunachalam said she believed, was access to credit.
"I started sitting with them in the slums. The educated were unemployed. Lower-caste members would sit behind the door. These were people making four to five rupees a day . . . ," Arunachalam said in an interview last Wednesday. "You cannot live on your past glory forever. It is true we got rid of 200 years of colonization, but no one was thinking of economic freedom. Politicians exploited the poor, brainwashing them just to win seats. My activism was born out of disgruntlement."
Bank executives initially laughed at the idea of allowing poor female peddlers to enter their premises and balked at extending even small loans. So Arunachalam started her own cooperative and encouraged a system in which go-betweens would collect loan money from the banks for poor women and make the repayments on their behalf.
Arunachalam, who was born into the Brahmin caste, the highest rung of India's ancient social hierarchy, said she grew up asking a lot of questions about the established order. If she played with a child from a lower caste, the teacher would report it to her grandmother and she had to bathe and change her clothes before returning home. In the kitchen, lower-caste workers could not drink from glasses but had to use their cupped hands. The system baffled her.
"These were the roadblocks: caste, class, religion. All that made an impression on me and stayed in the back of my mind," she said.
After receiving a master's degree in economics and geography, Arunachalam married a non-Brahmin, who was in the printing business though his family were large landowners. After the marriage, her parents refused to see her for 15 years. Then her mother died, and her father eventually forgave her.
Arunachalam participated in an effort to legalize intercaste marriages so that abandoned women could claim alimony. "The lawyers, judges, policemen are all men. The lawmakers and the law enforcers are men," she said.
"My women became leaders," Arunachalam said. "They have become advocates and lawyers. Out of poverty, they came out to have a collective vision and conscience."