From the Margins to the Mainstream: Journey of Deepa Pawar. Winner of PIIA 2022
A person who has lived through a particular circumstance is not only able to understand others in a similar situation but also knows how to help them in the best possible manner. So when Deepa Pawar, a member of a vulnerable nomadic tribe herself, came across the problems of others from nomadic and denotified tribes, she knew she had to take measures to bring about awareness and change.
Deepa Pawar comes from a family of seven with five sisters from the Ghisadi tribe, a Nomadic and Denotified tribe (DNT). This is a community that was ‘notified’ as being ‘born criminal’ during the British regime under a series of laws starting with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Nomadic communities are defined as those who move from one place to another rather than living in one place all the time.
Based in Maharashtra, the men in this DNT are usually professional blacksmiths, like Deepa’s father. Being the eldest in the family, she used to lend a hand in her father’s metal works.
Education and stability
Apart from spending time with her father, since childhood, Deepa has been passionate about her education. She studied at the nearest government school until Class 7. The classes were free of charge and her parents were insistent that she completed her education.
Once she reached high school things changed.
The schools required a minimum fee and she needed funds to purchase necessary books. She struggled with her environment to continue her higher education. However, Deepa and her family did not give up. Adhering to these financial conditions, she took up micro jobs to support her education.
At this time, while looking for a stable job, she came across an NGO looking to hire someone to teach adults. Fortunately for Deepa, she proved her qualification for the job and got hired at Rs 300/ month. Besides teaching people her age, she also read many books with the Mobile Library she used to manage while working.
As she grew older, Deepa started to understand her surroundings. She realized that she was in a community suffering from extreme poverty, migration, and insecurity about female safety.
In 2005, Deepa lost her father to a flood. This left her all-women family to fend for themselves. Despite mourning, other people believed Deepa would take care of her family as well as her father. She was understanding of the world beyond her own.
What the other people did not know was that over time Deepa experienced a sense of insecurity. She feared for the safety of women in her family and that feeling served as part of her inspiration for the work she has been doing for the past 22 years in the development field.
Fighting for girl’s rights
Deepa worked with various NGOs for 15 years of her life and began working towards starting her work in 2010. She struggled for a couple of years and established the Anubhuti Foundation, a young women-led organization working for equity, justice, and democracy.
Anubhuti, active in the semi-urban and rural areas of Thane and Mumbai in Maharashtra, is working in the areas of mental health, community development, sexual and reproductive rights, and constitution literacy. During the COVID lockdowns in India, the team has modified their work towards emergency response and expanded relief efforts to cover 15 districts of Maharashtra, reaching mainly the members of NTs and DNTs. 5000 girls received free immunizations and gender-specific diets.
Deepa is the first Ghisadi woman to work for gender equality in nomadic groups.
Deepa built grass-roots chain systems of local leaders to cover big areas quickly and with minimal resources. She also gave remote Adivasi women and men access to digital literacy. She pioneered the Mann Mela program, a novel games-based module for discussing mental health concerns. Over 300 rural Adivasi girls and young women participated in the program and received education on mental health and assistance.
During the pandemic, another issue that Deepa shed a light on was how NT-DNT women and girls experience inhumane sanitary conditions, including insecurity, and invasion of their privacy and dignity. So she conducted a toilet auditing to understand the facilities available.
To conduct the NT-DNT Toilets Auditing, women from within the community were engaged. This initiative benefitted over 1 lakh people and created awareness among 5 lakh people.
She not only introduced new toilets for the communities but also generated support from local, state, and federal governments such as the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes like never before.
Campaigns, gatherings and counseling
To further raise awareness about women’s issues Deepa conducted street dramas. The show was written and directed by girls and reached over 2000 NT-DNT, informal laborers, and daily wage workers. To hire talent, there were over 90 training, residential camps, gatherings, and campaigns the previous year.
She also raised awareness about girls’ rights among families, male peers, communities, and stakeholders, including police, health professionals, and teachers. Over 30 training programs and campaigns were conducted and it has reached over 1 lakh people.
Further, counseling for mental health was given to 45 women, scholarships were given to 24 girls and she helped solve more than 15 incidents of forced marriages in the community.
With 22 years of experience in the field and for her impactful work, Deepa has been given a Special Award for Last Mile Champion for Girls’ Rights at the Plan India Impact Awards 2022 (PIIA 2022). The award aims to recognize the efforts of Deepa and her work toward the development and growth of communities on the ground level.