Navaratnas of Professional Social Work in India : Women Social Workers Who Changed Millions of Lives Dr. Ruth Manorama
My association with Dr. Ruth Manorama dates back to 1973, when my former student R.S.Anbarasan brought Ruth and her classmate Karuna David to introduce me to them . It was at the MSSW. Slowly our friendship became more informal because of the affable nature of Ruth and Karuna. They both were also regular visitors to my home. I always felt that Ruth would be a mass leader one day as she carried herself with immense self-assurance even as a student.Sh had definite views on all social issues and she articulated her points of opinion with conviction. Ruth has been in the centre stage of Dalit activism and empowerment of Dalit women for nearly four decades. Her spheres of action extend beyond national boundaries and she is an active figure in the global action for liberation of the oppressed. The prestigious Right Livelihood Award was the confirmation of the global recognition of her relentless struggle for the liberation of the Dalits and more so the Dalit women. I am sure the government of India will soon honour her with suitable Padma awards. The Nobel Prize for Peace one day will be a worthy stimulus to the optimism of Ruth Manorama in the pursuit of her goal.
Professor of social work and Former Principal, MSSW.
Born in Madras city (Chennai) in 1952 as the eldest of five girls and three boys, Ruth grew up seeing her parents engaged in social work, and developed an early inclination for social work. Her mother, Dorothy, was interested in women’s education. Dorothy even resisted her conservative father to attend school and ultimately became a teacher. Always a rebel, she converted to Christianity in her teens. She was also deeply influenced by Pandita Rama Bai. This is how Ruth got her second name ‘Manorama,’ after Rama Bai’s daughter Mano. Ruth’s father, Paul Dhanraj, an employee in the postal department, had mobilised poor people in the villages near their locality to successfully struggle for rights to the land they were living on for generations. Both parents encouraged Ruth and her sisters to study, have careers and to be self-reliant. They wanted their girls to be role models for the Dalit community to which they belonged. Ruth’s parents have deeply influenced the course of Ruth’s life. With their encouragement, Ruth and her siblings did well in studies. After obtaining a degree in science from the Women’s Christian College, Ruth opted for training in “community organization” though her initial ambition was to become a doctor. Her father found out about the MA in social work being taught at the Stella Maris College in Chennai. He asked her to join the course.
On completion of the Master’s degree in Social Work, Ruth joined an NGO, the Centre for Development Research and Action in Chennai, as a Co-ordinator of Urban Development Programmes among the Dhobi (washing clothes) community in a large slum settlement at Saidapet. She worked with the NGO for nearly two years.
Ruth shifted to Bangalore during the later part of 1977 and started working in Grail Mobile Extension Training Unit as a Community Development Specialist. In 1985, she founded the Service Society as a registered body to work with people at the grass roots and to promote people’s organizations in Karnataka, particularly among slum dwellers, poor women and the unorganized labour particularly construction workers. Most of them are the poorest, and they belong to Dalit and other backward sections. The Service Society facilitates them to access land, basic amenities and housing, and also empowers them with leadership capacity so that they are enabled to articulate their social entitlements and access socio-economic rights, social security, and dignity as citizens of the country.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Ruth was at the forefront of mass struggles against eviction and the ‘Operation Demolition’ by the state Government of Karnataka. She led mass processions of 1,50,000 people along with other activists, demanding the protection of the roofs over their heads, a fair deal of security and safety, and the right to live legally and with dignity. On behalf of the slum dwellers, Ruth was involved in public interest litigations at the High Court and the Supreme Court of India. Ruth has been involved in mobilising the women at the grass-root levels since the 1980s. In more than 120 slums, women are now mobilised, trained and empowered to face the issues on their own and to take leadership in their communities. Women are also trained to protect their rights against violence. Ruth also felt it necessary to work with the human rights organisations to advance the emancipation of Dalits. She has participated in several struggles against human rights violations, for land rights and for the cause of Dalit women.
Present Positions and Organizations
• General Secretary (Women’s Voice)
It is an organization working for the rights of women of the poorer sections and women working in the unorganised sector of labour, which is based in Bangalore, Karnataka. Women’s Voice addresses the holistic development of women in the spheres of education, health and employment, and to be free from violence at home, in communities and in work pla ces. I t als o ai ms t o p reve nt a nd promote human rights among women.
• President (National Alliance of Women)
It is a national network of grassroot level women’s organizations in the country, which was formed after the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing. The primary task of the network is to monitor the government’s performance on its commitment to the international forums an d I n ter n atio nal Trea ties. L obby ing, advocac y, strengthening of networks, policy inter vention and formulations are the other tasks of the network.
• National Convenor (National Federation of Dalit Women)
Founded by Ruth, NFDW is the first national organization of the Dalit women initiated in the post- Independent India in the year 1995. It is a platform for Dalit women to articulate their rights, to mainstream their demands and to work towards their emancipation. Its members are spread in 14 states of India.
• Secretary (Karnataka State Slum Dwellers Federation)
Educating and mobilizing the slum dwellers to fight for their rights, basic amenities, land and housing.
• Joint Secretary (Christian Dalit Liberation Movement)
A national level Dalit organization formed in 1980s to educate and mobilize Dalit Christians to demand for reservation rights and to work towards their development
• Vice President (National Centre for Labour)
An apex body of independent unorganized labour organizations in India. Intensively involved in the lobbying and drafting for a Social Security Bill for the welfare of 394 million unorganised labour in the country.
• Advisor (Karnataka Gruha Karmikara Sangha)
Formed in 1987, it is a Trade Union of domestic workers registered under the Trade Union Act. The Union has been demanding the Government of India to evolve a National Policy for Domestic Workers and to pass a comprehensive legislation.
• Co-Convenor (International Lobby and Advocacy for Dalit Human Rights)
This campaign came into existence at the commemoration of the 50th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Using this opportunity the Dalit activists and leaders reiterated that “Dalit Rights are Human Rights” and built up a National Campaign and mobilized 2.5 million signatures to root out casteism from India. This campaign was seriously involved in the human rights issues of the Dalits at the international level and to focus the discrimination meted out to them due to their descent and work at the World Conference on Racism.
• Core group Member (Asian Women’s Human Rights Council)
It is an Asian network of women involved in human rights work. Through various public hearings it has highlighted the human rights violations and worked towards gaining justice for women. A National Public Hearing was organized on the human rights violations against Dalits, specifically on women, at Bangalore.
• Member (Advisory Group of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific)
This advisory group supports and facilitates programmes in monitoring and advocacy work of women’s rights.
• Served as a member of the Working Group for a period of five years on Racism, Ethnicity and Indigenous Groups of the World Council of Churches (WCC) based in Geneva. It evolves programmes such as workshops, seminars, studies, campaigns and international exposure programmes.
• Served as a member of the Asia - Pacific Co-ordinating Committee for the World Conference on Racism representing the National Federation of Dalit Women.
Ruth has a supportive family. Her husband N.P. Samy has established an organization for the unorganised labour in the country under the umbrella of the National Centre for Labour (NCL) in the year 1995. He is currently the General Secretary of NCL, which has 8 lakh members. He is the founder of Karnataka State Slum Dwellers Federation (KKNSS), and Karnataka State Construction Workers’ Central Union (KSCWCU). Ruth is the proud mother of two daughters. Her elder daughter Ezhil Vandana holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Wollongong University, Australia. She, her husband and their children are living in Cairns, Australia. She worked as Community Development Officer in the Australian Red Cross. Her younger daughter Priyanka Samy, also a Master’s degree holder from the Stella Maris College in International Relations, is working as a Programme Co-ordinator in the Centre for Budget Governance and Accountability at Delhi. On Samy Ruth says that “we have journeyed together in building people’s movements. He is very encouraging and motivated me to work freely without putting blocks on my way. He has been a comrade in the transformatory movements.”
Positions in Government (Past and Present) Government:
• Member, National Commission on Population, India.
• Member in the Steering Committee of Women in the Planning Commission of India (11th 5 year Plan).
• Member of the National Committee setup by the Government of India to “Combat Sexual Harassment.”
• Nominated to be an honorary member of the Karnataka State Planning Board.
• Member of the Think Tank constituted by UNIFEM, India to mainstream gender issues in the 9th Five Year Plan.
• Member of the Task Force on Women’s Empowerment for drafting the report for the 10th Five Year Plan.
• Member of the Karnataka State Commission for Women (1997-1999).
• Member of the Advisory Committee of the Co- ordination Unit which was set up before the Beijing Conference for the preparatory processes (1993-1995).
• Member of the Task Force set up by the Women’s Movement in the Beijing+5 processes to prepare an Alternative NGO Report: 2002 to 2010
• Co-ordinated in preparing the I, II and III NGO Alternative Reports of CEDAW and led the delegation to present the report on behalf of the Women’s Movement (2000, 2007) to the CEDAW Committee at the UN, New York.
• Part of the delegation of the Government of India in 2007 to the Beijing Conference Review.
• Involved in several Fact Finding Teams nationally and internationally on violence against Dalits, women, and minorities, sexual slaver y, indigenous peoples, housing issues, etc.
Dr. Ruth Manorama is the recipient of many awards. The most outstanding among them is the RIGHT LIVELIHOOD AWARD, 2006. It was awarded for being the “sub-continent’s most effective organizer of and advocate for Dalit women and for the commitment over decades in achieving equality for Dalit women, building effective and committed women’s organizations for their rights at national and international levels.” The award is also known as the alternative Nobel Prize.
• Ruth was nominated to 1000 Peace Women for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
• Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Award by the state of Karnataka (2002) recognising the contribution for women in the state.
• Rajyotsava Award by the state of Karnataka (2005) recognising the contribution for women and slum dwellers in the state.
• YWCA, Delhi gave an award for the Best of Social Activists in the year 2000.
• India Development Foundation, Bangalore, conferred the award of “DESASNEHI” for the year 2001 in re cogn itio n of dee p co mmi tmen t to era dica te injustices in society.
• Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa) conferred by the Bangalore University in 2007.
Dr. Ruth Manorama on Dalit Women
Dalit women in India are the Dalits among Dalits and suffer from three-fold oppression: on account of gender as a result of patriarchy, caste ‘the untouchable’, and class as they hail from the poorest and the most marginalised communities. Eighty per cent of Scheduled Castes live in rural areas, are dependent on wage employment and have to contend with high rates of under-employment which results in greater incidence of poverty.
Less than equal wages at the workplace, being forced into dehumanising jobs like manual scavenging and garbage picking, being pushed back by the gruelling cycle of generational poverty, landlessness and hunger, facing threats to thei r pe rson al s ecur ity and a li felo ng c ycle of indebtedness. It is this linkage that makes Dalit women a vital and special concern for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Human Rights Council.
Studies have shown that rapes against Dalits and tribals are among the highest. Structural violence like caste and communal violence are deep-rooted in our psyche. It is often used to suppress women.
Many women do not enjoy autonomy. They are vulnerable and dependent on male partners who make all the decisions. Although it looks as if women are progressing on many fronts, in terms of power relations, it is still unequal. Our law application is unequal and our laws are patriarchal. Once women become widows, they are left to their own defence. Property is taken away. This scenario extends to public life and politics.
How do people gain power? It is political power that gives you social power and economic power. Women must get into politics in order to acquire power not for themselves alone, but for a whole lot of people. It was thought that through the Constitution women will automatically get power and men will be out. The Panchayati Raj system, no matter however flawed, has its merits. Women make decisions and offer resistance. Democracy without women is no democracy. I am not talking of politics for making money. Our struggle is not for garnering wealth but for reclamation of the human spirit. Women have better brain capabilities and if it is put to use for nation building, considering we have such bright women, imagine what can be achieved.
What is it that inspires Dr. Ruth Manorama? The hard work and enthusiasm of the poor, especially the women I work with, challenge and inspire me to excel in my work. I have tremendous confidence in the capacity of the poor to transform not only their own lives but also to build a just, humane and democratic society.
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