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All dressed up in India

14 June 2011

MRG’s Gender Programme Coordinator, Kathryn Ramsay, is in Madhya Pradesh at a training with inspiring Dalit women leaders from north India

I’m standing in a hotel room surrounded by nine laughing Dalit women who are wrapping a sari around me. I feel like I’m a doll being dressed up! As they tuck and pin the 5 meters of material around me, I wonder how long it takes sari-wearing women to get dressed every morning. Apparently not as long as it’s taking them to dress me – maybe because they’re taking photos of every step of the process!


I’m in India (in Pachmarhi, a small hill station in Madhya Pradesh) for a four-day training programme for Dalit women leaders. The last time I came to India, I met most of the 24 women from 8 different Indian States at a regional conference held by MRG’s partner Navsarjan, where we discussed their training needs and planned a programme to equip them with leadership skills and opportunities to put those skills into practice to benefit other Dalit women. Navsarjan has begun that programme and is running a series of training events for the group over the next 10 months.

They are an inspiring group of women. Many have experienced domestic violence; one is taking a case of attempted murder against her husband. All have been put under pressure to stop their work as activists, either by the dominant castes in the community or by their own families. But all of them are determined to continue their work, and, through the trainings, improve their skills to become more effective in helping other Dalit women.

Today was the last day of the training. Over four days we have focused on human rights and gender equality, the Indian Constitution, Penal Code and the Prevention of Atrocities Act (an act which specifically outlaws caste based discrimination and violence and provides increased punishment for crimes committed because of caste). Most of the women are already supporting others in taking up cases of violence against Dalit women and they were totally absorbed in the topics. One of them commented, ‘We’ve had other trainings, why didn’t anyone tell us this information before?’


The intricacies of how to register a criminal case with the police and the investigation process which should then be followed (but is frequently not) were presented by one of Navsarjan’s most experienced lawyers. The material was explained using a case invented by the participants – a fight between four of them in the hotel dining room resulting in a death, with plates, sandals, handbags and a water bottle as the weapons used! I don’t think any class of university law students either studied so hard or laughed so much while learning the same material.

Finally the sari is pleated, tucked and pinned to their satisfaction. One gives me her necklace to wear, another sticks a bindi on my forehead and I’m ready to be taken downstairs and showed off to the others!

After many more photos, several participants want me to go dancing in the tiny hotel disco which is pumping out Indian pop music at a decibel level I think would probably be illegal in a London nightclub. We all had a great time dancing there on the night we arrived (something they would never do at home) but this time I have to say no since I think if I try to dance in a sari, I may break my ankle, or at least fall in a very ungraceful heap in the middle of the dance floor!

Tomorrow there are a few hours free for visiting the area around Pachmarhi (a first visit for all of us) and then everyone leaves for long train rides back to their home states. I feel privileged to have shared this time with these women. I’m humbled by the challenges they face and determined to raise the money we need for the rest of the programme. I’ll also be taking away some of the ideas gained from the women’s experience which might transfer to some of the other communities MRG works with. I now have a few days off and I’m heading back down to the sweltering heat of the plains (around 43 degrees Centigrade) to a national park in the hope of seeing one of India’s rarest animals, the tiger.


This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.