The union is making a difference to our lives
My name is Kaleeswari and I live with my family in a small village on the lower hills of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu in South India.
There are 32 families in our village and we are all poor and own no land to grow our own food.
We work for higher caste people, collecting and selling wild grass, berries, honey, gum, nuts and herbs. We also collect and sell firewood.
Our village has many health problems and many children die before the age of five due to malnutrition.
In India 85 children of every 1000 die before the age of five. In NZ only 6 out of every thousand children die before 5 years of age. Indian children die of diseases that can easily be prevented by clean water and enough good food.
We felt that no one cared about us because we are untouchables.
But now things have changed.
Untouchables must not let even their shadows touch others. Dalits (“crushed underfoot”) as they prefer to be called, exist at the bottom of the ancient Hindu caste system. Dalits have to do the work no-one else will do; the dirty jobs like scavenging for rubbish, cleaning toilets, and handling dead bodies for cremation. Most Dalits and Tribals have no land of their own and often work for landowners as bonded labourers. Very few can read or write and they face abuse, violence and discrimination despite legal rights in the Indian Constitution.
I am President of the women’s committee, or sangham, and we meet regularly to discuss and make plans to solve village problems.
We learn about basic rights and the government services which can help them.
We organise rallies and protests to demand equal wages, education for children, health care services and clean drinking water.
We have also formed a woman’s bank so we don’t have to borrow at high interest rates from money lenders. We now have a voice and we are changing our lives.