Anusaya is sixty-five, and has been widowed for eleven years. She moved with her husband, two daughters and a son (who died of alcohol-related problems) to the Dehu Road cantonment in 1972 when a drought forced them to migrate into the city. Life in Dehu Road was not easy. Unable to communicate with her neighbours because she could not speak the local dialect, she was often verbally abused and felt very vulnerable.

Anusaya and her family lived in a makeshift hut consisting of plastic sheeting. From time to time the military would remove the huts. She would plead with them not to take away the bits of material that made up her home. There was no water facility, so she walked several miles across a railway track to use an office tap. The financial situation was bleak, too. Her husband was a government labourer, and the family income was just a few pounds per month.

Anusaya grew up in a family of ten siblings and remains illiterate to this day. Her father would not allow his wife or daughters to leave the house. Her husband, too, would only allow her to go out to collect water.

She first became involved with the Sadhana Institute when they started running a kindergarten in the area. Frustrated by the limitations of her existence, she asked them what her and her neighbours’ rights were, and whether any government schemes were available to them. She formed a women’s group so they could support one another – ‘together we would feel empowered.’

Within two months Anusaya had participated in her first rally in New Delhi, demanding a school system for cantonment areas. She recalls singing songs amidst police activity. Slowly government policy is changing, she tells us.

Anusaya learned how to use a post office and write her signature, which meant she could open a bank account. Now she accompanies other illiterate women to the bank or post office, passing on the skills and confidence she has developed. She also encourages women to get their caste certificates so they can claim their government entitlements. She recently participated in a rally to the office for caste certificates in Pune, as a result of which five women have been registered.

Anusaya leads three self-help groups and is an activist in her community, encouraging others through her example. Her inspiration is her grandchildren – all of whom go to school – so they can get the rights they are entitled to. We met her granddaughter, Chani, aged seven, who looked at ease in the company of the women of Anusaya’s groups.

Although a life of suffering is etched into her face, Anusaya says with gentle dignity, ‘Even though I am an old woman, now I can jump freely.’

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