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Women Break Hierarchies, Walk to Freedom

In Bundelkhand, generations of Dalit women have unquestioningly followed the demeaning custom of taking off their footwear before passing by the houses of the upper castes. In 2012, the first bugle against this tradition was sounded by collectives of marginalised women in Barora panchayat in Jhansi. By wearing their footwear and breaking caste hierarchies, they paved the way for women in 41 panchayats in Babina block to end this humiliation.

On 15 August 2016, when India awoke to its 69th year as an independent nation, Dalit women groups in Barora gram panchayat in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh also celebrated their tryst with destiny. Over 300 women from marginalised communities in the villages of Jhansi district came together to celebrate their freedom from the tyranny of an age-old social custom requiring them to take off their footwear while passing the houses of the upper castes. On Independence Day, by wearing their footwear in doing so, the women reaffirmed not just their liberation from this humiliating custom, but also underlined their power of self-determination and collectivisation.

Dalit women in Barora gram panchayat, in the backward Babina block in Jhansi district, no longer follow the custom since their collective show of defiance four years ago. They have managed to ward off social and family pressure and, in doing so, paved the way for women in 41 gram panchayats in the block to regain their dignity. The prime beneficiaries have been the younger generation of women. Ram Kumari, who married into a Dalit family in Barora six months after this decision was taken, was one of the first who was saved from the ignominy of carrying her footwear. Kumari says she heard about the practice from Jai Kuwar, her mother-in-law. But since her mother-in-law had stopped following it, the need for Kumari to continue the tradition did not arise. “If she had not stopped it, I, too, would have been doing the same,” states Kumari.

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