A special pleasure for me at the conference was spending time with Nandini Azad, one of the current powerhouses in the Indian anti-poverty movement, who has distinguished herself for path-breaking grassroots development not only in India but also in several other countries.
Most recently, Nandini has been working in unserved areas of poverty-stricken Jharkhand helping indigenous women develop businesses through microfinance under the Independent Commission for Peoples Rights and Development which she created and chairs. See “Financial Inclusion for indigenous women in Jharkhand.”
In addition, in Karnataka and Rajasthan, she has developed an exciting new model to combat gender-based violence through the creation of male youth forums.
A film screened at the conference showed young men she has trained advocating for the rights of girls to attend school, challenging demands for dowries, and fighting against family violence, sometimes through street theatre.
An adventuring spirit, Nandini has spent an important part of a 30-year career working in patently unsafe areas in order to help people struggling to survive and even flourish in terror-infested or war-ravaged regions.
To promote communal harmony in embattled parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kashmir and Punjab, for example, she has worked with youth in national integration camps.
And in Cambodia during the war in 1993, through a UN program, she travelled in war planes, lived in mined areas and used her experience with micro finance to train poor women to start businesses in a shattered economy.
In addition to her hands-on work, Nandini, who has a PhD in development anthropology, has also been regularly invited to counsel the Indian government on grassroots women’s development policies.
Internationally, she has acted on the issue of trafficked women and worked for and advised several UN organizations as well as the Asian Development Bank.
Always seeking opportunities to mobilize for the marginalized, at a 1985 conference in Nairobi, with five other international women, she founded the GROOTS International Network which links mass organizations of women at the international level. Today GROOTS reaches four million grassroots women worldwide.
Nandini, who is married and has a grown-up daughter, comes naturally to her commitment to community development.
Her mother is the renowned Jaya Arunachalam, head of Working Women’s Forum, an important social movement that started in 1978 in Chennai slums to promote access to credit, education, training and health care. Now it has over a million members primarily in the states of Tamilnadu and Karnataka but also in Andhra Pradesh.