This is Chhutni Devi.
63 years old.
A social worker from Birbans, a hamlet in a village named Gamharia.
She fights everyday against the social evil of witch-hunting in Rural Bihar. Her journey began in 1991, when her own society members accused her of being a witch. She realized how widespread the problem was, and in fighting for herself, she was fighting for countless women who were cruelly tortured by their own superstitious families and neighbours.
Today, Chhutni Devi is a Padma Shree Awardee. She has the fourth highest civilian honour in India. But why is her story so important to the Marth Farrell Foundation? Why are we talking about her today?
Chhutni Devi’s work became most prominent when she joined Association for Social and Human Awareness (ASHA), or as we know them – Winners of the Martha Farrell Special Jury Award 2020.
When ASHA won the Award last October, we placed a lot of faith in their capacity to create social change. Seeing one of their own being honoured with a Padma Shri shows us how the MF Award is contributing to these tectonic shifts in Indian society.
Like the five individuals and five organisations that have won the Martha Farrell Award, Chhutni Devi too is, in so many ways, keeping alive the spirit of Dr. Martha Farrell’s work. And it’s that same spirit and passion and compassion that we pour into the Award each year.
There is no initiative in the country like the Martha Farrell Award. And that’s because it privileges the internal work that people do to live Feminism in Everyday Life. It is as much about the principles that people imbibe as it is about their achievements in the outside world. It represents the ideals of feminism, equality, gender-justice that Dr. Farrell believed in, and through it, we recognise and support the people who believe in those ideals too.
How have winners lit the way with the Award in the last five years? As Martha Farrell Foundation celebrates its 5th anniversary on February 4, 2021, we look back at the many successes we share with some of the most passionate individuals in the country.
2017: Rakhi Gope & Majlis Legal Centre
A resident of a tea estate in Falakata in Alipurduar District of West Bengal, Rakhi has been leading the fight against child trafficking in her state. When she won the award in 2017, Rakhi was active in 134 villages. Her sensitization and prevention work had already reaching 75,000 households.
2,000km away, the all-women Majlis Legal Centre was recognised for its immense body of work since 1991. Majlis has defended 50,000 women survivors of domestic and sexual and has trained over 4,000 women lawyers on various laws related to women’s rights.
2018: Nadiya Shafi & RSCD
In 2018, we discovered two shining examples of feminist action in a young video reporter and a Maharashtra-based women’s Andolan. In her work as a journalist, Nadiya Shafi uncovered the story of violence against trans women in Jammu & Kashmir, and continues to hold discussion clubs on matters of gender, power, sexuality for young Kashmiris. Along with Nadiya, the Award for ‘Best Organization for Gender Equality’ went to Resource and Support Centre for Development, for its formation of an all-women senior leadership, and its work on sensitizing male Panchayat members.
2019: Manu Gulati & Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti
A government school teacher in Delhi, Manu Gulati was named ‘Most Promising Individual’ for her 13 years of work in implementing gender-synchronized teaching approaches in schools. Manu has created a generation of gender-positive boys and girls. Over in Ajmer, Rajasthan, the Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti impressed us with it gender-trainings for all its employees, making sure that its goal to make leaders of 400 girls in Tonk and Bhilwara districts was supplemented by a team that internalises feminist values!
2020: Mamta Singh & REDS
Our ‘Most Promising Individual’ was Lucknow-based activist Mamta Singh, who works on intersecting issues of gender, caste, and religion. She had been working for 16 years to empower at-risk women through vocational education and creating safe spaces for survivors of violence. On the other side of the country, REDS (or Rural and Environment Development Society) encouraged its women in leadership roles, by mandating that women constitute 50% of its staff. With Cheruvu Bhanuja at the helm, REDS received the award for ‘Best Organization for Gender Equality’.
In 2020, we introduced a Special Jury Award, which went to two very deserving nominees – Vaishali Jethava of the Gender Lab, and ASHA. While 25-year-old Vaishali helps children complete their education in gender-sensitive schools, ASHA empowers indigenous women.
The Martha Farrell Award now has its presence across the country. And this year, we hope to expand!
As the Martha Farrell Foundation completes its fifth year, we eagerly await the journey that will be set in motion with the Awards for 2021. We have been able to provide a platform to all these unsung heroes, and we will continue to do so for years to come.