Surekha was born and raised in the village of Matkuli, into a lower-caste family as one of four female children. At the time of her birth, the low-caste community members were forced to live in the periphery of the village limits. Their status prohibited them from wearing shoes in the village center, drawing water from the village wells, and fully participating in village politics. Not only were they at a social disadvantage due to their caste, as women, Surekha, her sisters, and her mother faced constant oppression. In a culture that highly values male over female children, Surekha’s father was upset by his circumstance. Without an understanding of chromosomes and how biological sex is actually determined in utero, her father blamed her mother. He took his frustration out on his wife, becoming physically abusive, until he eventually decided to leave the family and marry another woman, hoping that she would be able to provide him with a male child.
Abandoned by her father, Surekha worked with her mother to secure income for the family. They completed housework for a high-caste family in their village until Surekha was old enough to marry. She was married to a man significantly older than her and just like her father, he made Surekha his frustration scapegoat and abused her both physically and emotionally. Soon, he became paranoid. He questioned Surekha’s character, accused her of infidelity, and eventually tried to kill her by forcing her to drink poison. Her family members intervened and rushed Surekha to the hospital. Although she made a full recovery, her husband lied to the physicians about the cause of her illness to evade culpability.
Soon after her recovery, Surekha gave birth. This triggered her husband into another nearly-fatal fit of rage. He attacked both Surekha and her child, grabbed a knife, and shoved it into her abdomen. Again she was rushed to the hospital, and again her husband lied his way out of any responsibility. Although Surekha told the truth about what had happen, the physicians refused to acknowledge that she was in danger. As she recovered for the second time, her husband abandoned her and her children.
It was around her second recovery that CRHP had begun to work in Surekha’s village. She was surprised to see the community mobilized, and she said that she remembers being invited to participate in community decisions despite her caste. CRHP encouraged village leaders and community members to select a socially-minded, lower-caste individual to serve as the community’s Village Health Worker (VHW). This individual would provide the community with access to healthcare and health education as well as serve to connect the community to external resources, such as government schemes and primary health centers. Intrigued but uncertain as to who would fill this role, Surekha was stunned when she was chosen to be the VHW.
In 1999, Surekha began her VHW training. Although she was excited by the opportunity, she still had barriers to overcome. The first was providing services to community members that had marginalized her for her entire life, but she handled her duty with grace. Surekha threw herself into her work. She built rapport with the community and learned new skills and knowledge that she could share. “This is when I truly found myself. I gained self-confidence, a purpose in life, and a stronger connection to the community.” She has used her knowledge of health, empowerment, and entrepreneurship not only for the betterment of the community, but also for herself. She used her knowledge of microfinance to open up a grocery shop that gives her financial security.
Despite her challenging past, Surekha has emerged as a financially independent community leader. Through her work as a VHW, she has delivered 342 healthy babies; she has provided pre and postnatal care to hundreds of women; and she has helped to mobilize the community to enact real, sustainable change. She has gained respect in her village, but more importantly, she has gained confidence in herself, and her strength will continue to fuel the positive development of both her family and her community.