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A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 1

Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India's caste system new hope Add to ...

These activists tend to come from privileged backgrounds but spend their working lives closely tied to impoverished communities, working for education and social development. But there are only a handful of stories quite like Sister Sudha's, of living on the margins for decades, pushing for the most incremental change.

‘It's all her doing'

As years passed, Jamsaut's women became Sister Sudha's focus. She had realized that rape was ubiquitous. “No one practises untouchability when it comes to sex,” she snaps.

Or to drinking – higher-caste men would come at night to drink the date moonshine the Mushahar men brewed, then help themselves to the women, who had nowhere to hide.

The men rarely protested, because they relied on the income, and the women felt helpless. But mothers began to confide in Sister Sudha – stories they told her in despair, for what recourse did they have?

Finally, one day in 1992, when a young girl had been brutally gang-raped, Sister Sudha took her and her mother to the police station. When the police refused to register a case – “no one would rape a woman in clothes so dirty,” they said – the women sat there on a bench, all through the night and the next day, until finally the disgusted police took the report. And Sister Sudha kept pushing the police until they arrested the men in question.

By then, authorities had begun to dread the sight of her, for now she spoke the language of the law. Frustrated that the legislation meant to protect the Mushahar was never implemented, she had decided in 1987 to take on the legal system.

“I saw the people in my village all the time being duped – the high-caste people would say, ‘You have to pay for this or for that document,' or ‘You have no right to this or to that.'”

For three years, she commuted to law school in Bangalore; she aced her exams and became an advocate.

In the next two years, she registered nine rape cases. “There were a lot of threats. They were ready to finish me off – ‘It's all her doing: Which Mushahar ever files a case? Which Mushahar ever went to the police?' … I was frightened. But I decided I could not show it.”

Gradually, Sister Sudha's work became a small empire, which she called Nari Gunjan, or Women's Voice. Using funds scraped together from her parents and siblings – who thought she was mad but wanted to help – and a bit from the community itself, she started an educational centre where Mushahar girls could get a basic education and some income-generating skills.

A Unicef staffer happened to see it, and arranged a grant of a few thousand dollars. So Sister Sudha expanded to 50 educational centres across rural Bihar, where girls and groups of older women learned about sanitation, reproductive health and their rights. She travelled the state, supervising it all on a bicycle – “the cycle sister,” they called her.

Eventually, she says, she had simply become Mushahar. She planned to stay forever. But in 2005, some teenage Mushahar boys were attacked by dominant-caste young men. The boys filed a police case – and the wrath of the assailants' families came down on Sister Sudha.

She protested that she hadn't even known about the incident. But ultimately, she was behind it, from all her years of convincing the Mushahar that they had rights. The families made it known that she should disappear or they would do it for her. The police said they could not protect her – or would not.

Heartsick, she put a padlock on her wooden door in Jamsaut and went back to the convent in Patna. She lasted just days on its smooth floors and soft beds: “I could not survive there.” She decided that the time had come to concentrate on a new project.

Girls, she had concluded, were the key to change for the Mushahar. To be a girl in the lowest caste is to be the person of the least value in every community, in every state. Until their lives changed, there could be no real talk of change in the country.

The girls needed education, but could never study in the villages. Even when they were permitted entry to school, they had too much else to do to attend with any regularity – herding livestock, gathering firewood, minding baby siblings or transplanting rice seedlings in the paddies.

Sister Sudha resolved to build a residence, a hostel where girls from all the tolas could come and stay and have no job but to learn. She would build them a home where, instead of the all-purpose “Mushahar,” people would call them by their names.

Prerna is born

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