Hirbai Ben Lobi the Diamond of the Forest.
Ritu visits the area in Gujarat where the Siddi tribe are descendants of migrant workers who came hundreds of years ago from Africa. Ritu talks to Hirbai Ben Lobi, who is called the Diamond of the Forest by the locals. The Forest Diamond and her friends
Empowering Women in Rural India Host: Ritu’s here to meet the woman they like to call Hirbai Ben Lobi the Diamond of the Forest. The Forest Diamond tells Ritu about the old days when the Siddi lived in the forest and women were harassed and exploited until Forest Diamond realized something.
Ritu: What happened in the jungle?
Hirbai Ben Lobi: When the girls of our village went to the forest to collect firewood the forester used to harass them a lot. When the girls used to run away from the jungle, they used to get injured. Our younger girls were also sexually harassed. So I realized that that we should not go into forest to collect wood anymore instead we needed to save our money up. But at that time the bank would not open accounts for us since some of us could not read or write. They asked us ‘who will fill your deposit slips?’ I was outraged and I told them that tomorrow all the women will be able to fill the slip. Host: It worked. The Forest Diamond and her friends formed a co- operative. Their savings fund businesses their businesses. Opposition yes, but diamonds don’t fade away.
Ritu: Did the people of the village try and help you or try and stop you?
Hirbai Ben Lobi: Yes, they did try to stop me, but I didn’t stop. I asked myself ‘What do women need the most?’ If the men need money and they don’t have any property, the land belongs to the men and the houses also belong to the men. I figured then I need to ensure that the women also own some property. That way they at least have some confidence in themselves.
Host: Now unusual in South Asia 900 village women hold assets in their own names.
Hirbai Ben Lobi: Today, through our women’s cooperative bank, the women have access to money. And the men come and ask their wives if they can borrow some money say a thousand to fifteen hundred rupees. And the women are able to access this instantly. So their position has vastly improved and there has been a lot of improvement in the village too.
Host: Jambur Ritu finds is a thriving village thanks partly to Hirbai and the co-operative. Money from the co-op even helps the village school. If more women went to school and got paid jobs it’s been estimated the Asia-Pacific region could be ninety billion US dollars a year better off. And tradition’s not forgotten including Gandhi’s favorite hymn known abroad as the one in Slumdog Millionaire. Tradition can be inspiration the hymn calling on all women to be revered as you would your mother.
Ritu: Now we see more girls are coming to the school what do you think about the way the village is developing?
Tayeb Bhai Sandh: If a poor and uneducated woman can do so much. If women are educated and they come forward, this will bring a great change in society.
Nathi Ben Arli Mazgool: It is Hirbai’s generosity that she believes in not only empowering older women, but younger ones too, by educating them because if one girl is well educated, then she is capable of teaching others and being empowered.
Zari Ben Fakri Mazgool: My husband dissuaded me from joining the co-operative. But even so, I’d go and attend the meetings with Hirbai. When he fell sick he asked me for money, I asked him ‘How he could ask me for money, when he was the one who didn’t let me join the cooperative?’ Nevertheless I withdrew 5,000 rupees from the co- operative and took my husband to the hospital.
Ritu: Do you ever wonder why God has made you a woman? And burdened you with so many problems?
Zilu Ben Razab Modi: Thank God I am a woman. If I were a man I would have done nothing. It is because I am a woman that I can accomplish so much. I am happy to be a woman I don’t want to be a man. Host: Next Ritu meets men who want to be women if only for a day, her film on gender discrimination about to take a bizarre twist.