Linked with ASHTA SANSTHAN.
She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: ”It is a long way from Canada to working at the Indian grassroots with tendu patta (tobacco leaf) collectors and widows, and clashing with the authorities – but Ginny is finally home”.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee in Kingston to receive 2005 Queen’s Alumni Achievement Award, November 01, 2005, Kingston, ON – The Queen’s University Alumni Association recognized the outstanding accomplishments of Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Shrivastava Arts’63 by presenting her with the 2005 Alumni Achievement Award at a special ceremony in Kingston held at the University Club at Queen’s. Friends, family, and faculty and classmates from her Queen’s days were also on hand to celebrate this moment. (Read all on Queen’s University).
Read: Widow’s Stories, Kamal Patik age 40, A Leader in the Association of Strong Women Alone, Rajasthan, is the widow of the late Kailash Patik. (Read her story on widows rights).
Virginia/Ginny Shrivastava – India
Virginia/Ginny Shrivastava, born Dobson, was born in Canada on 9 August 1942, the day Gandhi started the “Quit India Movement” to throw all foreigners out of India. She has been working with women in Rajasthan since 1970. The main driving force behind the Association of Strong Women Alone, a registered society of low-income single women, Ginny has focused on building the leadership capabilities of grassroots women. Also actively involved with tribal groups, Ginny mobilized them to pressure the government to give them minimum wages for collecting tendu patta (tobacco leaves), and helped them form a Tendu Patta Cooperative.
She grew up in Burlington, a small town not far from Hamilton, Ontario, where her father was an engineer in a steel company. Ginny attended Queen’s University, Kingston, and was active in extracurricular activities. After graduation in 1963, she went to Indonesia for a year to live with relatives, study rural sociology, and teach agriculture technicians “functional” English. Then she felt prepared to “marry into Asia”.
On her return, she studied Christian Education at the University of Toronto, and then worked in a downtown church in Kingston, where she engaged with the community – organizing a women’s group in the maximum security prison for women, taking church and community members “in”, working with youth at the beginning of the “drugs period”, and on low-income housing issues.
She helped form the Ontario Tenants Association, an act that so angered the slum landlords of the church that employed her that she quit in 1969. While studying for her Masters in Adult Education at the University of Toronto (1969–70), she continued to work on issues relating to “roomers” – those who could afford only a room in downtown Toronto.
It was while she was studying at the University of Toronto’s Department of Educational Theory (Adult Education), that she met and married Om Shrivastava. In 1970, the couple came to Udaipur, Rajasthan. They joined Seva Mandir, an NGO that worked on adult literacy, drought relief, and rural development and, later, in community organizing.
Ginny’s doctoral thesis was on non-formal education programs for women in Indian villages. She studied leadership patterns in rural women’s non-formal education in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Then, she returned to work fulltime with Seva Mandir, establishing the Women’s Development Unit in 1980, which organized women’s groups to work on women’s problems and involve women in social, economic, and political activities. There was also an Udaipur women’s group that worked on atrocity cases.
In 1986, Seva Mandir abruptly terminated her services without notice. Ginny decided not to pursue legal action, but turned her energies to building up a new working structure, Astha, also based in Udaipur. Astha focused on organizing and awareness-generation through training programs, action, and reflection. Ginny has written manuals, articles, chapters in books, and case studies on tribal groups and women, which have come to be highly-regarded reference guides.
One of Ginny’s most crucial contributions is her work with low-income widows and separated women. In India, social restrictions on widows force them to live in subhuman conditions. Often women are thrown out by their in-laws after their husbands’ death, so that the rest of the family does not have to share property and land with them. Although the government has a widow pension scheme, it is not easily accessible. The amount is insufficient and, in any case, the procedure is retarded.
Ginny has brought a team together to work with widowed women, which has mobilized widows in 25 of the 32 districts of Rajasthan. Today, there is a statewide Association of Strong Women Alone (Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan – ASWA), which also has registered a society, the Organization of Strong Women Alone (OSWA), itself registered in 2002. The ASWA, with 17,200 members, has district and block-level units, as well as a state-level committee. It holds meetings regularly, and issues of security, survival, dignity, pension, land and property rights, cruel social and cultural practices, and violence against single women are taken up strategically.
Ginny played a key role in establishing in 2002 the Budget Analysis Rajasthan Center (BARC), which was set up by Astha to monitor whether and/or how much the Government of Rajasthan is “pulling back” from its public sector duties, and whether the budget provisions are serving the needs of the state’s poor. The BARC monitors not only education and health, but also budgets for drinking water, tribal sub-plans, women’s development, Dalit development needs, drought relief, employment and livelihood security, food security, etc. It has an active Advisory Committee of NGOs from all over Rajasthan who work with the poor, and also do advocacy work.
The BARC services them, and provides, on demand, information about child labor, desert development plans, tribal hostel provisions, and so on. It also lobbies Members of the Legislative Assembly, informing them of shortcomings in the budget from the point of view of the poor, and about contradictions between declared policies and budget provisions.
Ginny has learnt from experience that the tribal people in southern Rajasthan cannot earn their livelihood from a single source. So, she has been part of various attempts to increase their livelihood base, maximizing income from local breeds of chickens, stopping exploitation in daily wage labor payment, increasing soil fertility by watershed development work, and increasing the income from the collection and sale of non-timber forest produce.
Her most successful effort, though, was in mobilizing tribals of Kotra Block, Udaipur District, to create pressure on the government to increase the minimum collection wages for tendu patta (tendu leaves used to make local cigarettes) in 1989.
This struggle, with policy advocacy with the Forest Department, and a labor strike of over 40,000 collectors, resulted in the tribals deciding to form a Tendu Leaf Collectors Cooperative Ltd in 1990. The cooperative participated in the auction for forest units, becoming, for the first time, owners of the processes. Their objective was not to maximize the cooperative’s profits, but to increase the collection rate for the thousands of collectors in the area. There are now five tendu leaf cooperatives in Rajasthan. Inspired by the effort in Udaipur, cooperatives have been started in many other districts.
Ginny also facilitated the participation of women tribal leaders in the NGO Forum of the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995. She acted as a translator for two tribal women leaders who went to Canada in 1997 to meet with indigenous First Nation men and women. A field officer of the United Church had visited Rajasthan and, along with Ginny, had talked to several tribal women’s leaders of Kotra block. He was so impressed with their self-confidence, social and political analyses, activism, and general sense of being proud of who they were, that he thought that the Canadian First Nation people would benefit from interaction.
Another issue very close to Ginny’s heart is communal harmony. She, a Christian, married a Hindu, and both she and Om always looked for what was common: they celebrated Christmas, Diwali, and Holi, and visited Muslim friends on Id. During the Advani Rath Yatra in the late 1980s, she and a colleague initiated an Udaipur citizens’ Peace Committee, which was reactivated following the babri Masjid demolition. After the Godhra massacres in 2002, Astha initiated a Citizens’ Forum for Communal Harmony (Sadbhawna Manch) in Udaipur. Today, the process is ongoing, with year-round public lectures and demonstrations of communal harmony, and collaboration with other like-minded groups.
Astha’s policy is “to mainstream communal harmony”, to have sessions on communal harmony, and analyze why tensions occur when they do. It works on a multilevel approach: building people’s movements around issues of social justice, livelihoods, environmental issues, women’s rights and human rights, capacity-building, value-based education, creation of support structures for sustaining people’s movements, maintaining a documentation cell, sustaining a fellowship program, encouraging research, conducting budget analyses, advocacy, influencing policy, and working with and through government institutions.
In the three and a half decades that Ginny has spent in India, she has accepted the country as her home. She has learned the traditions of India, adapted to Indian dress and food, and can speak fluent Hindi. She has adopted a simple lifestyle that is a blend of both her cultures. Ginny lives in the huts of the poor, bathes in the river, and sits long hours in the local bus to reach distant villages. She is uncomplaining about the harsh Rajasthan weather. For Ginny, her work is the main focus. (Read all on 1000peacewomen).