She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Ruth Manorama (born 1952) grew up seeing her parents engaged in active social work. She has been consistently associated with a range of issues-the rights of slum dwellers, domestic workers, unorganized labor and Dalits’, and the empowerment of marginalized women. She sees the interconnectedness between these issues, and the common cause that marginalized people share the world over … (1000peacewomen 1/2).
Ruth Manorama (born 1952) is widely known in India for her contributions in mainstreaming Dalit issues, especially the precarious situation of Dalit women in India. Ruth, herself from the Dalit community, calls the women “Dalits among the Dalits”. This has highlighted the plight of Dalit women in the community and the media. Ruth has also contributed enormously to breaking the upper-class, upper-caste image of the women’s movement in India. In 2005, she was one of 1000 nominees for the ‘1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize’ campaign. In 2006 she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award … (full text).
She says: “I have tremendous confidence in the capacity of the poor to transform not only their own lives but also to build a just, humane, and democratic society”.
Ruth Manorama – India
She received the Right Livelihood Award, 2006 (also known as the Alternative Nobel). She is India’s most effective organiser of and advocate for Dalit women, belonging to the ’scheduled castes’ sometimes also called ‘untouchables’ … (full text).
… Ruth Manorama , Right Livelihood awardee, said no form of violence is acceptable. She urged the state to provide relief and compensation to victims and book state and non-state perpetrators of violations. Right to employment , food, security and freedom of expression and religion must be protected, she added. (full text, 29 Aug 2008).
… Dalit women in India, constituting half of the approximately 200 million dalit population, and 16.3% of the total Indian female population, not only suffer oppression as a result of class and caste, but also from gender inequalities resulting from a patriarchal system. These injustices really make me want to work for their rights and freedom, said Manorama who is involved in several regional and international rights campaigns … (full text).
(1000peacewomen 2/2): Her work crosses the borders between grassroots movements, mass mobilization, and international movements.Ruth Manorama was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu on 30 May 1952, the eldest daughter. Her mother, Dorothy Dhanraj was keenly interested in women’s education. Ruth’s parents kept an open house.
Their deep and practical faith in God, their hard work, principles of justice, dignity and service to the poor have deeply influenced Ruth’s own life. Nonetheless, Dorothy resisted her conservative father to attend school, ultimately becoming a teacher. Always a rebel, she converted to Christianity in her teens. She was also deeply influenced by Pandita Rama Bai, which is how she got her second name, Manorama, after Rama Bai’s eldest daughter.
Ruth’s father, Paul Dhanraj, mobilized the poor in the nearby villages to struggle for rights to the land they lived on for generations. A postal department employee, he and her mother encouraged Ruth and her sisters to study, have careers, and be self-reliant–role models for the Dalit community. With such encouragement, Ruth and her four sisters and three brothers studied ahead, and well. After obtaining a degree in science from the Women’s Christian College, Madras, Ruth opted for training in community organization. While she was doing fieldwork, her father found out about a Masters in social work being taught at Madras’ Stella Maris College. He gave her money for admission, and after waffling briefly, Ruth joined the course.
After her Masters, she joined an NGO in Madras (now Chennai). Election fever was on, a good time to impart political education to the people. Around the same time, there were floods that completely submerged the huge slum called Dhideer Nagar at Saidapet, where she was working. Ruth and her colleagues got the slum rebuilt, raising its plinth level, and improving flood-prevention facilities. She next joined the Grail International Women’s Movement. She was based at Bangalore, working with field projects in South India designing education and community development training inputs.
After five years, Ruth felt the need to work on her own. She was firmly of the opinion that the marginalized can be organized to push for their own rights. In 1985, Women’s Voice was born out of the needs of women in the Bangalore’s slums. Through her work with the urban poor, Ruth understood the need to organize domestic workers. For the first time in India, a union of domestic workers, the Bangalore Gruhakarmikara Sangha, was registered.
Ruth is married to N P Samy, the trade unionist who has brought together all independent, unorganized-sector trade unions under an apex body, the National Centre for Labor (NCL), of which Ruth is one of the secretaries, helping to build the organization. The couple has two daughters, both in college. Samy is, in Ruth’s words, “a comrade and colleague and gives lots of solidarity and support for the causes I believe in”.
In 1986, Ruth was asked to participate in a cross-cultural study comparing African-Americans and Dalits. Her specific interest was in studying the lives of Black women and comparing them to the situation of Dalit women. She realized that although several core issues were non-comparative, the similarities in the situations of marginalized communities the world over the impossible to ignore.
Calling Dalit women “Dalits among the Dalits”, Rith realized that only large, mass-based organizations could take up issues related to societal structures that affected large demoraphics. In 1993, she organized in Bangalore a public hearing on Violence Against Dalit Women. The National Federation of Dalit Women was the result of that effort. Ruth was also associated with the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council as a core group member.
In late 1988, Ruth was part of a group of NGO leaders who met to clarify concepts related to women’s development, and reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of NGO interventions. The meeting concluded that support was imperative at the level of perspective programs, and internal structure and functioning. A year later, she and a group of likeminded people set up Initiatives: Women in Development (IWID), which has gone on to become one of the premier gender and development-training institutions in the country.
In 1994, NGOs in India decided that Indian women needed to be mass mobilized to participate meaningfully in the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Ruth’s crucial contribution was setting up a coordination unit in Bangalore: one of the prime reasons for her insistence on a unit in Bangalore is that the Indian women’s movement is a predominantly urban, educated, upper-class, upper-caste crusade.
She was unsure about the subaltern voice being reflected in this movement. The women of South India would not have been able to participate fully for reasons of distance, and differences in languages and cultures. The coordination unit team in Bangalore organized meetings and workshops with grassroots women, and translated and disseminated information.
The launch of Women’s Watch – a watchdog body that scrutinizes political and governance issues from the point of view of the grassroots woman, and stands against the criminalization and communalization of politics – was another important event in the history of the Indian women’s movement. Its objectives include the promotion of the participation of women in politics, and the sensitization of the political mainstream. This is one of the critical concerns of the Beijing Platform of Action, and Ruth, as convener for Women’s Watch, has taken it up.
After returning to India from the UN Conference, the Advisory Group met to decide how to advance the mobilization of women. A well-attended meeting of women involved in the pre- and post-Beijing processes was held in Hyderabad in December 1995, where they decided that 10 regional members of the task force would come together as the National Alliance of Women (NAWO), of which Ruth would be president. NAWO became the first, legitimate, autonomous, national-level platform for the concerns of grassroots and marginalized women.
Ruth, who has an abiding interest in color and race, was keen on participating in the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, and was closely associated with the mobilization of Dalits towards the conference. Absurdly, the Indian governmental delegation opposed the efforts of Indian NGOs to raise awareness of the caste issue at Durban: they were unwilling to accept the definition that racism is discrimination “based on descent”, and not on race alone. The government delegation was successful in getting the conference to delete the reference that included Dalits as victims of racism.
But the cat was out of the bag, so to speak–the whole world was aware of the caste discrimination depravity. The caste issue has now found a place in international human rights discourse.
In 2001, the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration in Chennai awarded Ruth the title of Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) for distinguished contribution to church and society.
Ruth’s current worry is about globalization, and its effects on the vast majority of poor women, the weaponization of South Asia, the culture of war, intolerance and violence, the growth of a consumer culture, and Parliament’s denial of women’s demand for 33 per cent representation. “I look back upon my work with both a sense of satisfaction and a sense of how much more remains to be done,” she says. “I have all along tried to make my life a struggle against violence of all kinds: caste, communal and violence against women. And I feel quality changes have indeed been brought about.”
And what is it that inspires her? “The hard work and enthusiasm of the poor, especially the women I work with, challenge and inspire me to excel in my work. Whenever I feel discouraged or tired, one look at the dedication of the poor women to their families and society is enough to move me. I have tremendous confidence in the capacity of the poor to transform not only their own lives but also to build a just, humane and democratic society.”
Ruth Manorama’s wide range of concerns is reflected in the number of organizations and groups in which she has membership:
- President, National Alliance for Women (NAWO);
- National Convener, National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW);
- General Secretary, Women’s Voice;
- Member, Advisory Group of the International Women’s Rights;
- Action Watch, Asia Pacific (IWRAW-Asia Pacific);
- Coordinator for Asia, Sisters Network to eliminate Racism;
- Core Group Member, Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC);
- Convener for Advocacy, National and International to promote Dalit Human Rights for National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR);
- Joint Secretary, Christian Dalit Liberation Movement (CDLM);
- Secretary, Karnataka Kolageri Nivasigala Samyukth Sanghatane (KKNSS) a state level slumdwellers’ federation;
- Secretary, Organization Building, National Centre for Labor (NCL).
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