Sister Lizy Thomas (2nd left) from the Uday (Dawn) Social Development Society is pictured with her co-workers as they attend a media conference organized by indigenous women in Jhabua district of India's Madhya Pradesh state who hope to enlist the media's help in their crusade against alcoholism. (Photo provided)
For Shanti Devada, the mud walls of her home in Badi Damini village of Jhabua district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh were more like a prison than a shelter or a place of refuge.
She lived a closeted life, not daring to speak to men outside of her family or step outside her village without a chaperon.
In fact, the traditions and customs of the indigenous group to which she belongs are so strict she even had to cover her face with a sari when speaking to male relatives.
However that all changed about eight years ago when Devada, who is now 50, began to defy these conservative, even archaic customs and became a self-style "crusader" fighting for the greater empowerment of women.
She mustered the courage to step out of her "prison," not in mindless rebellion against the repression she faced at the hands of a staunchly patriarchal culture but using the skills and confidence-building techniques she had learnt from a group of Catholic nuns, she told ucanews.com.
She and a group of women in Jhabua and its surrounding districts including Khandwa and Burhanpur are now campaigning against alcoholism, which she calls "a curse" on indigenous communities in India.
Devada, along with 40 other indigenous women, held a press conference on March 23 at a government building to raise awareness of what they are fighting for.
"I was bit nervous at first," Devada said, adding that she also realized how important it was to "enlist the help of the media to make sure our grievances reach the government and the general public, to seek their support."
Her journey began in 2010 when nuns from the Sisters of Holy Spirit congregation visited her home and encouraged her to "fight for women's rights."
In other parts of India nuns are performing similar duties to help underprivileged women in rural areas, notably a group of Franciscan nuns who are supporting displaced slum dwellers in New Delhi.
Initially, Devada said she was not able to understand most of what the nuns were talking about.
"My world was my home, and I didn't know about anything beyond that," she said.
"They [the nuns] kept visiting the village and urging us to form a self-help group as a way to create fun income-generating projects so we could save money to fight poverty," she said.
"We all lived in abject poverty; seasonal diseases and other social anomalies crippled our lives."
The women said their husbands, mostly illiterate, worked as farm hands or at construction sites but spent most of their earnings on alcohol. Domestic abuse made life miserable for many of the women, including their kids.
"As we felt the nuns were sincere and were ready to help us, we decided to accept their help," Devada said.
The congregation has been working with slum dwellers since 2001 in Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, through the Uday (Dawn) Social Development Society, their social arm.
But convincing these indigenous women to come out of their respective shells and free themselves from the shackles of their prohibitive customs "has been a Herculean task," said Holy Spirit Sister Anna Tirkey, who acknowledged that nuns are not immune to violent attacks from men in Indian society.
With the help of the nuns, the women are now confident enough to approach police and local government officials to assert their rights to such staples as drinking water and subsidized grains, or to lodge complaints about men who break the law or abuse their spouse.
"We know what our rights are now and we want to assert them," said Vidhya Bhuria, a 30-year-old housewife, who is part of the network.
"As part of our program to reduce poverty we destroyed some home-brewing operations that we knew of in our own families and in our villages," said Reshma E Ninamma, a 50-year-old grandmother from the same ethnic group.
The women were not able to impose a total ban on drinking alcohol as state law allows for the sale and consumption of liquor. Undeterred, and having seen up close what a drunk husband is capable of, they are now courting the media to help their message about the harm alcohol can wreak on society.
These days, Devada earns 35,000 rupees (US$555) a year by rearing cattle and goats and farming poultry.
"Even my husband is happy because I'm bringing in extra income," she said.
"My husband tried to stop me going to the meetings at first but when we banded together as a group of women, he backed down," she added.
"Now nobody objects to us. Everyone is satisfied."
However, her newly empowered self did not get there by jettisoning centuries of tradition.
"On the contrary, we continue our traditions of respecting our husbands and elders, and offering prayers and other routine practices. So no one loses from this situation. Yet now we are able to confront social ills," she said.
Vidhya said that before, hundreds of women would migrate to big cities each year in search of work, leaving many families displaced and their children's education disrupted.
"Today we lead a better life because we educate our children and earn a decent living while opening ourselves to the realities of the world outside," she said.
India has 104 million indigenous people belonging to a total of 705 officially listed communities. Madhya Pradesh is home to about 73 million or 14.7 percent of them, making it the most "ethnic" state in India.
But many lack even the most basic facilities. For example, only 23 million have a house in which to live, suggesting the other two-thirds are homeless and rely on friends or relatives for shelter, or live on the streets.
Yet the sisters offer a ray of hope.
"We owe the nuns a great deal for helping us turn our lives around," said Devada.
"If they had not come, we would still be mired in poverty, living as victims of domestic violence and suffering other forms of social disgrace," she said.
"But we still have a long way to go before justice is dispensed to all those others who are like us out there," she added.