It all started in the year 1981 when Ms. Shyamala Vardarajan, the founder of Spurthi Mahila Mandal (SMM) relocated to Bijapur from Chennai after marriage. With a Masters in Botany, she joined The Aided College in Bijapur as a professor. Shyamala was an active volunteer back in Chennai, always ready to get involved with social activities in her college days. She also worked for few institutions.
After moving to Bijapur, she came across many women in her locality who were looked down on, ill-treated, had no education, and lacked confidence. “There is a deeply rooted attitude in society that girls and women are considered inferior. This had led to inexplicable amounts of inequality.” Perturbed by the condition, she approached her husband, a retired professor, and shared her thoughts about the same. Her husband suggested she start an organization which would bridge this gap.
Easier said than done, Shyamala went through her share of complications and hardships while implementing the same. “My husband was my backbone. His unceasing encouragement for both me and my work contributed majorly to the growth of the organization.”
Shyamala has Kannada roots but has been born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, so considers Tamil as her mother tongue. She adds, “Speaking Kannada was my biggest challenge, which is the reason why the registering SMM took so much time. I learnt Kannada from my maid. Thanks to her I’m fluent and can even give a lecture in Kannada!”
“An organization can’t begin with a single person. I was skeptical if anyone would like my work or appreciate my intention towards serving society.” This is when she approached five of her friends in the locality, few of whom have already passed away.
The organization then got registered in 1983. They started with awareness camps for women on their legal rights like education, reproductive health, importance of employment etc. working primarily in slum areas. Working relentlessly, in 1987, they were recognized for their efforts by Zilla Parishads and local political parties of Bijapur, which Shyamala considers her biggest turning point.
“We had no funds for our initial work. The five of us used to contribute as much as we could from our own pockets till one of the members of the local political party asked us to apply for foreign funds. The Government also came forward in handing over projects related to society.”
“As Bijapur is a Muslim dominated area, we realized during our surveys in slums that Muslim women were affected alot due to polygamy, backward castes, lack of education etc. This lead to the Muslim Women Empowerment project which received its first funding from USA,” she says. Adding, “Since then, we have gotten some stability from the funding hurdle.”
Shyamala adds “I always wanted to help the vulnerable too. We designed projects through which we could reach out to them but kept postponing their launch because we were unsure how to go about them. We then launched one with the help of a donor organization. We give them food and medication. When it comes to shelter, they either have their own place or we have well-wishers who give them shelter. Some give back by helping with domestic chores etc.”
“Usually families of these abandoned, elderly people refuse to support them because they were not able to afford food nor medicines. Hence we decided to help them with the same. Old people come to our house, which we have rented, twice a day for meals. We send a lunch box to those who are unable to come. These old people are supported by us till they pass away,” adds Shyamala. The physically handicapped are given medicines and Physiotherapy and are taken to the hospital twice a month, depending on their need.
As there are no government facilities to treat the HIV, SMM has tied up with government hospitals and work in collaboration to ensure that these patients receive their medicines and required treatment.
SMM’s services offer a wide range of causes – women’s empowerment, the physically disabled, and the elderly. It also has a deep impact on the living standard of women in the society.
“I can happily and confidently say that SMM has contributed to atleast 10% change in the city,” says Shyamala smiling.