Every day somewhere in southern India, impoverished women face unspeakable tragedy: they are encouraged to kill their own daughters and if they refuse, the decision is often taken out of their hands. After baring three girls and no sons, Padma Sivaprakasam was shunned by her community, her mother-in-law and even her own husband. In a society where girls are viewed as a strain on scarce resources, Padma's daughters were seen as a curse. No one wanted anything to do with Padma. They were afraid they would catch her "girl bearing disease".

With no relations to take her in and no money of her own, Padma was forced to live in an unbearable situation. One night while she was sleeping, her mother-in-law threw her youngest daughter down a well, killing her.

Every day, Dr. Jaya Arunachalam confronts heartbreaking stories of women like Padma and gives them the strength to rebuild their lives. As president of the Working Women's Forum (WWF), Jaya has a keen understanding of what it takes to help women like Padma.

In 1978, after terrible floods wreaked havoc in Chennai (Madras), Jaya was organizing relief efforts for impoverished slum dwellers when she had an epiphany. She quickly understood that people living in desperate conditions, only got assistance after a disaster hit the headlines. When the floods subside and things returned to "normal" the women told her, no one would turn up to help them. "This made me think seriously that more than the flood, poverty is the greater disaster," says Jaya.

So began Jaya's crusade to empower poor women. The WWF organizes women at the lowest rungs of Indian society; giving them trades and providing them with invaluable services. Padma received a micro-loan, began a small business selling vegetables, and became a member of WWF. She is separated from her husband and takes care of her two surviving daughters herself, even sending one to school.

Jaya and her colleagues at WWF empower women like Padma who is now able to draw from her own heartache when speaking to other women. Economically independent and armed with new organizational skills, she crusades against female infanticide and explains that she is the one who now takes care of her family, not her husband who was spoiled by his family. This has a big impact on poor women who have few resources or support in their own communities.

What makes WWF so effective is its approach to transforming society from the bottom up by mobilizing and uniting poor women who are given tools such as microfinance loans, to transform their lives. They, in turn, become leaders and advocates for change. WWF with over 700,000 members helps women escape abusive marriages when the authorities refuse to grant them divorce and facilitate intra-class marriages to undermine the Indian caste system. It has given out 370,000 microfinance loans worth more than 110 million Rupees. And of course, it campaigns against female infanticide.

In a tragic replay of the floods of 1978, Jaya was on the ground immediately after the Tsunami hit coastal communities in southern India in December. WWF gave loans and other assistance. For Jaya, it was deja vu when WWF members including more than 2,000 fisherwomen lost their livelihoods and in some cases their homes. Ramani Palani, who had to take care of six children alone after the death of her husband, was given a small loan to start her own fishing business. After the Tsunami, she was left with nothing but an empty hut. WWF provided her with rice, clothes, utensils and cash. "The President is like a God to me," says Palani. She is of course talking about Jaya.

What Can You Do?
Begin by learning more about how poor women benefit from microfinance loans. You can also get involved through grassroots organizations working to empower impoverished women to be agents of change in their own communities.

You can also find out about why thousands of non-governmental organizations or NGOs and high level delegates from over 100 countries came to the United Nations in New York for two weeks from 28 February to 11 March. They came to assess the progress women made since the historic 1995 Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing.

Beijing+10, as this meeting was called, was an official follow-up and was part of the 49th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The more than 5,000 women who came to the UN were given an opportunity to share achievements of the last decade and also confront the major obstacles in the path to achieving women's rights.

Also read:
Her tryst with change
SHGs serve as great example to women of other countries
Women's empowerment, subject of bilateral discussions
Memories of Madras
India's Lady with the Lamp
Fight against poverty
Jaya's Army of Women
A Lifelong Champion Of India's Poorest Women
The Working Women's Forum, Madras, India
Providing microcredit to working women
Gender and equity: experience of the Working Women's Forum, India
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