Indien: Krishnammal Jagannaathan

I realized then that being a peasant woman was hard enough, but to be a Harijan woman was harder still.

— Krishnammal Jagannaathan

Freedom-fighter and Dalit activist Krishnammal Jagannaathan is often referred to as India's Joan of Arc. Krishnammal believes in a participatory approach, motivating people to change their own lives. In 1981, she cofounded Land for Tillers Freedom (Lafti) to facilitate the distribution of land to landless peasants. Lafti takes bank loans to buy land; the peasants pay the organization back over time. She has also mobilized women on many issues, including wages, land, housing, and sexual harassment, and encouraged many of them to better their own lives.

Krishnammal Jagannaathan was born in 1926 into a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu. Her earliest memories are of caste segregation, and of the dehumanized existence led by her mother and other women in her community. In class V, she realized "that being a peasant woman was hard enough, but to be a Harijan woman was harder still." An important turning point in her life was the news that 44 Dalit women and children had been burnt alive in a village in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu, in 1969. Based on the resistance to this incident, Krishnammal built up a women's movement there and expanded the struggle beyond wage issues to the appropriation of land and houses. "I have always considered this incident as a call from God to take up greater challenges," she says. In 1981, Krishnammal cofounded Lafti to facilitate distribution of land to the landless. Over the years, Lafti has purchased more than 10,000 acres with bank loans, and distributed them to as many families, making sure that the land is usually registered in the name of the woman. This "mother of the landless"-or, as she is better known, India's Joan of Arc-also met with many absentee landowners, and "convinced" several of them to sell their land to Lafti and relocate out of the area. Krishnammal started another revolutionary project in 2003 in Nagapattinam district-the construction of weatherproof houses in a Dalit colony. Using the participatory approach that has been her signature method to goad the beneficiaries to action, Krishnammal asked, "Even 56 years after Independence, why should you live in huts?" Krishnammal's work has encouraged thousands of women to act toward bettering their own lives.

Land for Tillers Freedom (Lafti)