Indien: Sumitra

Sumitra is reputed to have a way of getting right to the heart of the matter of any dispute, which she then judges without considerations of caste, class, gender, or community coming in the way.

— Sumitra

Sumitra (born 1949) comes from a scheduled caste family and has received no formal education. But she is at the center of a social upheaval in her village. In 1996, braving disapproval and hostility, she set up the self-help Milori Women's Group. The group runs women's courts in the village, making dispute resolution quick, inexpensive, and mutually consensual. The fallout of the popularity of the women's courts has been a drastic reduction in violence against women, and the consolidation of women's power.

The turning point in Sumitra's life was her association with the NGO Mahila Samakhya in 1991, with which she worked for five years. In 1996, inspired by her understanding of women's rights, she formed the Milori Women's Group. The idea of women forming a group was initially received negatively. It was also a tough decision for a frail, uneducated woman from a scheduled caste background to step outside her home and work on development issues. Thanks to her perseverance, though, women from all 60 villages in Nagal block today participate in the group's activities. One of the most important of this group's activities is the women's courts that deal with problems within families, violence against women, and disputes relating to land and family affairs. Sumitra's method of functioning is to listen to both parties and solve the problems through mutual agreement. If either party fails to honor the court's decision, the group calls in the cops-a surefire kick in the pants. The lower cost and quick resolution-and the fact that decisions are arrived at through mutual consent-have helped make these courts universally acceptable. The group has succeeded in drastically reducing violence against women by ensuring very thorough punishment for the perpetrators. People from all sections in these villages have benefited from Sumitra's work. Now, the next generation, her daughters-in-law, have also joined her. Sumitra has found the one way to avoid the protracted trap of the Indian legal system-consensus and mutuality, with the cops as a final recourse.

Milori Women's Group (MLG) Mahila Samakhya