An unlikely leader: the story of Pinki Devi

WaterAid/Arpita Chatterjee

“All my life I thought I would get married someday and my life would change for ever. I would have someone in my life who would love me and take care of me for the rest of my life,” reflected Pinki. “My life did change eventually. But it did not happen till I took charge of it.”

A life of abuse

Pinki Devi, aged 30, is a ward member of Dangapara, a village in the Maheshpur Gram Panchayat under Pakur district in Jharkhand. Not so long ago, in 2013, she was like any other home maker in her village, going about her chores, and raising her children as her only duties and milestones in life after marriage. But her marriage also had a dark side. Her husband and mother in law were prone to domestic violence. She was also prevented from interacting with anyone in the village and was bullied into staying at home. Pinki may have continued to live in an abusive environment but for a chance encounter with ‘didi’ (elder sister in Hindi) from Gram Jyoti one day.

“Didi told me I could do more than just these activities,” reminisces Pinki.

Making change happen

At that time, Gram Jyoti, WaterAid India’s regional partner in Jharkhand had begun work on institutional building, and village sanitation in neighbouring villages. Gram Jyoti focuses on improving access to basic rights and empowers communities to work towards development. Pinki began attending these meetings with encouragement from her ‘didi’. This was not without resistance from her family. For Pinki who had her basic education, and was raised in a radically different home atmosphere as one of five girl children with equality and support, her marital home environment came as a shock. She would often get saddled with unnecessary work or untimely household work to prevent her from attending these meetings. But determined to do something good, she began sneaking into the meetings with Jal Sahiyas (water helpers).

Here they discussed and planned household visits to mobilise people in the village on the pros and cons of using toilets, handling of water safely, menstrual hygiene and its management. What she learned at the sessions, she began implementing them at her home first.

Slowly, once she gained confidence, Pinki began heading sloganeering campaigns to make her village open defecation free. She began involving more women from around 20 homes, who formed groups under her leadership to collectively propagate messages of safe sanitation across her village. It was extremely difficult to generate demand for toilets in the village and it took months of meetings to convince everyone.  The immediate issues faced were in terms of availability of funds, technical knowledge, and land.


Pinki Devi (in purple sari) took the lead in her village to campaign on the importance of sanitation. Photo: WaterAid/ Arpita Chatterjee
Pinki Devi (in purple sari) took the lead in her village to campaign on the importance of sanitation. Photo: WaterAid/ Arpita Chatterjee


An unlikely leader

Pinki’s consistent efforts, her honesty, her constant interactions with members of her village to make it clean and open defecation free made her popular among them. A day came when everyone including even her husband were convinced that she could lead the village effectively. Pinki was elected as a ward member by her community unanimously. When the Swacch Bharat Mission was announced, it was Pinki who went from door to door to collect information on lack of toilets. She then presented the information to the block junior engineer and negotiated for construction required. When told that the work needed more masons, Pinki and her team insisted that local men, including her husband and her father-in law, learn masonry from Gram Jyoti’s trainings because they felt that the skills needed to be developed within the village. She felt that it would also create interest and ownership in the community by building proper toilet structures and help in gaining employable skills in the long term. Pinki also took the lead in ensuring that toilets for the physically challenged and elderly had ramps. Arrangements were made to recycle water by diverting grey water into kitchen gardens. As people in the village began looking up to her as an inspiration and frequently congratulated her husband Bhujal Sheikh on his presumed support, he began realising he had to overcome his resistance. He is proud to be associated with her today and helps her in whatever little way he can.

Bhujal Sheikh, Pinki’s husband, overcame his long standing prejudice to proudly stand by her work today. Photo: WaterAid/ Arpita Chatterjee
Bhujal Sheikh, Pinki’s husband, overcame his long standing prejudice to proudly stand by her work today. Photo: WaterAid/ Arpita Chatterjee

Pinki’s growth has been phenomenal from someone who was subjected to domestic violence and the confines of a patriarchal society to leading the same community actively towards change. Today, there is pride and confidence about her as she walks around showing how well the toilets have been constructed, how much extra effort she and her team put into educating members of the community towards realising their sanitation rights. Till 2013, Pinki had no connection with the outside world and its changes. Now, she takes pride in representing her village and has been working hard on getting her village declared officially Open Defecation Free in 2016.

With her continuing efforts, Pinki takes great happiness in being able to give her children a healthy future and also help her community become a better place.


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