It’s no small wonder that Sr Sudha Varghese has won the Vanitha Woman of the Year Award. She rightly deserves it for her years of selfless service among the condemned and poverty-stricken Musahar community in Bihar.
Struggling against odds, Sr Varghese did what very few could achieve. She raised the bar for the poor and the destitute, showing them that there exists a life outside their degraded status.
The Vanitha Woman of the Year Award, instituted by Vanitha, one of the most popular magazines of India, is given to those women who give their selfless best to the cause of social service, education and medicine. The award carries a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh and a memento.
Sudha was the eldest of Abraham Varkey’s and Elikkutty’s eight children. The Chennamparambil family in Kanjirathanam near Kottayam was into farming and this background helped Sudha in her future pursuits. While still a student in St Mary’s High School, Kuravilangad, the thought of dedicating her life to the poor and the less privileged had taken firm root.
Her commitment to covering those in distress with kindness was so overwhelming that it took Sudha Varghese to the Notre Dame community in Patna once her SSLC exams were over. After completing further studies, she was there for more than a decade as a teacher. But she was restless. Images of the helpless and the orphaned kept haunting her.
This obsessive thought was what finally got her into the midst of Bihar’s Musahars. A marginalized section within the state’s Scheduled Castes, the community was an unimaginably deprived lot. With child marriages, rapes and abuse rife within the community, life was made yet more unlivable by the cruelty meted out to them by the upper castes.
The name Musahar means “rat-catcher”, quite possibly given to the community after its expertise in catching rats for food in times of extreme hunger.
Sudha Varghese gave her whole life to the Musahars. She lived with them for 21 years in a single-room joint in Jamsand village.
In 1987, she set up Nari Gunjan, a voluntary self-help group for the uplift of Musahar women. She followed this up with schools and self-employment units for the villagers. Life was not a smooth ride there. Though under constant threats, she persevered like a lone crusader fighting for a cause, a voice for the voiceless. If the Musahars are living better lives today, they owe it to the guts and compassion of a frail woman who never once spared a thought for herself.
Here are some of the services Sr Sudha set up: Balika Vidyalayas in Dhanapur and Gaya where Mahadalit girls could stay and complete their class ten exams, Mata Samithis for women, 40 anganawadis, shelters for the destitute and girls cast out, food units for women and training centers in sanitary napkin production. There are several other social service units where she is very much active today.
The nation honored Sr Sudha Varghese with a Padmashree in 2006. Other recognitions are the Maulana Abdul Kalam Shiksha education award, Godfrey Philips Lifetime Achievement Award, Icon of Bihar Award and Good Samaritan Award.