Meet the first woman in 127 years to take the helm of a regional chapter of YMCA

Meet the first woman in 127 years to take the helm of a regional chapter of YMCA
Kumari took charge as the regional head at the YMCA office in Aluva in June 2018. She will be heading the Kerala YMCA for the next two years.

Kumari Kurias never needed excuses to smile at the world. After assuming office as the chairperson of the Kerala region of Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) the smile is now illuminated by a sense of achievement. 58-year-old Kumari, who lives in Rajakumari village in Idukki district, is the first woman to occupy the post in India though the YMCA has a history of 127 years in the country.

Kumari took charge as the regional head at the YMCA office in Aluva in June 2018. She will be heading the Kerala YMCA for the next two years. Busy chalking out the plans for the term, Kumari says the only factor that has changed now is the official designation. She has been an active member of the YMCA for over 25 years.

A native of Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district, she came to Rajakumari after her marriage to Kuriakose. As her husband was busy running the family-owned business, Kumari decided to take her inclination for social work more seriously. She joined the regional chapter of YMCA and began taking an active role in their programs.

“I had always liked interacting with people; even as a youngster I grabbed the opportunities to work among people. This later helped me work efficiently when I joined the YMCA,” says Kumari.

“What I have noticed about being part of the YMCA is that it lets you grow as a person. For homemakers who have time at their disposal, it offers the opportunity to contribute significantly to society while utilizing their potentials to the fullest. Even for a very committed person, the extend to which he or she can bring about a change in society individually will be limited by a lot of factors. The impact will be many times higher when you work as part of an organization,” she says, explaining what drew her to the umbrella of YMCA.

Charity as priority

From the time she joined the organization, Kumari focused her efforts towards charity work. Explaining the nature of her, Kumari says, “Rajakumari is a remote village in Idukki and a large percentage of the population struggle with financial difficulties. When I started out, my effort was to use the resources of the organization to help poverty-stricken families. Over the years, we have helped homeless people build their own homes, people suffering from diseases get medical help and children from poor families continue their education.”

Her enthusiastic activities among the financially backward population of Rajakumari did not go unnoticed. Soon she was selected as president of the regional YMCA chapter and later as board member. As an office bearer, she sought to extend the social work done under the banner of the organization.

Around this time, the concept of accepting women into the fold of YMCA was gaining currency in India. The international scene had slowly but surely registered the change since membership was opened to women way back in the 1940s. The granting of full membership to women began to reflect in the structure of the organization with more and more women occupying key posts.

In 2006, Kumari took charge as the convener of the women’s forum and later as its chairperson. She went on to hold the positions of Kerala Region Youth Work Committee Chairperson and National Women’s Forum Chairperson. She was serving as vice-president of the Asia-pacific Gender Equity Committee when election was announced to the post of chairperson of the Kerala region.

Kumari, who had by then proved to be an able leader and organizer, was singled out by Lebi Philip, National President of Indian YMCAs, as the most worthy candidate for the top post in the state. He encouraged her to take up the post, but she remembers that she initially felt daunted by the task.

“If we take up a responsibility, we should commit ourselves fully to it. We should do justice to the duties entrusted to us. This is what I have always believed, especially while engaged in social work. But when it came to taking on such a crucial role within the organization, I was scared that I would not be able to divide my time well between home and work. I didn’t want to end up doing less than 100% because my attention was taken away by my responsibilities within the family.”

Kumari says that the encouraging words of her husband had helped her arrive at a decision. “He told me to take up the responsibility and commit myself fully to doing it well. It was a great boost to my confidence to hear him say that social work is something that requires you to stay focused on the path ahead despite all odds.”

And six months after the post was offered to her, Kumari informed the higher ups of her willingness to take up the position. The rules of the organization permit the unanimous selection of a person to the post of chairperson, which was the idea when her candidature was mooted initially. Despite the popularity she enjoyed within the organization, there arose a situation when an election became inevitable. “But I was confident that I will make it, so the election did not put any pressure on me,” she says.

And sure enough, Kumari won the election with an overwhelming majority. Out of the 800 votes cast, she won more than 600. The victory becomes all the more important when we consider the fact that more than 95% of the voters were male and women members accounted for less than 5%.

“I thank the Almighty and my family for making this happen. I must also mention that I wouldn’t have made it without the encouragement and guidance of senior members like Lebi Philip Mathew,” says Kumari.

Social work remains the focus

After the jubilation of her victory in the elections and the milestone it marked in the history of YMCA in India, Kumari was quick to go back to the job at hand. “Social work and charity are what drew me into the organization and its important not to lose sight of that primary goal. In fact, the best moments I have had were those that came while doing real work out there”, she says.

“You occasionally hear of children you had helped go to school years back making it big. Those are moments when one feels proud about dedicating one’s time and energy for social work. It’s never more so than in instances where the funds we raised helped someone access life-saving medical treatment. I can relate so many instances when I have been moved to tears.”

She sees the ‘Karunya Varsham’ programme launched by YMCA in 2012 as one of the most successful outreach programmes organized locally in recent times. “We were able to help a lot of people who were in dire need of medical help. We are continuing with the programme in view of its overwhelming success. The programme has made YMCA a household name among the people here. They now look upon the organization as a place they can turn to for help in an hour of need. That is an important achievement for YMCA.”

She credits her family for the success she has been able to achieve as a social worker. “The support of one’s family is important for any person to excel in their career and that is especially true for a woman. When you are working in an unconventional area like social work, this understanding from the side of your family becomes extremely crucial for you to strike a balance between home and work. I do a lot of travelling as part of work which means that I am away from home for days on end. Attending meetings and organizing events and the like take away a lot of my time. All this would not have been possible without the support and understanding shown by my husband,” she says. Kumari and Kuriakose have a son, Kiran, who is working in Canada as a software engineer.

The lessons taught by the floods

The floods that hit Kerala this year was on occasion that put to test one’s commitment and resolve, believes Kumari. The joy of having faced the challenge head on is evident in her smile as she recounts the days of tireless efforts.

“The flood came to our villages in two phases. Localities like Keezhmadu grama panchayat were flooded in the first round of heavy rains. We took charge of sheltering 500 severely affected families. Since road access was cut off and many people were stranded, we went around in boats and distributed food packets to a lot of houses. These homes at least had enough reserves of food to pull through the one week of deluge that came later. The love and gratitude they expressed later is the biggest reward we could get,” she says.

At the time of taking charge as head of the Kerala region, Kumari had stated her vision of creating an inclusive atmosphere for women in society and work places. Her stated mission also included empowering the women around her through participative programmes. As a baby step towards achieving her goals, she had announced her plan to build a youth hostel in Rajakumari that could be later developed into a venue for youth-oriented programmes. Half-an-year into her term, she’s all set to dedicate the newly-constructed hostel to the young men and women of Rajakumari.

“Though this is an interior part of Idukki, a lot of young women come to Rajakumari as part of work and studies. Women from the village are also taking education and career more seriously. They often find it difficult to find an affordable place to stay. This hostel is a small step towards finding a solution to that problem. Women can stay here safely for nominal rates.”

Kumari believes that such facilities will go a long way in bringing more women out of the four walls of their homes. “We have a long way to go when it comes to achieving gender parity in decision making bodies. Even in an organization like the YMCA, the representation of women accounts for less than 10% in India. By making workplaces more inclusive and safe, we will soon prove that women are as capable as men in any given role. Sadly, the environment is still hostile to women in many ways and a lot of ambitious women are unable to build a fruitful career.”

Before winding up the conversation, Kumari pauses to reflect on the biggest hurdle that lies in the path of a woman who chooses to be a social worker. “Among the words that sting the most will be the ones that question your commitment towards your family. ‘She should be minding the business of running her family’, is a refrain that you are going to hear very often. If people dare to express publicly their doubts about how a committed homemaker would be able to find time for social work, be ready to take it in your stride. Even when I am saying this, I remember the early days when I felt devastated by such criticism despite showing utmost dedication to my work. But my husband has always stood by me as a pillar of strength. He reminded me that giving up would prove detractors right and that courage was in rising up to the challenge. I would say the same thing to the women around me. Being bold is the greatest help you can do to yourself.”

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