Humble Beginnings, Extraordinary Achievements

The CII Foundation’s Woman Exemplar Program celebrates the tireless sprit of women who have overcome grave personal challenges to do transformative community work, says Meher Pudumjee

It was awestruck by the aura and personality of Lata Mane when I first interacted with her. A valiant leader, Lata’s story of courage and struggle out of exploitation towards being a change-maker is extraordinary. As a member of the Steering Committee of the CII Foundation (CIIF) Woman Exemplar Program, I first met Lata at the award ceremony and later, at a capacity building workshop organized by the Foundation for its women exemplars in Delhi last year. The workshop was the first in a series of other capacity-building workshops, bringing together grassroot women exemplars across the country.

For me and the Thermax Group, social development is not just CSR, but a passion I have inherited. And women empowerment is not a choice, but an imperative. The CII Foundation has been promoting and enabling women empowerment, especially at the grassroots, through its unique CII Foundation Woman Exemplar Program. The Program celebrates the tireless spirit of women leaders at the grassroots, who have overcome grave personal challenges to do transformative work impacting communities and providing new paradigms for social development in three fields: education, health, and micro-enterprise.

It is heartbreaking to hear about the atrocities these women face every day. Yet, at the same time, these are inspirational stories of how sheer grit, courage, determination and a little support can help one transcend personal and social limitations. From modest backgrounds, the women exemplars have fought all odds to become leaders of change in their communities. I am privileged and humbled to be a part of this unique program.

Lata Mane, the CII Foundation Woman Exemplar of 2014 in the Health category, fought sexual exploitation and HIV to provide health and alternate livelihood support for female sex workers. At the age of 15, unable to bear the atrocities of her stepmother, Lata ran away from home in Karga, Karnataka. Working as a daily wage laborer in Maharashtra and Goa, she married a fellow worker at the age of 17, but he sold her to a brothel owner in Mumbai, who compelled her to enter in the sex trade.

In 2002, with support and encouragement from an NGO, Vijay Krida Mandal, Lata became an Outreach Worker, to create awareness on sexual and reproductive health and provide psychological support to female sex workers living with HIV/AIDS. To offset the low remuneration, she underwent training in perfume and jewelry-making, and started her own small enterprise. She set up a Self Help Group (SHG) involving other sex workers, encouraging them to quit sex work and choose alternative livelihood opportunities. Through this SHG, Lata procured a cleaning and waste collection contract from the municipal corporation.

Of the many accomplishments gathered by Lata, what unpressed me most is the fact that, after escaping from the flesh trade and establishing herself on the other side of the wall, she still retains sensitivity and empathy towards her peers. For her dedication to improving the conditions of the sex workers, she is locally known as ‘Ma’. Interestingly, many people in the area came to know her real name only when she received the CII Foundation Woman Exemplar Award in 2014!

Selected by an eminent panel from industry and the social sector, the awardees are shortlisted through a rigorous selection process, from hundreds of nominations received from various NGOs across the country. Since its inception in 2005, the program recognizes and felicitates the courage, conviction and compassion of exemplary women and empowers them further, through mentoring and capacity-building. Indeed, even the reputed NITI Aayog recognizes the exemplars through its Women Transforming India Award.

The acknowledgment and recognition is not just limited to awards. During one of our meetings, Lata shared that the recognition from CII Foundation has given her respect from the local community; government support to expand her work is now more forthcoming, and other sex workers are being encouraged to follow suit.

The Woman Exemplar Mentoring Program has helped Lata chart a business plan in perfumery, catering and sanitary napkins. She is extremely enthusiastic about her recent venture of selling low cost sanitary napkins, involving other women like her. An avid learner, Lata knows five different languages and is learning to speak and write English.

My long association with the CII Foundation Woman Exemplar Program has not only given me the opportunity to meet and recognize some real women heroes, but also given me incredible insights on dealing with arduous challenges and attaining new heights. Today, Lata Mane is a courageous and expressive woman, an ideal and inspiring example to her community. And I, like many others, continue to be inspired and humbled by her.


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