At first sight, she may seem frail and even a little sickly, but this gutsy lady is truly a woman of substance. For when a 59-year-old illiterate Dalit woman from a non-descript village transcends the shackles of traditions and addresses the United Nations, history is written.
Girija Devi belongs to the Mushar community from a dingy village called Bhirkhia-Chipulia in Bihar's Motihari district. Her community has been the subject of talk recently, when it was discovered that they are so named because they eat rats. But Girija's unusual taste for rodents is not what caught New York's fancy. It was her courage to tame the abusive men in her village who turned up drunk every evening and mercilessly battered their wives. What is even more notable about Girija's crusade is that it began with her own home, against her own husband.
Life has changed for the once demure housewife who suffered humiliation at the hands of the male members of her family, including her husband Singheshwar Manjhi. The day she received the invitation from UN to address the 15th session of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Girija's husband saw red and told her in clear terms that in no way was she to break tradition and leave the confines of her hut. To drive home the point, he pounced on her and began beating her mercilessly. That day, Girija picked up a heavy lathi and hit him right back.
The very next day, journalists thronged the village in hordes, all for a glimpse of the woman whose courage changed the lives of her community, and to inspire others with her success story. Girija, a mother of four and a trained midwife, was informed of the UN invite by Action Aid, an NGO with which her 'Mushar Vikas Manch', which she formed six years ago, works in close cooperation to fight against alcoholism. For a woman who could barely sign and who spoke only in Bhojpuri, this news was literally a bolt from the blue. She was understandably nervous, but saw it as an opportunity to raise her voice on a global scale. Her grit finds a testimony in Jaimangal Manjhi, an ex-drunkard and ex-wife-beater, who extols Girija as the beacon of his life that had been blinded by toddy and other distilled liquor.
Men in this village, until some time back, used to return home from work drunk, having spent the day's entire earnings on alcohol, forcing the children to sleep on empty stomachs. Then Girija gathered the members of her Mushar Vikas Manch, men and women alike, and handed them lathis, one of which had once put an end to her own abused life. Together, this motley gang would crack down on homes where they heard a woman scream. The cause of the scream - a violent husband or cruel in-laws, sometimes even sons - would be tonsured, adorned with a garland of the shabbiest and stinkiest chappals, and paraded round the village on a donkey. The fish would catch the bait - hook, line and sinker.
It would be an insult to Girija's efforts if we were to think this massive upheaval of Bhirkhia-Chipulia happened overnight or even in a matter of days. Her method of checking the bacchanalian conduct of the menfolk did not go down well with many, but the aggressive style of her Manch gang was the proverbial zipper on their loud mouths. Many stopped drinking out of sheer fear of humiliation, and once they did, their eyes opened to the dark shadows under their wives' and children's eyes. In fact, such was the revolution Girija introduced to her Manch loyalists that two of her associates registered FIRs against their husbands for misbehaving with them under the influence of liquor.
The story was never intended to end the day Girija stood proudly at the dias in New York and addressed a multi-cultural and multi-national gathering in February 2006. She was elected representative of Ward No. 3 of the local Gram Panchayat for the next five years. She diversified the activities of her Manch with the help of local NGOs and now fights for minimum wages for landless farmers. Her life may resemble a fairy-tale, but the challenges of her responsibilities are real and many. She may have reined in the wayward men of her community, but her international recognition has not helped in her persuasion of the local administration to get homes in her village repaired for ill weather. Girija was never one to give up hope; she proved that the day she picked a lathi to hit her abusive husband back.
Despite her meaty and diverse portfolio, her pet project remains deterrence on marital violence and irresponsible drinking. "I will never allow men to drink beyond their capacities. But I will also never allow women to ruin their lives and those of their children for men who beat them." The voice that galvanised a sleepy hamlet in Bihar and could be heard as far as New York is no less than the sunshine that burns up an arrogant sun to provide warmth and hope to life on earth.