Irula Tribe Women’s Welfare Society

      This acronym stands for the Irula Tribe Women’s Welfare Society. (The name is in the process of being changed, to eliminate the word “tribe” which has slightly negative connotations for some people). It was started and registered in ’86, five years after the foundation of the snake-catchers’ society. Rom Whitaker and Zai Whitaker felt that there was a need for a women’s organisation. Many Irula women are fine vaidyars (herbal doctors); many of them had patients, both Irula and non-Irula, who came from long distances to consult them. Some of the common cases involved filariasis or elephantiasis, skin ailments and diseases, and the after-effects of snakebite. This was certainly a skill that could be developed and marketed. There were others, such as afforestation. There were two other major incentives in the forming of the ITWWS: the documentation of Irula knowledge and culture (which is fast disappearing) and, perhaps most importantly, creating a strong leadership among Irula women.

Much has happened in these 25 years. The ITWWS center, initially a collection of huts, is now an eight acre campus with a beautiful central building designed by an innovative German architect. Its social and environmental projects have earned several awards, Indian and international. The social campaigns initiated by its staff and members have brought official and public attention to issues such as bonded labour, literacy, violence against women and deforestation. The school drop-out rate is almost zero, and there are 16 literacy centers, several Irula product outlets, and regular training programs on issues related to empowerment.

Much has been achieved in concrete terms, which can be seen, evaluated, documented. But the most important achievement of the ITWWS is one that is more difficult to see; in fact it is invisible to all except those who have worked alongside the Irulas since the beginning. Because then, an Irula woman would practically shudder at the sight of a traffic policeman. Today, she knocks on the door of the district collector, and demands an explanation for dire official apathy related to land rights, or discrimination, or widows’ pensions. This is called empowerment.

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