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What women want

Mano Bhakthavatchalam was recently honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts to empower less privileged women



Committed to a cause Mano Bhakthavatchalam

When being associated with social causes is often a favourite pastime of the rich and famous, when words speak louder than action, well known social activist Mano Bhakthavatchalam feels quite uncomfortable to talk about herself. For the past 55 years, she has been silently and steadfastly working to empower under-privileged women. Members of the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS) recently honoured her with the Lifetime Achievement Award on her 75th birthday.

Looking at her thin frame you wonder where she derives the energy from to involve herself in so many activities. Quite obviously, more than physical strength, it's will power that keeps her going. When you try to draw her attention to the fact, she dismisses it with a childlike smile saying, "It is nothing extraordinary." She has lost count of her achievements and when you insist on knowing them, she tells a co-worker to pull out a copy of her bio-data from a file and pass it on to you.

Mano's foray into social work started at a very young age. "In 1940, after completing my B.A Honours in Economics from the Presidency College I decided to do social work. I told my parents about it and they did not object. They would have hardly realised that it was going to be a life-long commitment."

Hailing from a reputed business family (owners of Curzon & Co.) that was known for its philanthropic bent of mind, Mano's financial requirements to pursue causes close to her heart were met partly by the family kitty. After marriage, her in-laws and husband too gave her the space and support to continue with her work. "Perhaps, that is why I could talk of empowering women at a time when it was not fashionable to do so," she says.

Focus on literacy

"I started by focussing on literacy and self-reliance programmes. These two are the prerequisites to make a difference to the plight of women.

Even today the aim of the Women's Voluntary Services remains the same — education and economic independence. We undertake vocational training programmes for those living in low income groups and impart free training in tailoring and typewriting. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the self-help groups formed in many slums and TNSCB colonies, women get the required funds and guidance to market their vocational skills. We also initiate awareness drives on health, hygiene, bringing up children, AIDS and family planning. "

Apart from heading the WVS, Mano is chairperson of the governing body of the National Training College for Women in Chennai, treasurer of the National Education Society, secretary of the State Committee for Eradication of Illiteracy among Women, member in-charge of projects of the Inner Wheel Club, honorary secretary Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and member, executive committee of the University Women's Association of Madras, of which she is the co-founder. She has held many important positions at the state and the national level. With a doctorate from Diandra University, Italy, Mano has presented papers on women's issues at international conferences.

With her pragmatic approach and positive outlook, Mano Bhakthavatchalam is determined to help women fight male oppression and live life on their own terms.

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN

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