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Madhavi Kukreja is taking the lowest rung in Uttar Pradesh’s feudal system—lower-caste, Dalit women—and turning them into respected and influential “instruments of development” for the entire village. Madhvi’s key insight is using the promise of development to force the higher castes, especially men, to acknowledge and respect these women, thereby completely changing the power dynamics in UP’s patriarchal society.

This profile below was prepared when Madhavi Kuckreja was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Madhavi Kukreja is taking the lowest rung in Uttar Pradesh’s feudal system—lower-caste, Dalit women—and turning them into respected and influential “instruments of development” for the entire village. Madhvi’s key insight is using the promise of development to force the higher castes, especially men, to acknowledge and respect these women, thereby completely changing the power dynamics in UP’s patriarchal society.


Madhavi’s organization, Vanangana, is operating in Chitrakoot, UP,—a caste-dominated, pilgrimage site. Madhavi is combating the grave and pervasive problem of violence against women by making Dalit women an important part of village development and thus ensuring their safety as well as an influential position in the social ladder. This change in a woman’s role in society, essentially affected by developmental needs, is then ingeniously used to address issues like gender-based discrimination, sexual abuse, caste-based atrocities, untouchability, and domestic violence.

By creating platforms that allow women from the higher castes and the lower Dalit castes to interact with each other, Vanangana enables them to identify common problems, confront them through collective action, and demonstrate the impact to the entire community. In all efforts to access justice, she allows leadership to emerge from within the communities. Working strictly within the socioeconomic framework, she is uncompromising about the judicial system, and promotes a multilayered application of the law, which cuts across social hierarchies.

Madhavi believes that women’s empowerment needs to happen at the same pace as development, for unless both processes happen simultaneously social changes can never be achieved. To ensure synergistic progress, she is establishing violence against women as a serious development issue in the context of political action and state response and is working in partnership with the entire state development machinery.


Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has the highest number of human rights violations cases in the country. These abuses are rooted in the state’s feudal social structure. Despite the fact that untouchability, a manifestation of caste-based discrimination, was abolished nationally in 1950, segregation on the basis of caste and religion is very deeply entrenched in UP. Caste-based feuds, born often out of economic differences and sustained over generations, have bred a pervasive culture of intense violence and lawlessness. Chitrakoot, in the Banda district of UP, is a hotbed of such feudal violence. Developmentally, Chitrakoot is caught in a time warp: Just 35 percent of Chitrakoot has electricity, less than 5 percent of its citizens read newspapers. There are no televisions, no telephones, and no industrial units in the area. In addition there are hardly any roads and during the monsoon, the region is cut off from the rest of the state.

Violence and exploitation—public and domestic, social and economic—are experienced in double measure by low caste and tribal women, who occupy the bottom rung of all three hierarchies (class, caste and gender). Violence against women in the region usually manifests itself through rape, public humiliation, or honor killings. Another common punishment for breaking community rules that is also used simply for vengeance is public stripping and parading of women. Violence can also take an extreme form with lynchin of women labeled as witches or dayans. Some statistics report that, on an average, three Dalit women are raped every day. Domestic violence however, cuts through religious, caste and class boundaries—dowry-related death caused by “accidental” burning of women is common in higher castes as well. Moreover, when women gain property rights—usually after being widowed—they become targets of violence by members of the family or community. Therefore, instead of being economically empowering, property is itself a reason for violence against women.

The very process of women’s empowerment leads to more violence as men react in anger to challenges to the social structure. The patriarchal set-up ensures that instances of violence are not often brought to light since speaking out against abuse is seen as a slur on family honor. In rare cases when women do speak up, they are intimidated or forcefully hushed up. The rightist politics of the state has also increased the vulnerability of women. Violence against women is usually treated as a marginal issue by the law-enforcement machinery. Often, police and local officials are driven by caste biases themselves and lack awareness of legal safeguards for the protection of women.


Rather than plunging straight into the sensitive issue of violence against women, Madhavi chose to use as an entry point a basic necessity for the entire community: water. This is an issue that significantly affects the lives of marginalized women in the remotest areas of Banda district where Chitrakoot is located. The government-installed tubewells and hand pumps had all dried up and higher caste communities refused to share their water resources with the Dalits for fear of contamination. Women from tribal and Dalit communities had to walk miles to fetch water everyday. Until 1998, all water sources were under the jurisdiction of the government, and even hand pumps could not be repaired privately or without government permission. Government mechanics usually neglected these villages’ requests for repair and maintenance.

Madhavihad already started self-help collectives among the Dalit women. Now the idea came from within these collectives to push for a policy change so that women could be trained as mechanics and repair the water pumps themselves. After intensive lobbying with the local government, for which the women had to travel a distance of 80 kilometers to the district headquarters, they got the authorities to agree to run a training program; UNICEF pitched in with the tool kits. Forty-five illiterate Dalit women were trained as hand pump mechanics, and then worked with the local water board for five years, supervising 1,000 pumps in the area. The training program had many ripple effects. It challenged local gender equations since women were trained by men, in a culture that frowns upon interaction with males outside the family fold. Also, the higher castes had no other option but to allow the ‘untouchable’ women to repair their pumps, breaking a huge taboo of lower castes ‘contaminating’ water sources. The women won respect and social standing because of their status as government-appointed mechanics. They went on to train 800 other mechanics, mostly men from higher castes, who resisted at first, but in the end accepted these women as teachers. The program resulted in a shift in policy and instead of state governments, today the local governing Panchayat is the controlling authority for water and other issues. Vanangana was chosen for the World Bank-aided Swajal project to solve the water problems in the hills and the dry Bundelkhand area of Madhya Pradesh. Women were also trained as masons and through government projects, have so far built 58 houses.

The savings group became a platform to introduce topics of women’s roles in social, political, and economic transactions. Stories of violence began to pour in from Dalit women as well as cases reported by mechanics who went to work in upper-caste households. Leadership and a course of action emerged from among the women themselves. Some of them gathered news and operated as first information reporters. Awareness was created by staging plays and skits on violence against women that engaged the audience in discussions. Villagers formed support groups bringing new cases of violence to the light. The Dalit women felt they were ready to start intervention in specific cases: one example was of 800 Dalit women taking out a silent march in protest against the death of an upper-caste woman due to violence. Public hearings and silent marches were organized till the authorities were forced to prosecute the husband.

The campaign against violence continues with the collectives monitoring the number of deaths and investigating first before moving in with any kind of intervention. Communities are now aware of the law and systems of redress, and from the earlier 20-30 reported cases of deaths a year, the number has jumped to 120 a year. Similarly, the number of reported cases of domestic violence has increased to 400 a year. The one-point agenda of the whole campaign is that the law must play its course. Compromises in the form of pay-offs and compensation are now made public knowledge, making evasion all the more difficult. The state too was made aware of its own commitments. In cases of domestic violence, Vanangana first initiates a process of counseling, mediation and problem-solving exercises through the groups. Legal action is taken only when the victim is ready to do so. Recently a partnership has been formed with the police to carry out reconciliations, while a group of lawyers give pro-bono service.

Madhavi has also garnered adequate media attention to her campaigns, which helps put the issue on state and at times, national agendas. One such case was the explosive incident of child sexual abuse and incest, involving an upper caste Brahmin and his 11-year-old daughter. The mother came to Vanangana and agreed to go public with her complaint, thereby taking the movement to a national scale. For the first time, one of the least documented and talked about violations was thrown open for public debate. Madhavi’s strategy was to get visibility and make incest a real issue. Sit-in demonstrations, street theater, pictorial depictions using local folk-art, and hunger strikes, created opportunities for dialogue. Her support base swelled with people coming forward to share personal experiences before a thousands-strong audience. The innovation of the campaign lay in that it focused attention not only on incest and sexual abuse but also on rehabilitation, security, mental health of survivors, and the role of civil society and citizen sector organizations. Public hearings attended by three to four thousand women were held in strategic locations including the state capital, Lucknow. The support groups included not only upper-caste communities but also the business classes who came forward with free provisions for demonstrators. The strategy was not to critique the institution of the family, but to limit the argument to “what happens if the family becomes an undemocratic institution.”

Madhavi’s other strategies include a catering service run by Dalit women, covertly using food to break age-old caste barriers and extracurricular programs for women school dropouts. Except for herself and another member, Madhavi’s organization is made up entirely of Dalit women. She has also started making initial inroads into Muslim communities with the view to address issues of violence and rights in marriage, not only within the community but between Hindu and Muslim communities as a whole.

Madhvi’s aim now is to affect policy changes so that the state begins to address issues of violence against women in a more focused, streamlined manner. She is on the board of most government development and women-centric programs as well as that of other organizations working in the field. The valuable lessons derived from her work in Chitrakoot and beyond are the focus of much attention at the national level with her moves to integrate a campaign against violence with the country’s development agenda. She has launched a Dalit network to aid in the process and also WAMA (Women’s Association for Mobilization and Action), to enable a collective sharing of the different complexities that partners working with women’s rights in other parts of the country face.


Born into an upper middle-class family, Madhavi went to school under the tutelage of Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril, who was then the principal of Loreto House. Madhavi acknowledges her education, especially her involvement with Sister Cyril’s twinning program (which encourages privileged children to teach and interact with underprivileged children), as being largely responsible for her choice of vocation.

During the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi, where she was pursuing an undergraduate degree, Madhavi participated actively in an anti-riot, citizens mobilization organization, working in slums. After completing her masters in international politics from the New School of Social Research, New York, she worked on a Ford Foundation project on homelessness for six months. She then joined a public interest lawyer’s association in a coordinating role.

On her return to India, she joined a Delhi-based citizen sector organization that was the training coordinator of a women-centric government program in the small town of Karvi in Uttar Pradesh. When the organization withdrew after a year, Madhavi stayed on to work with the government program. After the mandate changed, Madhavi decided to continue work on her own and launched Vanangana in 1994.

Madhavi is a single parent and lives with her eight-year-old son, Armaan.