Blazing the Trail

Archana Biswas
The incredible story of Archana Biswas’s phenomenal success in organising 25000 women under the banner of Joyoti Society, a collective she founded 18 years ago.

Starting as a small sapling back in 2002, Joyoti Society, a non-government organisation for women and children’s welfare has become a behemoth today. In its journey of 18 years, the organisation grew from strength to strength thanks to the visionary leadership of Archana Biswas, who started it with a view to enhancing socio-economic dignity and establishing the legal rights of women. Today with 25000 members under its banner, the organisation has not only help break many glass ceilings but also enabled people to attain a better life which was beyond imagination for them once.

Archana was one of the seven children of a farmer family where hardship was a regular ordeal. “My mother of very fond of sarees having a red border and she was often berated by my grandmother for having such a fascination. I have seen her being abused and this gave me the feeling that one day I want to do something that can put, an end to such tortures on women. My paternal uncle’s affiliation with politics introduced me to the ideologies of communism. Eventually, I got introduced to Jagarani Chakra Foundation and started working for them,” she recalls how she was introduced into the world of development activism.

A stint of 30 years with the national social welfare organisation along with her experience of working with Naripokkho since 1983, enabled her to work with the grassroots people and taught her many things. One of the key lessons she learned was for any organisation, being dependent on a donor is not a good idea. “The donors often pull off their support quoting the lack of budget, which can be detrimental for the organisation,” she shares her two cents. This is why while setting up Joyoti Society she didn’t take any financial help from any donor. Rather the members supported each other with small sums of money.

Archana knew from the beginning that her organisation will have to have a sustainable revenue model and to ensure that she ventured into the world of entrepreneurship. Joyoti Society today boasts of 25000 members and many small and medium enterprises like Joyoti Fast Food shop, Chinese restaurant and pizza store, beauty parlour, fitness centre, conference room, community centre are to name a few. Setting up such small enterprises didn’t require a huge ca[pital but worked excellently as we could employ women in those ventures. So far 600 women are working here. “The all-women management was a concept that the local religious leaders despised in the beginning but the management committee didn’t give in to any sort of fear,” she claims. Families which were earlier live from hand to mouth in the slums now are self-reliant with the help of this society. Among many of their achievements, one project is close to her heart and that is providing financial and healthcare support to 200 women who are in their 60s and above.

“We have many feminist organisations but women of that age are overlooked in almost everyone’s agenda. Many of these women, who are widows are abandoned by their children and have no one to look them after, ” Archana explicates upon the social safety issue of elderly women.

Archana is also known for her epoch-making role in organising the first-ever marathon of the country where only women participated. It was 2005 when fundamentalism was slowly trying to leach into the very fabric of our society. “It became a headache for all citizens who love the secular nature of our people. I thought why not organise something that will show the power of solidarity? A marathon will also give women the opportunity to come out of their comfort zone and try something new and will educate them about the importance of their healthcare needs,” Archana states in the context of the running competition. “In the beginning, it seemed like a mammoth task but when we could manage small fees of 5 takas from 552 women each, we realised this is going to be a successful event., she adds. She is thankful that while many people from her known neighbourhood discouraged her, the local sports office gave the logistic support. The event was sponsored by WHO and a local NGO. The presence of a huge number of journalists from both print and electronic media cheered up the participants.

For Archana feminism is all about establishing the fundamental rights of women in line with how our society has evolved over time. One must be given all the opportunities to accomplish financial freedom. At the same time, one must enjoy the freedom to make her own life choices. She believes that family is a very important space for a woman and that is where we must create enabling space for one to thrive. Regarding the alarming statistic which indicates the number of divorces increasing by leaps and bounds, Archana thinks the cases were always there, but people used to be ashamed of talking about such incidents. “But now, women are far more aware of their rights and they just don’t want to remain under any oppression; education and hard work are providing them with the opportunity to have more confidence to come out of an abusive or unhappy marriage,” she explains her way of thinking about the topic. Archana wants to young women of tomorrow to be more aware of their mental wellness. “Women should equip themselves with self-defence techniques to keep themselves safe and this will give them the confidence to try out new frontiers,” Archana concludes.