#Personal Stories

Tribal Girl Goes From Athlete To Village Leader

Tribal Girl Becomes Village Leader
Bhagyashree Lekami was focused on entering the sports profession until the people in her village made her head of the panchayat. Now she tries to ensure her village progresses, from winning workers’ confidence to busting vaccine hesitancy.

I was a young tribal girl in a naxal-infested area of Maharashtra – Koti village of the Gadchiroli district.

My father was a school teacher and the only earning member in my family.

Of course he could afford the education of my elder brother only.

So I studied in an ashram school meant for the underprivileged.

That’s where I was introduced to sports.

I was blowing punches during my boxing practice when my village mukhiya (chief) called.

I assumed he was calling just to see how I was. So I was totally shocked when he said I was the gram sabha’s unanimous choice as the sarpanch (panchayat head).

For a young tribal girl this was a big deal.

Most people didn’t have the necessary qualifications or education. So I was their obvious choice.

Only a few months earlier – it was January 2019 –  I’d mustered the courage to tell my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in sports and joined a physical education course in the Chandrapur district.

I’d even cut my hair short to prove my point.

Sports made me feel confident and empowered.

I found a way to express myself.

But when you have a difficult childhood, you know the challenges people face.

So I thought I could use this opportunity to help them.

Becoming the sarpanch meant giving up sports and returning to my village. The choice was between my dreams and the dreams of my people. It was not at all easy to decide.

But I finally chose my people over my dreams.

When I went to submit my nomination form, the official threw it in my face, saying there was an age discrepancy – I was a fortnight short of turning 21, the minimum age for the post.

Tribal Girl Becomes Village Leader

But thankfully the tehsildar intervened and I became the sarpanch of the Koti panchayat in March 2019.

After assuming office, most of the workers in my village didn’t take me or my work seriously – they were much older than me, some even of my father’s age.

But applying the teamwork technique I learned in sports, I walked shoulder-to-shoulder without any hierarchy and gained their confidence.

For instance, kurma ghar (period home) is common here – a mud structure for women to stay in during menstruation. It often lacks basic facilities, like water, meaning unhygienic sanitation.

As health and hygiene are my priority, I distributed sanitary pads for free every month and educated the women on proper disposal. A government scheme helped us set up proper facilities to ensure hygiene.

But a bigger health concern awaited me. The pandemic!

This was only a year after I became the sarpanch. At first I struggled. We had to work hard to bust myths and misinformation. When villagers were skeptical of vaccines, I urged my parents to take the shots. It helped and the others followed.

Now we’re laying roads and starting work for piped water supply.

With about two years left as the sarpanch, I go around on my bike, pushing myself to do as much as I can for my people.

I was even chosen as a Tribal Leadership Fellow for the Tata Group, which gave me a chance to learn from other leaders. I’m inspired.

But sports or politics?

I’ve not decided yet. I’ve enrolled for a master’s in physical education. But life’s full of surprises. One call changed my life, so who knows what will happen next.

One thing, though, is certain. I’ll keep working for the people in my own capacity.

This story first appeared on Village Square, and is part of a series in the run-up to National Girl Child  Day, Jan 24, 2023, to highlight inspiring stories about the girls of rural India.

 

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