MANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)–As she sits in her office in the prestigious Mangalore University in Karnataka, Sabitha Koraga, assistant professor of sociology, is well aware of how much she symbolizes for her Koraga community.
Oppressed by the upper caste for decades, the "untouchable" Koragas are among the most threatened of tribal groups in the south Indian state of Karnataka. Ousted from the forest lands their ancestors occupied for generations, many eke a living from weaving baskets made from bamboo and forest creepers. Under the pressure of heavy social and economic deprivation, the group is teetering on the brink of extinction. Its current population of 14,794, according to government statistics, is down from 16,071 in 2001.
"Education changed my life," says Sabitha. "It is a power that can change destinies, just as it has mine."
In December 2013, when she was appointed to her current academic post, Sabitha became the first person from her community to join the Mangalore University faculty. For a member of the Koraga, the achievement is so notable that the state government’s Department for Tribal Development has made a documentary on her achievements to screen in schools. Starting in July, the eight-minute film will be shown in all government schools and government-aided private schools as well as government colleges running undergraduate courses.
In February 2015, Sabitha was also given responsibility of the minority cell in the university. This means she has the power to provide necessary assistance to university students from economic and socially marginalized communities studying for their doctoral degree. In April, 62 students, including one from the Koraga community, were given laptops to facilitate their studies.
"I faced discrimination because of my caste in school," Sabitha says. "I had to pick up the teacher’s shoes. Many times I was made to stand outside the classroom. Many of my classmates were not allowed to sit with the other children and made to sit on the floor. Several schools have earmarked the last bench for Koraga students."
She credits the efforts of a nongovernmental group with helping her overcome her mistreatment. "After I worked with Samagra Grameena Ashrama and became more aware of my rights, I became confident enough to sit on the first bench when I returned to school."
Inhumane Tradition Ended
The Koraga Federation, a body comprising of members of the community and located in Udupi, one of the four districts inhabited by Sabitha’s community, also helped her fight, and ultimately end the inhumane tradition of anjal in her village. Under anjal, the upper castes require the Koragas to eat their leftovers or wear their old clothes in the belief that their troubles would thus be passed on.
"I still remember the humiliation while accompanying my mother to collect food leftovers," she says. "So I worked hard to persuade the community in my village to stop the practice. Although they have stopped it, they are still considered untouchables by the upper castes who do not allow them to enter their houses even today."
It would have been hard for Sabitha in 2002 to imagine herself ever becoming a figure of inspiration. That year her mother died and she had to drop out of school in her village of Gundmi in Udupi to look after her younger brother.
"I was in class 10 when my mother passed away," she says. "I could not continue education because I had to look after my brother."
But that same year she also met Ashok Shetty, a coordinator for Samagra Grameena Ashrama, an Udupi-based social organization working for over two decades on behalf of the Koragas. At the time, Shetty was running a campaign in partnership with ActionAid India, an antipoverty nonprofit working for the disempowered, to persuade drop outs from the community to return to education.
"I was looking for a way to earn money when I met Shetty," she says. "He asked me to work with the organization and help in the campaign to empower the Koraga community. He said if I wished to continue with my studies at any point in time, they would support me."
For the next 20 months, Sabitha worked to organize and inform self-help groups of women in the community. At the same time though, she yearned to resume her studies.
"When this became known to us, we encouraged her," says Shetty, who spoke with Women’s eNews in an interview at Mangalore University. "We had seen her dedication and the desire to study. So we offered all help, including a room in the office to study and tuition."
In 2005, she passed high school with flying colors, obtaining a first class.
No Looking Back
Then, there was no looking back.
In 2010, she ranked second at the end of her post-graduation from Mangalore University and also passed the tough National Eligibility Test, conducted by the Indian government’s University Grants Commission, which is mandatory for appointment as a university lecturer.
Sabitha also cleared the state eligibility test for the position of lecturer conducted by Mysore University in 2011.
She says her resolve to overcome her inferiority complex, as a Koraga, helped fuel her academic efforts.
In addition to support from nongovernmental advocacies and charities, the Koraga Federation helped her return to school and pursue higher studies. After she joined the three–year undergraduate course in the university, the federation, each of the three years, gave her an annual sum of about $150. It also helped apply for financial assistance from the government’s Integrated Tribal Development Project.
Aware of the ongoing stigma against her community, Sabitha is trying to help children in her community. She gives motivational talks and career guidance to students on the phone and keeps her door open for visits. As a member of the Koraga Federation, she also helps out whenever required to prevent children from dropping out. The dropout rate of children between 7 and 14 in disadvantaged groups is more than 30 percent, according to the government’s Tribal Development Department.
Hoping to shape state policies that will help her community going forward, Sabitha is completing her doctoral thesis on the evaluation of policies and programs in tribal development. "I want my research to further women’s empowerment in the Koraga community," she says.
Sabitha has found a staunch supporter in another star from her community. Dinakar Kenjoor, the second person after her from the Koraga community to clear the National Eligibility Test, is a guest faculty member in the department of commerce at Mangalore University.
Like Sabitha, 33-year-old Dinakar overcame several hurdles–including physical disability and caste discrimination–to reach this position. "Education helped me regain my confidence," he said in an interview at Mangalore University.
It also helped him find a life partner in Sabitha. In April, the couple got married. Sabitha, he says, is an inspiration for the entire community, but also for him.
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