The lady who put gender on her state's agenda
Sabina Martins knew she had finally won her family’s approval of her activism work when her mother came home one day and proudly announced that she got her passport after being given a run-around by officials for days. The words that intimidated them into action were, “Do you know who I am? I am Sabina Martins’ mother.”
The appreciation was long overdue but never dampened Sabina’s conviction. “I got a whacking once. My mother grounded me to the bed and said you are not going to go (to a protest event)… Sometimes when I came home late from meetings, my sister would not open the door saying, 'stay out, you're late,’ or put water in the rice, saying ‘if you don't get food, then next time you'll come home on time’.”
It was in circumstances like these that she founded Bailancho Saad (Women’s Wake Up Call), a non-funded volunteer collective, 25 years ago. Beginning at age 15 in the Progressive Students Union at college, Sabina’s resolve got stronger with instances of being knocked unconscious by a police baton, going on a hunger strike, or spending the night hiding out in the jungle to escape arrest.
The stitches were not got in vain though. “We fought for a women's police station and got it after 10 years. We fought for the women's commission and got it… Today, if gender is on the agenda in Goa, Bailancho Saad has had a significant role to play in that process.” But more than the tangible institutions created, Sabina feels that her greatest achievement is the sense of security women feel in Goa because of the various awareness-building activities they have carried out. “An 80-year-old lady called me up and said ‘Today, I did Bailancho Saad.’ I asked her what she meant and she said she protested outside the house of those who wanted to dispossess her of her own home and got her key back. To me, that is empowerment.”
Sabina explains that all their work began with women in distress approaching them for help, such as the lady who needed help requesting the court to grant her sewing machine from her former marital home, when our conversation began. “We take on individual cases and from these, you get insights into problems, lobby for policy changes, legal amendments, putting systems in place... There are issues like violence, bigamy, the impact of development, alcoholism, casinos, trafficking, sexual harassment at the workplace, single women, HIV positive women, orphans…”
In 2006, although Sabina was busy enough with Bailancho Saad, earning her living as a schoolteacher and pursuing a PhD in chemistry, she felt compelled to join others voicing their objections to a potentially disastrous Regional Plan. Public resentment had grown as corrupt government officials were allegedly taking bribes from wealthy builders to convert protected agricultural land into commercial land where they could build vacation homes for the urban rich.
“If you look at Goa, there are three parts - the coastal area, the main land and the hinterland. On the coast, you had five star hotels buying up land and blocking access to public beaches, in effect privatizing them. In the main land, you had Special Economic Zones (SEZs), (controlled from out of state) where local people would need a permit to go in. In the hinterland, you have the mining belt, where silt from iron and manganese mines entered people’s rice paddies so they lost their sustainable occupations. On the other hand, there was tourism. Goa has a topography that is the envy of most of the world, as well as great weather. Since the coastal areas got saturated, they started encroaching on eco-sensitive zones like the fields, hills and forests, water bodies… Finally, what will be left of Goa for the people?”
With this gift for putting Goa's issues into perspective, especially through a gender lens, she plugged into the movement which saw an historic turnout of 8000 people to the mass agitation called by the newly formed Goa Bachao Andolan or Save Goa campaign, under the leadership of a well-known doctor, Oscar Rebello and herself. Eventually the government buckled under the pressure, fearing backlash in the forthcoming elections and withdrew the Plan. “Now, rebuilding the plan is difficult. Throwing it out was easy. We're talking about transparency, participatory processes, equity and sustainable development. So we need all kinds of help to disseminate this information.”
Having recently started my own journey highlighting women’s rights issues in India, I ask Sabina what other women activists can learn from her experience. She cautions that it’s a long road ahead because although we feel empowered in our own spaces, gender sensitivity is still not there even in mixed-gender progressive circles. There were no women on the Regional Plan’s task force. Even though women were doing all the “donkeywork”, they were being subjugated in assistant’s roles. “If you look at photos from the agitations, you'll see a sea of women. But decision-making is still not a domain of women.”
Sabina has come a long way from earlier times when she had to resist family and social disapproval of her work. Today, her friends regard her family life as enviable. Her husband of 17 years, Subhas Naik George, is also an activist for workers rights. Nonetheless, her ongoing challenge is juggling priorities to balance work and personal time… “You infuse energy and spirit into a cause, if you yourself have it.”