Paralysed below the waist, she moves around in a wheelchair. A deadly cancer attack made her life more miserable. Again, slipping on the floor broke her vertebral column and brought movements to a virtual halt. Despite all these odds, with an indefat igable spirit, she remains the moving force behind a voluntary organisation called Chalanam (motion). Committed to the cause of women and differently-abled children, it runs five special schools for mentally disabled children and a publishing house with more than 30 books to its credit. She herself has authored many of them. It also runs a number of projects for the empowerment of poor women. Fifteen years ago, her untiring efforts had brought a whole village into the world of letters. This is Kariveppil Rabia, a woman of outstanding grit and boundless energy with no parallels in her community or anywhere else.

In the early 1990s, the Kerala government launched the Total Literacy Campaign. Rabia was already running a small literacy centre in the verandah of her small house. Soon it became a part of the State literacy campaign and a role model for the whole State.

Unique method of teaching

The remarkable performance of her literacy centre caught the attention of the State authorities and the officials visited her classroom in June 1992. To their surprise, from an eight-year-old child to an 80-year-old, neo-literates were able to read and write within a few weeks of training at her classroom. They learnt not just the letters but basic science, mathematics, history and general knowledge through her unique style of participatory teaching.

Seizing the opportunity, she convinced the authorities about the pathetic conditions in her village. The village, with two hundred families, had no basic facilities like road, electricity and telephone and water connection. The then district collector immediately sanctioned a road and it was constructed within three days with the participation of the villagers. The one-and-a-half km road was aptly named Akshara (word) Road. Electricity, telephone, and water connection came to the village on a war footing. Her small literacy classroom had turned into a pivotal centre of social and economic development of the village, Vellilakkadu in Malappuram district in Kerala.

The heartfelt support of the poor villagers inspired her to launch the Chalanam. It has initiated a number of women empowerment programmes for neo-literates. A small-scale manufacturing unit, a neo-literate mahila samajam, and a reading room were the first one to start off. Apart from literacy activity, she took up various awareness programmes for villagers on alcoholism, dowry, superstition, and communalism. Counselling centres for women and children, school health clubs, employment training centres were set up. She could also achieve an emotional integration with the village folks as she gave counselling in family life and relations.

Wide recognition

News about her efforts crossed the boundaries of her small village when she won the National Youth Award in 1993. It was just the beginning. Awards and honours flowed one after another. She was the first recipient of Kannaki Sthree Sakthi award in 2000 instituted by the child welfare department of the government of India. She also won the Youth Volunteer against Poverty, jointly instituted by the Central Youth Affairs Ministry and UNDP in 2000. The Junior Chamber International selected her for the Ten Outstanding Young Indians award in 1999. Now she has more than a dozen awards in her kitty. Nehru Yuva Kendra Award, Bajaj Trust Award, Ramasramam Award, and State Literacy Samiti Award to name a few. A documentary film on her life, “Rabia”, has been translated into 14 languages and named the best educational, motivational, and instructional film in India.

A devoted Muslim, she ascribes the credit for her success to the Almighty. “He is the sole source of my energy, and I am bound to work for the awards in the life hereafter”, she asserts.

She recently published her memoirs, Mouna Nombarangal, and is now working on her autobiography. Afflicted with polio at the age of 12, Rabia continued her studies with sheer willpower, but was forced to give up after matriculation. However, she loved letters and became a voracious reader, which became the firm foundation for her later activities. Her deteriorating health did not come in the way of her struggles to lighten the life of poor villagers, predominantly Muslims and lower caste potters.


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