Dr. Natesan Burnad Fatima is the founder and Executive Director of the Society for Rural Education and Development (SRED) has been working among the Dalit (untouchable) community in Tamilnadu, India for the past 37 years. She has become a leader in the social movement seeking greater economic opportunity and political influence for these largely landless and economically backward people and has been especially active in organizing Dalit women. SRED, under her leadership documents and fights against human rights abuses; from police brutality to the assassination of Dalit women; from social and economic exclusion to abject poverty.
SRED mobilizes Dalit women, unorganized workers, farmers, sex workers and Mathamma women who are dedicated to temples to stand up against Human Right violations and gain their Rights. To achieve this consistent fieldwork, capacity building and legal assistance are carried out at the grass root level.
SRED has promoted people’s movements led by the respective communities. They are Rural Women’s liberation Movement, Rural Workers’ Movement and Mathamma Liberation Movement which work actively on issues of respective communities. SRED has also capacitated many women activists and organizations to address issues and work towards policy reforms.
Tamilnadu Women’s Forum does capacity building for activists and organizations from allover the state. It addresses issues of women, carries out consultative processes and advocates for policy reforms.
Similarly Tamilnadu Dalit Women’s movement as a state level organization mobilizes and advocates for Dalit women’s issues.
Women’s coalition for Change is a collective of individual women and organizations is an attempt to organize women across the sectors to address issues and for policy reforms.
SRED also facilitated the State Alliance for People’s Movement which fights for land Rights, safeguarding natural resources, land rights and against eviction of people in the name of development.
Outside India, Fatima has become an international leader in the effort to end institutionalized discrimination against the world’s most socially marginalized citizens the Dalits. Many times it involves the risk of facing stiff opposition at various levels.
Born on 19th March,1952 at Arakkonam, Vellore District. She is 64 years old now.Her father was a school teacher and her mother a home maker. She has four sisters and three brothers. Her inspiration and dedication came from her father who was not only a teacher in profession but also a strong believer in social service and justice. She was drawn to the idea of working among the economically and socially backward people living in rural areas.
As a child Fatima Burnad took up the issue of an 11 year old girl who was severely tortured and beaten up. Fatima complained to the police about the injustice done to the little girl. All this she did when she was 11 years. The girl was taken away from her employers’, who were not even reprimanded. Burnad was so outraged that she wrote up a petition of protest, collected signatures around the neighborhood, and presented it to the police.
For the past 37 years Burnad, has worked to end India’s caste system and discrimination against the Dalit and tribal people. Those groups, which make up 24 percent of India’s population, are routinely excluded and marginalized. Affirmative action has led to educational opportunities, says Fatima. But, despite degrees and credentials, they are denied interviews, not to mention actual employment in government and private sectors.
Fatima has been facing difficulties in various levels- particularly with patriarchy in community level as well as oppression in gendered/ casteist politics. For instance, when SRED exposed the issue of Mathamma, women who are dedicated to temple, made to dance in temples and exploited sexually. Fatima and SRED faced harassment from Dalit men in the community. Also, she got criticised from local political leaders who always aim at degrading feminists.
When she and her colleagues addressed an issue of a rape of a three year old child the local leaders and the lawyers harassed them. There was a threat of arrest and none of the lawyers in that region came forward to work on a anticipatory bail. She and her colleagues had to fight a legal battle not to get arrested. They also fought for the justice and compensation of the three year old. This made Fathima to start facilitating a process of Tamilnadu Women’s Forum in 1991 which is a state level organization which carries out capacity building of activists and organizations and also works on issues and policy reforms.
She challenged the brutal attack on the Dalit women by the police during the communal violence on Dalits at Rajapalayam a southern town of the state. Fact finding mission was carried out on atrocities against Dalits. For the same the Fatima and her team members were meted out with harassment and indignities. The police detained and threatened to book them under false and frivolous cases. They disseminated the atrocities that was carried out on Dalits to National and International Human Rights bodies. This incident made her to begin the process of facilitating a state level movement “Tamilnadu Dalit Women’s Movement” which addresses Dalit women’s issues, mobilizes Dalit women leaders at state level and works on policy issues.
Fatima was under constant threat while addressing issues of custodial deaths and issues of sex workers. She raised the issue of unlawful occupying of the Government land by a powerful High Court judge and thereby denying poor Dalits of their water sources and grazing lands. The judge was supported by the Government forces and tried to arrest and attack the protesters lead by Fatima. The protesters planned to organize demonstration near the encroached land. Hence the police desperately looked out for Fatima’s arrest. Fatima and other campaigners got arrested. She fought a legal battle to remove the encroachment and mobilized people on the issue. Finally the verdict came in favour of people and the fencing was removed. The community started having access to the land.
Fatima is in the forefront in the struggles against conversion of agricultural lands into Special economic zones and lands to be given for subsidized rates for Multinational companies. She has been consistently fighting for land rights of Dalit women. She has used Right to Information Act as a tool to fight against land grabbing. She has promoted capacity building modules on organic farming and has also fought against using of pesticides and genetically modified crops.
She has successfully promoted women farmers’ collectives who have become land owners and trainers in organic farming. This is a mile stone in the history of Dalit Women. She and the movement constantly advocated for Food security Bill at the state and national levels. Fatima campaigns on the impact of climate change through conferences and protests. She also researched on climate change impacts, community perceptions and adaptation practices in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu, impact of Special Economic Zones and their consequential impact on the livelihood rights of the communities.
Fatima as a trainer has promoted modules on legal literacy, Prevention on Atrocities on SC/ST act and other legal mechanisms and leadership. She also runs three counselling centers to help women to redress the issues of violence against women. Faima and her movements trained rural ,Dalit women and motivated them to contest in elections of local governance and legislative assembly. The women who were elected for local governance made a qualitative change for their communities.
Fatima with her team publishes a monthly journal “magalir kural”(Women’s voice) in which articles of micro and macro issues are published.
Fatima writes in women and development journals and constantly travels to international fora to address the issues of Dalit Women and to facilitate policy processes.
Fatima is a grass root women activist. But she works extensively with international organizations for the cause of the oppressed women. Following are some of the positions. Core Committee Member for Asia Dan Church Aid (DCA), Steering Council Member of People’s Coalition of Food Sovereignty (PCFS) and Pesticide Action Network- Asia Pacific (PAN AP), Member of Board of Director Member, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)Tokyo, Former member of Regional Council, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and State Committee Member National Alliance of Women- NAWO India.
Fatima, who completed her graduation in India, has also acquired a degree at the University of Chicago and at the University of Sussex. She received an honorary Doctorate from the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and the Rashtriya Gaurav Award (National Honorary Award) from the International Friendship Fellowship in New Delhi. She also was honored as an “International Woman of the Year” (1997-98) by the International Biographical Center , Cambridge Uk. She also received the UNIFEM Germany award for Asia.
The cause of the marginalized rural Dalit women was put forth by her at the United Nations Durban Conference, WTO out of agriculture at Honk kong, RIO plus 20 at Rome, United Nations Women’s’ conference at Beijing. She also addressed issues faced by Asian Rural women at the Asian Rural women conference at Tamilnadu.
Fatima is a very important force in the Dalit Women’s Movement and her impact is there in women’s lives of this country.