She is one of the two 2011 Ramon Magsaysay awardees from India. This is what the citation for Nileema Mishra by Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation reads:
India's rise as an economic power has not erased the blight of poverty on millions of its citizens. While numerous organizations wage war against poverty, still a huge population remains either unreached or poorly served. More men and women, particularly the young, are needed to respond to this formidable social divide. Young, committed leaders like Nileema Mishra.
Nileema was born to a middle-class family in the village of Bahadarpur, Maharashtra. With a master's degree in clinical psychology, she could have gone on to a comfortable life as an urban professional. But even as a child Nileema was sensitive to the crippling poverty in her village. When she was only thirteen, she told friends that she had made up her mind she would not marry, so she could devote her whole life to helping the poor. This was not merely a young girl's romantic fancy, as subsequent events would show.
Five years after finishing her studies in 1995, Nileema returned to her village to organize Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan (BNGVN), or Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center, named after an Anglo-Irish missionary who devoted her life to helping Indian women of all castes. BNGVN did not begin with a development model in mind, except the conviction that the community's problems must be addressed from within the village itself. Inspired by Gandhi's vision of a self-sufficient, prosperous village, Nileema decided that her group would not work out of the priorities of donors, or compete for government projects.. People would identify their own problems and find the solutions. In her determined manner, Nileema repeatedly told village women who confided their problems to her: "Don't despair, we shall find a way."
And they did find the ways. Starting with a self-help group of only fourteen women, other self-help groups followed, engaging in micro credit and such income-generating activities as the production of food products and distinctive export quality quilts. BNGVN enabled these changes by training women in production, marketing, accounting, and computer literacy. Inspired by Nileema, the women went on to build a warehouse so they could procure supplies in bulk at better prices, and formed an association that now has outlets for its products in four districts of the state. Traditionally confined to the home, these village women have become productive, articulate, and confident in their ability to think for themselves.
But the men in the villages, too, have their problems. Driven by extreme economic distress, a shocking wave of farmers' suicides struck Maharashtra. Nileema and her group responded by raising their work to the level of the village itself. BNGVN helped create a village revolving fund that provided loans for farm inputs and emergency needs; they addressed health problems by building over 300 private and communal toilets; and activated a village assembly to discuss and resolve local needs.
The success of Bahadarpur inspired Nileema to expand her work. In less than ten years, BNGVN has formed 1,800 selfhelp groups in 200 villages across Maharashtra. Its microcredit program has caused to be distributed the equivalent of US$5 million, with a hundred-percent loan recovery rate. But the most critical change has taken place in the villagers' sense of themselves, their newfound confidence that they need not despair, that, working together, they will find a way. For Nileema, now 39 years old, the way has not been easy. She has had to battle frustration and failure, to find which approaches work best for the village. But she remains resolute and passionate about her work. Asked what she speaks of the villagers: "I'm very thankful to them. They are ready to improve themselves."
In electing Nileema Mishra to receive the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her purpose-driven zeal to live and work tirelessly with villagers in Maharashtra, India, organizing them to successfully address both their aspirations and their adversities through collective action and heightened confidence in their potential to improve their own lives.
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