Date of Birth: January 3, 1831
Place of Birth: Naigaon, British India
Death: March 10, 1897
Place of Death: Pune, Maharashtra, British India
Husband: Jyotiba Phule
Organisations: Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, Satyashodhak Samaj, Mahila Seva Mandal
Movement: Women Education and Empowerment, Social Reform Movement
Savitribai Jyotirao Phule was a prominent Indian social reformer, educationist and poet who played an instrumental role in women education and empowerment during the nineteenth century. Counted among few literate women of those times, Savitribai is credited for founding the first girl’s school in Pune in Bhide Wada with her husband Jyotirao Phule. She took great effort towards educating and emancipating child widows, campaigned against child marriage and sati pratha, and advocated for widow remarriage. A leading figure of Maharashtra’s social reform movement, she is considered an icon of Dalit Mang caste along with likes of B. R. Ambedkar and Annabhau Sathe. She campaigned against untouchability and worked actively in abolishing caste and gender based discrimination.
Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831, in Naigaon (presently in Satara district) in British India in a farming family to Khandoji Neveshe Patil and Lakshmi as their eldest daughter. Girls in those days were married off early, so following the prevalent customs, the nine year old Savitribai was wedded to 12 years old Jyotirao Phule in 1840. Jyotirao went on to become a thinker, writer, social activist and anti-caste social reformer. He is counted among the leading figures of Maharashtra’s social reform movement. Savitribai’s education started after her marriage. It was her husband who taught her to read and write after he saw her eagerness to learn and educate herself. She cleared third and fourth year examination from a normal school and became passionate about teaching. She took training at Ms Farar’s Institution in Ahmednagar. Jyotirao stood firmly by the side of Savitribai in all her social endeavours.
Role in Women Education & Empowerment
The first indigenously-run school for girls in Pune (at that time Poona) was started by Jyotirao and Savitribai in 1848 when the latter was still in her teens. Although they were ostracized by both family and community for this step, the resolute couple was given shelter by a friend Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Sheikh, who also gave the Phule couple place in their premises to start the school. Savitribai became the first teacher of the school. Jyotirao and Savitribai later started schools for children from the Mang and Mahar castes, who were regarded as untouchables. Three Phule schools were in operation in 1852. On November 16 that year, the British government honoured the Phule family for their contributions in the field of education while Savitribai was named the best teacher. That year she also started the Mahila Seva Mandal with the objective of creating awareness among women regarding their rights, dignity and other social issues. She was successful in organising a barbers strike in Mumbai and Pune to oppose the prevailing custom of shaving heads of widows.
All the three schools run by the Phules were closed by 1858. There were many reasons for this, including drying up of private European donations post the Indian Rebellion of 1857, resignation of Jyotirao from the school management committee due to difference of opinion on curriculum, and withdrawal of support from the government. Undeterred by the circumstances Jyotirao and Savitribai along with Fatima Sheikh, took charge of educating people from the oppressed communities as well. Over the years, Savitribai opened 18 schools and taught children from different castes. Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh began teaching women as well as other people from downtrodden castes. This was not taken well by many, particularly the upper caste of Pune, who were against Dalits education. Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh were threatened by the locals and were also harassed and humiliated socially. Cow dung, mud and stones were thrown at Savitribai when she walked towards the school. However, such atrocities could not discourage the determined Savitribai from her goal and she would carry two saris. Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh were later joined by Saguna Bai who also eventually became a leader in the education movement. Meanwhile, a night school was also opened by the Phule couple in 1855 for agriculturist and labourers so that they can work in daytime and attend school at night.
To check the school dropout rate, Savitribai started the practice of giving stipends to children for attending school. She remained an inspiration for the young girls she taught. She encouraged them to take up activities like writing and painting. One of the essays written by a student of Savitribai called Mukta Salve became the face of Dalit feminism and literature during that period. She conducted parent-teacher meetings at regular intervals to create awareness among parents on the significance of education so that they send their children to school regularly.
In 1863, Jyotirao and Savitribai also started a care center called ‘Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha,’ possibly the first ever infanticide prohibition home founded in India. It was set up so that pregnant Brahmin widows and rape victims can deliver their children in a safe and secure place thus preventing the killing of widows as well as reducing the rate of infanticide. In 1874, Jyotirao and Savitribai, who were otherwise issueless, went on to adopt a child from a Brahmin widow called Kashibai thus sending a strong message to the progressive people of the society. The adopted son, Yashavantrao, grew up to become a doctor.
While Jyotirao advocated widow remarriage, Savitribai worked tirelessly against social evils like child marriage and sati pratha, two of the most sensitive social issues that were gradually weakening the very existence of women. She also made effort in bringing the child widows into mainstream by educating and empowering them and advocated for their re-marriage. Such pursuits also met with strong resistance from the conservative upper caste society.
She worked in tandem with her husband in the latter’s efforts in eradicating the custom of untouchability and the caste system, garnering equal rights for people of lower castes, and reform of the Hindu family life. The couple opened a well in their house for the untouchables during an era when the shadow of an untouchable was regarded as impure and people were reluctant to even offer water to the thirsty untouchables.
She was also associated with a social reform society called ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ founded by Jyotirao on September 24, 1873 in Pune. The objective of the samaj, which included Muslims, Non-Brahman, Brahmans, and government officials as members, was to free women, Shudra, Dalit and other less privileged ones from getting oppressed and exploited. The couple arranged minimum cost marriages in the samaj sans any priest or any dowry. Both brides and grooms took pledges in such marriages that amounted to their wedding vows. Savitribai worked as head of its women’s section and following the demise of her husband on November 28, 1890, she became the chairperson of the samaj. Savitribai carried forward the work of her husband through the samaj leading it till her last breath.
She and her husband worked dauntlessly during the famines starting from 1876. They not only distributed free food in different areas but also launched 52 free food hostels in Maharashtra. Savitribai also persuaded the British government to initiate relief work during the 1897 draught.
The educationist and social activist also raised her voice against caste and gender discrimination. Kavya Phule (1934) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1982) are compilation books of her poems.
Her adopted son Yashwantrao served the people of his area as a doctor. When the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic plague badly affected the area around Nallaspora, Maharastra in 1897, the courageous Savitribai and Yashwantrao opened a clinic at outskirts of Pune to treat the patients infected by the disease. She brought the patients to the clinic where her son treated them while she took care of them. In course of time, she contracted the disease while serving the patients and succumbed to it on March 10, 1897.
The relentless efforts of Savitribai in curbing the age-old evils of society and the rich legacy of good reforms left behind by her continues to inspire generations. Her reformative works have been recognised over the years. A memorial was created in her honour by the Pune City Corporation in 1983. India Post released a stamp in her honour on March 10, 1998. The University of Pune was renamed after her in 2015 as Savitribai Phule Pune University. Search engine Google commemorated her 186th birth anniversary on January 3, 2017, with a Google doodle.
The Savitribai Phule award is awarded to women social reformers in Maharashtra.