The role played by women in disasters, conflict and other situations of violence – be it as recipients of assistance or providers of humanitarian assistance – is a subject of great importance to the ICRC. For International Women’s Day 2017, we are highlighting stories of three women humanitarians from different regions who have taken forward the Red Cross mission to deliver assistance to affected communities.

In this opening piece of the series, Smt. Renuka Devi Barkataki, Chairperson of the Assam State Branch of the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) shares her experience.

By Smt. Renuka Devi Barkataki

I am often asked why I joined the Red Cross and what keeps me going. For me this is easy. I was born into and brought up in a Freedom Fighter’s family and this helped me develop as a leader from a very young age.  In fact, at 18 I met Mahatma Gandhi and it was his blessing that made me even more determined to serve the community and help those who were suffering.

I basically see myself as a social worker.  From school right through University I was active in the Unions and was part of many voluntary organizations.  After being involved in social work for some time, I realized that a degree of political power was needed to be able to influence policy and policy decisions.

Smt Renuka Devi Barkataki with people affected by violence in Nellee, Assam in 1983. Courtesy: Assam State Branch, IRCS


During the course of my political career, I was elected once to the State Assembly and served as Member of Parliament twice, holding the important portfolio of Union minister for education and social welfare. Political life had its ups and downs so in 1981, I left Delhi and politics for good, opting to concentrate on service to the community.  I’ve been a Red Cross worker since high school but in 1982, I was asked to work with the Assam branch following a state wide emergency.  Today, I’m proud to lead this dynamic state branch of the IRCS.

Over the years, the branch and the work have transformed a great deal.  We’ve served the community wholeheartedly – providing relief when disasters struck, built 34 district branches, recruited nearly 40,000 youth volunteers, trained thousands in First Aid, pioneered 30,000 sq ft shelters that can house 3000 people with clean and safe water. The list goes on – the Branch is fueled by passionate and dedicated staff and volunteers who make all this work possible.   What I consider our greatest achievement though is literally the transformation of the Assam Red Cross.  Even though the North East houses various different ethnicities, it is the IRCS Assam that is able to work either in Kokrajhar (between tribal & non tribal violence) or Karbi Anglong (between Karbi & Dimasa groups violence). This is proof of our neutrality and the trust that IRCS Assam has achieved.

My most memorable experience? There have been so many but one time stands out in particular.   In the wake of the notification of the General Election Schedule 1983, the state witnessed unprecedented violence, leaving a trail of death and destruction.  The IRCS Assam State Branch mobilized doctors, nurses, members, volunteers to the most vulnerable places with food, clothing, medicines and other essential relief items. Team of senior members also reached out to affected areas to help the community, offering psychological support.  This was an experience of a lifetime for many Red Cross workers – being able to help remote communities without regard for ethnicity.  This earned the trust and respect of the communities we served.  We were also helped by many other national societies from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement worldwide.  In fact, the Swiss Red Cross and the Swiss Government came forward to fund the Children’s Home in Guwahati in 1983 and that Home is still functioning at Lankeswar, Jalukbari, Guwahati here in Assam.

I have come to realise the potential of Red Cross to render service to the community. That is why I joined and that is why I continue to serve today, even at 85!


Read more from our women’s day series:

Motivation Drives My Engine — By Tahniyat Siddiqi

A Smile is Worth the Three-Hour Journey — By Farhana Javid