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Indian women empower themselves against all odds

Aug 10, 2009

Empowerment of women is a regularly discussed subject among NGOs, bureaucrats, funding agencies and policymakers. Touring across Maharashtra in western India, OneWorld South Asia correspondent finds cases of true empowerment wherein women have struggled against the biggest odds to find their own feet and voice.

Pune: Now who would have, in the wildest dreams, thought that Rekha Pawar, once feared in Seshnagar in Hingana taluka of Nagpur district in Maharashtra, would turn out to be such a role model?

But this is a real life turnaround story and an amazing one at that. Seshnagar is a small village with a population of just 500 residents, almost all of whom are totally illiterate. They are known for their traditional occupation of dacoity and even killing. Belonging to the hunter community, they are also known for setting up illegal breweries for liquor. The young people there are known to be alcohol addicts.

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When the team members of the Comprehensive Rural and Tribal Development Project (CRTDP) first arrived in this village, they were welcomed with stones and abusive language, led by the local bully Rekha whose primary occupation was to brew illicit liquor.

By compelling every passerby to consume alcohol and then snatching money from them, she was used to hooliganism as a way of life and even the toughest of the community never bothered to lock horns with her.

The CRTDP team was, however, made of stern stuff and they refused to be cowered by Rekha’s missives. It did take a long time but finally they could bring about a drastic transformation in this fiery lady, showing her a more productive way of eking out a living through goat farming. This, surprisingly, brought forth in her leadership qualities apart from entrepreneurial capabilities.

Thus inspired, she aimed to become the sarpanch of the village and even won the elections without indulging in any pressure tactics. Feeling empowered and eager to do something for the village and her community, she went on to establish the Hunter Native Society to help the deprived and took on various projects such as building of roads, water tanks, a temple and a school with classes up to the fourth standard.

Her outstanding contribution in social work and development won her the prestigious Savitribai Phule Award in Mumbai in 1996 for working in areas like village development, child welfare, education, etc.

Finding themselves

This is not a solitary case. Attempts made by several government and nongovernmental agencies have, over the years, led to remarkable results.

“Self help groups for women have made a big difference to their lives because many of them have now become earning members themselves, contributing to the household income. This has led to self-respect and the desire to be equal contributors in society. It has been proved now that if we give attention to empowerment in the bigger sense by putting a woman in the forefront of development initiatives at the village level, she will prove her worth.

“Village level activities that attract her include those with a direct link to her daily life, thereby reducing her burden and stress. Drinking water, child care, sanitation, clean energy for cooking and lighting are some of such activities,” says Crispino Lobo, Director, Sampada Trust, an organisation that provides micro-finance to women to promote entrepreneurship.

In the year 2007-08, Sampada Trust helped establish 1,141 self help groups in 253 villages across 13 districts of Maharashtra. A total of 16,544 women became active members of these SHGs.

This participation in a sphere outside the home is now evident from the fact that many of the gram panchayats in Maharashtra have women chiefs. This has led to new initiatives that have worked towards improvement of the villages.

In Ahmednagar district, for instance, drought-prone areas have now turned fertile thanks to watershed management. One such case is of Darewadi where men and women have equally shared the responsibility of shramdaan (voluntary labour) to turn a dry region into one, which has water throughout the year.

Another case is that of Sagarwadi in the Marathwada region where about 20 women took it upon themselves to knock sense into the men who had defaulted on the conditions laid down by the Village Water Committee.

This issue was taken up at the Samyukta Mahila Samiti meetings and quite naturally it upset the women for it was they who were to benefit the most and had been nurturing hopes of having their drinking water problem solved for good.

Determined to teach a lesson to their insensitive men folk to their basic needs which would actually benefit the entire household, the women began organising themselves into small committees and worked hard to provide the social discipline that the project demanded. Within a short time, the women of the village took turns and enforced a ban on free grazing and tree-felling.

What is commendable is the fact that the fiery women imposed monetary fines on the defaulters and collected the money. The shramdaan criteria was also addressed as women banded together to fill up the deficit.

The learning graph

Elsewhere, education of women has helped bring about a major turnaround in attitude and participation. For example, there are close to 600 girls in Western Maharashtra in the age group of 11 to 18 whose education has become a reality rather than an unfulfilled wish only because they have been able to cycle to school, or even college.

And this has been made possible by Pune-based Armene Modi who has provided these cycles through her NGO called Ashta No Kai. Recently, Modi has been able to acquire 57 scholarships for girls opting for higher education. “One of them wants to become an automobile engineer,” she informs.

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Another interesting and unique instance of self-empowerment has now taken shape in the form of a company that has been set up at a cost of Rs 1 crore in Talawade along the Dehu-Alandi Road. The 160 women who are owners of this company have come together under the aegis of the Swamini Mahila Bachat Gat Akhil Sangh (SMBGAS) – the apex body of various women’s small savings groups in the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) area.

The company will provide employment to 70 members of the SMBGAS. “We have signed a contract of seven years with a firm called Sumedh Polymers which will export our plastic bags. The raw material will be supplied by this company and we will provide them with the finished goods as per the quality specifications laid down by them,” says Sulabha Ubale, President, Pimpri Chinchwad Mahila Mandal Mahasangh.

Turning to business

Such entrepreneurial ventures have done a lot to improve the lot of rural women. For instance, whether it be pickles, jam, honey, wooden artifacts, baskets or embroidered cloth made by the many women associated with the self help groups spread across the Ahmednagar district, the one thing common to all is that they no longer have to worry about how to market their products.

That’s because Sampada Trust has now taken over the management of the retail outlet called ‘Amhi Leki Ahilechya’ under the Swarna Jayanthi Gram Swarozgar Yojana of the government of India implemented by the Zilla Parishad and the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA).

More than being just a retail outlet, it also functions as a counselling centre for women who wish to step out of the confines of their homes and impoverished lives to try their hand at entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, exhibitions and sales promotion campaigns are conducted at regular intervals to enhance the sales of the products made by the women.

“The objective is that products made by women in far-flung rural areas should find an urban outlet. This also serves as an exercise in the promotion of SHGs, capacity building and credit support for the setting up of micro-enterprises. Our objective is to set up many more outlets in various cities,” Lobo states.

Greater self-esteem

What is amazing is the new-found confidence level among rural women. “I believe SHGs can radically change and uplift the life of needy people.”

This is what Kiran Digambar Bahade says in a confident tone while addressing one of the Gram Sabha meetings in village Dhanora, district Vardha.

Born and brought up in the Vele family at village Khaire, taluka Ralegaon, district Yavatmal, Kiran got married to Digamber who had a job with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Right from childhood, Kiran had earnestly desired to be literate but her education was cut short due to financial problems and the responsibilities of managing the household. She did, however, study up to Class XII.

Marriage brought no happiness in her life, especially when Digambar was forced to quit his job and there was nothing to fall back upon except for a small plot of land which would now have to provide for the couple and their two children.

“This meagre source of income was not enough to feed us all but we just could not think of any other option to supplement our income. We had reached a stage of desperation,” Kiran recounts.

During this time, she came to know about micro-finance and took a loan to help her husband buy seeds for the farm.

Soon enough, Kiran dared to buy a sewing machine with the help of a loan from her SHG. She began to stitch blouses for the women in the village and her proactive approach soon led to her being elected as an office-bearer of the Samyukta Mahila Samiti in the village.

In conclusion, as Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister Balasaheb Thorat puts it: “A major transformation has certainly taken place quietly but surely. Of course, a lot more needs to be done but at least there are now role models that other women can look up to and change themselves.”

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