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Women wage battle to win over poverty, oppression

Aug 10, 2010

Suffering from extreme poverty and male oppression, the women of Darkali village in Madhya Pradesh, India, are now able to feed their families through employment under the MGNREGS. The wages obtained under the Scheme help them augment the family resource base.

Jashmabai is working under the punishing sun on an earthen dam in her village of Darkali, in Madhya Pradesh's Alirajpur district, being built under the government-funded Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). She candidly explains why she labours thus, "Our men are wastrels, spending their time drinking or looting someone. So we decided to do something about it and found work here."

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 This woman from the Bhilala tribal community speaks for many other women like her living in extreme poverty in a drought-prone region. A local organisation helped Jashmabai and her companions access the government work site, and today they are at least able to keep their families fed. They have few livelihood options. The land cannot support most families here, because the soil in these small, fragmented homestead plots is poor and unproductive. The mahua trees and toddy palms that dot the region only serve to provide the local men with ample sources of liquor. Poverty and alcohol form a lethal cocktail, which manifests itself into crime and violence. Women, as always, emerge from such a situation as the worst sufferers.

In Darkali, the MGNREGA is nothing short of a lifeline for the local women, helping them to battle both poverty and male oppression. According to the recent UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2010, poverty rates in India are expected to fall from 51 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2015. A government intervention like the MGNREGA has helped this process.

Its greatest advantage is that any group of job card holders can prepare a work scheme and present a demand for it to be implemented to the panchayat (village council). If the panchayat does not accept this application, the applicants can go to the local panchayat office, deposit the application there and get a receipt. After that it becomes mandatory for work to be started within 15 days and a total of 100 days of work has to be provided to each of the applicants at the daily wage rate of Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 46.7).

What helps women like Jashmabai is that the MGNREGA emphasises the employment of women in such projects, so that their wages can help augment the meager resource base of their families. Local social activists, having realised the potential of the MNREGA to achieve this, are now working to mobilise and assist local communities to demand work and get their full entitlements.

Explains Retli Ajnaria, who gave up her job as an 'anganwadi' worker under the Integrated Child Development Scheme of the Madhya Pradesh government to become a full-time activist with a local group, the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), "This scheme allows women to apply for work in a group of their own and then the payments are made directly into their bank accounts. With one stroke women get the work they want and also the money without the involvement of any intermediaries. This gives them a tremendous sense of power."

Earlier, Ajnaria had devoted her energies to organising women in Self-Help Groups of 10 or 12 members. She tried to introduce them to the idea of micro-credit, but their extreme poverty meant that they could save very little. Things changed drastically with the implementation of the MGNREGA. Apart from the employment it generated, it also helped create water and soil conservation structures, which have in turn resulted in higher agricultural productivity. This has meant more agricultural work for both men and women.

Gamtibai, also of Darkali village, comes straight to the point, "Its biggest advantage for us is that men have now got some work to occupy themselves and keep them from fighting and looting each other. Only last year there was a murderous fight between two groups in our village and many men got seriously injured and landed up in jail. Now they are all working together on the same earthen dam."

The path to this relatively happy situation was by no means smooth. Initially, local officials like sarpanches (village council heads) and panchayat secretaries actively dissuaded people from putting in applications for work schemes. Jashmabai recalls, "The local sarpanch, Ugar Singh, refused to accept our application for work, as did the panchayat secretary, Chandar Singh. Then we went along with Retli bai, to the local office to file our application there."

Even after the work was officially sanctioned, the sarpanch refused to initiate it. That was when Retli decided to go to the work site with the women, and start the work herself by carrying the soil dug out from the site on her head, along with the other workers. After three days of working like this, the sarpanch had to concede to the demand of the women. Now the situation has settled down and all the wage payments barring the final installment for the last fortnight of work which has just been completed have been made into the bank accounts of the workers. They even succeeded in getting a creche to look after the children of the workers, with two women being paid to look after them.

Development projects in rural India have long been a source of corruption, with funds being regularly siphoned off at various levels by bureaucrats and politicians. The MGNREGA has tried to address this by instituting checks like social audits and making it mandatory for wages to be paid directly into bank accounts. But corruption still seeps in, with those in charge sometimes devising ingenious ways to cheat poor workers of their dues, either through personal intimidation or by manipulating registers.

"This is why it is extremely important that those seeking work on government job sites be better informed," says Yogesh Kumar, Executive Director, Samarthan, a civil society organisation working on issues of participatory development and governance, based in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. In Panna, another impoverished district in the state, Samarthan - with assistance from the Government of India and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - is conducting functional literacy interventions in 13 villages.

Explains Kumar, "The idea is that the workers of MGNREGA, especially the women, are able to comprehend the entries on their own job cards and bank books and be able to read related numbers and words like 'mazdoor' (worker), 'kaam' (work), 'daam' (prices)."

The results, according to Kumar, are encouraging. Small groups of women workers have been formed to deliver these lessons in basic literacy to others in the community and a primer has been developed for this purpose. This informal teaching has another benefit: It facilitates discussion about people's experiences in accessing work under the MGNREGA and general working conditions.

If poor, largely illiterate workers are to get their entitlements under the MGNREGA - widely regarded as the world's largest employment generating state initiative for the poor - they also need to be better informed and supported. Initiatives like those run by the KMCS and Samarthan in Madhya Pradesh, arguably India's poorest state, are therefore extremely important.

In September, leaders from various countries will gather at the United Nations to assess the progress the world has made on the MDGs, including on the key challenge of halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. There is little time to be lost with the deadline for achieving this pivotal goal just five years away. According to the new multi-dimensional Poverty Index of the UNDP, 55 per cent of India's population is poor and they number about 645 million. Employment for women like Jashmabai is therefore crucial for giving their families a better deal in life.

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