Monday, November 01, 2004

Women take on casteism and patriarchy

SANGHAMITRA CHAKRABORTY In Chitrakoot with S. Anand in P.B. Puram, Faizan Ahmad in Muzaffarpur, Harsh Kabra in Satara and Wasbir Hussain in Guwahati

Somewhere deep in South India is a village that had never seen a bus. A group of women learnt how to drive to change that. Half a country away, in Maharashtra's hinterland, another sorority started a bank that would transform lives. Further north, in the ravines of central india, Dalit women flung off their purdahs and picked up tools to become handpump mechanics, changing gender and caste equations in their district beyond recognition.

On the surface, women's collectives work for development and livelihood, but they are actually renegotiating the terms of existence not just for women, but for everyone.

Madhavi Kuckreja, who helped set up a frontline women's collective, explains, "For our women, the journey was so challenging that they have remained bound together as a support group."

Madhavi arrived in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, as part of a government-sponsored Mahila Samakhya project in the early '90s. The remote, arid forests and ravines are home to patriarchal, feudal communities, where untouchability and gender-discrimination are so deeply entrenched that there are up to 400 caste- and gender-related deaths reported every year.

Vanangana, a Dalit women's collective, works here to fight violence and exploitation against women and offers solutions for development and livelihood. To cut through layers of hierarchies in class, caste and gender, Kuckreja trained a group of Dalit women as handpump mechanics. Water scarcity is a serious issue here, so handpump mechanics are like critical-care professionals. When women came out of their purdah and lives as bonded labourers, the first wave of backlash came from their own families. Despite this, many attended literacy programmes and leant to ride cycles. "We would call each other Cylinder or Wrench to remember the terms and pack rations in our saree pallus and chased trainers to pick up skills," says Chamela.

Their upper-caste tormentors were in a bind. Earlier they had to wait weeks for a government worker; now, a Dalit woman was waiting to fix it. They chose the latter, though with abuse: "Kyon chamarni, gobar dhhoti thi ab hamare ghar ghus ayee? (You low-caste woman, from carrying animal excreta you have now come into our homes?)"

The 45 Dalit women, who earn Rs 100 to Rs 150 per handpump job, went on to train others. "Our most embarrassing, but memorable moment was when a group of upper-caste people from Uttarakhand touched our feet calling us gurus after they had finished training," says Keshkali. Proud patriarchs from upper castes now offer the mechanics charpais with a grin.

This group has another critical job—reporting domestic and other violence from remote areas; the core of Vanangana's work. The result: upper-caste women, too scared to discuss the brutality they faced, now report it. They have campaigned against various injustices, including a child-abuse case.

Not far away is a village house where a group of women is huddled on the floor. Meet the editorial team of Khabar Laha-riya, a fortnightly rural newspaper produced by a group of seven predominantly Dalit and Kol women. Sonia, Krishna, Kavita, Afsana, Meera and Mithilesh are deciding on the final list for the front page of their Bundeli paper, which started publication in May 2002, and now has a print run of 1,500. It is sold for Rs 2.50 a copy in nearly 200 villages in the district, mainly through subscription and khoya traders, who double up as newsagents for them. A wall in that room has a framed copy of the Chameli Devi Jain award citation, which this group won last year for outstanding contribution to journalism.

Given the profile of the women journalists and the area they work in, this is remarkable. Chitrakoot is remote, and few newspapers reach here.Those that do are in Hindi and don't address local concerns".

Khabar Lahariya provides a mix of news, touches lives and brings about change," says Kavita, a bright young Dalit woman who started off with a literacy programme some years ago and will soon graduate.

The group claims its forte is credible investigative reportage. "The fact that we have got threats and legal notices tells us that we are doing something right," says a beaming Meera, star reporter and mother of five. A recent investigation by the paper into illegal mining has rocked the local administration. Ano-ther story on the death of TB-afflicted children has led to a corpus being set up by the chief medical officer. "Then, of course, there are corruption cases at the local level and issues of violence," says Sonia, a pradhan herself.

The group is responsible not only for newsgathering and writing but editing, photography, illustrations, production and distribution. Nirantar, a Delhi-based group that works with gender and education, supports it. "Our objective is to set up this group as an independent unit," says Shalini Joshi of Nirantar.

Thousands of miles away, an access issue brought together another group. Until 1997, P.B. Puram, in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvallur district, was physically cut off from the world—it was not connected by a bus. D. Van-aja, who arrived here after marriage as the village's sole graduate, saw what this deprivation meant for its people.

Sick people from P.B. Puram had trouble reaching a hospital; higher education and college required a one-hour, 5-km trek to Nagapoondi, the nearest bus-stop. Farmers could not transport their produce. And so, in 1999, with help from the Rash-triya Seva Samiti, Vanaja gathered 12 of the 17 women of her village to form a self-help group (SHG). But attendance for meetings to Tiruttani, 25 km away, became a problem. The women realised how intimately development was tied to connectivity.

In November 1999, the SHG petitioned the Thiruvallur collector S.K. Prabhakar for a bus. He suggested that they get a mini bus permit and run a service themselves. The women did just that, seeking a Rs 3 lakh loan from the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh. On January 26, 2000, the first 25-seater bus of the Tirumagal Mini Bus service made its way to P.B. Puram and 15 other villages on a 16.2-km route untouched by the government.

Nine of the SHG members learnt driving, took LCV licenses and mastered trip-sheet maintenance and ticket collection. "Initially, we also acted as cleaners," recalls Saroja. Several hurdles were created, but the bus has stayed on course. "We even paid up the loan and the bus now belongs to us," says Vanaja. Several mini bus services have wound up in recent times but not the Tirumagal Mini Bus.

For another case where the characters changed the plot, take Nakusa, Mumtaz and Hirabai. Nakusa's parents had abandoned her. Married to a landless chauffeur, today she owns agricultural land and supports her family. Mumtaz Tamboli, a construction worker, now runs a sewing school and helps her students start up. Hirabai Appa Awgade, married to an alcoholic, today runs a successful toy-making unit in Mhaswad. Her two sons, workers in Mumbai sweatshops, have also joined her. Suman Danaji Wasav, a coconut-seller, has built her own house.

Such stories aren't uncommon in dusty Satara district, where the Mann Deshi Mahila Saha-kari Bank (MDMSB) is quietly scripting a revolution in the drought-ravaged Mhaswad village. It began when Chetna Gala Sinha, a Mumbai-based member of jp's Sangharsh Vah-ini, visited Mhaswad during a water rights movement, married a local activist and settled here. In 1986, she started micro-credit activity to create a support structure and help people develop assets. A women's savings group followed. The women opted to buy goats instead of taking cash loans, which would have been taken away by their men.

In 1994, enthused by the recovery success of this novel loan, the women submitted a propo-sal for a bank to the cooperative department. The rbi rejected the proposal, citing the women's illiteracy. But when those very women promptly calculated interest and explained the concept and its merits, the officers relented.

The initial hurdles came from cynical politicos. But some villagers bailed them out. The MDMSB—an all-woman group with 3,100 shareholders, over 25,000 customers and 96 per cent recovery, together with a federation of over 275 self-help groups (100 per cent recovery)—is a glowing tribute to woman power. "We also have male depositors, but we provide finances only through women," says Sinha.

Backward women, who have resisted local leaders trying to extract money from the group deposits, lead most SHGs. "It isn't easy to say no, but they've done so," beams Sinha, a part of Yale University's world leaders programme in 2003.

Propelling the widely-acclaimed education, anti-liquor, anti-domestic violence and cleanliness drives, the women focus on empowerment, leadership development, capacity building and gaining property rights for women.

Far away, in the hills of Manipur, the Meira Paibis keep alive their struggle. Manipuri women have always been known to have an independent, decisive say in social affairs. So, when the state was declared a disturbed area in the '80s and atrocities by the armed forces became a serious issue, the Meira Paibis (torch-bearers), members of an informal collective, took to the streets, fighting for civil rights and peace. The protests against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act took shape in the women's markets of Manipur where the networks first formed. Says M.K. Binodini, 80-plus writer and activist: "The women's markets are one of a kind in the world perhaps—they have been the cradle of every mass movement in Manipur. Civil rights movements, agitation for water and campaigns for peace... they've all taken shape here." Women come here as traders but these are actually hubs where movements begin. Forty-plus women own shops in these markets and when they grow old or die, it passes on to other kinswomen. Nowadays, younger women—25- to 30-year-olds—have also started joining in.

Meira Paibis are also involved in resolving family conflicts, in checking drugs, trafficking of women and land disputes between neighbours. Bimola Devi, an academic at Manipur University, is modest: "Politically, these women lag behind those in other parts of India." But, she adds, as a collective force they are highly effective in dealing with any issue.

In the plains of the north, another set of torch-bearers is working hard. Women at a collective in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district are weaving a bed cover. Each inch of width has up to 210 stitc-hes. Renu, a coordinator with the group, says they are paid over Rs 3,000 per bed cover; these go to big cities and foreign markets. This group is part of a 600-strong women's collective in Bhusra and other villages of Muzaffarpur where they work as an SHG. Some distance away at Karanpur Goin, several women are busy in cash crop farming. On a 3-acre land they grow papaya, green chilli, brinjal, parsnip, and turmeric. Sushila Devi speaks assuredly: "We grow different cash crops through the year and marketing's not an issue." On an average, the annual earnings just from radish add up to Rs 1 lakh.

At Patiasa Jalal village, a group of women are seen working in a sprawling litchi orchard and extracting and processing honey. "This group of 12 women earned a profit of Rs 1.25 lakh last year," says a proud Rekha Devi. This represents a quantum leap. For, the prosperity has had a cascading effect on their lives. Fifteen years ago, Kalpana Devi lived in a mud hut with her peasant husband who brought home very little.Now, brick walls have come up and she wears nylon instead of cotton sarees.Most of all, she wears an air of confidence. Urmila Devi never believed that as a woman she could collect honey. "Our menfolk did it and we just helped them. Now, we collect it and the menfolk go out marketing." An official of the District Rural Development Authority, which trains and supports them, says there are over 3,200 SHGs involving around 35,000 women eng-aged in various commercial activities in Muzaffarpur alone.

Nirmalaji of Bhusra Mahila Vikas Samiti gets the last word on their behalf: "In village after village, women's groups have become so strong that their decisions are never contested. In some cases, the women are the decision-makers. They are no longer victims at the hands of their drunkard men."

Source: Outlook, November 1, 2004

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