A two days “State Level Convention of Women Leaders" of feisty rural women began at Gandhi Bhawan in Lucknow on 16th April 2012, bringing together over 650 women leader delegates (organizers were expecting not more than 500) from 9 districts of east UP, and proved once again that more changes can be wrought in society by women than we can think of. They were from all age groups—the youngest 18 years old and the eldest 75 years old--all dressed neatly in colourful clothes, with bright eyes, determined faces and an infectious enthusiasm. None gave the impression of the labourer or the underprivileged, which almost all of them were.
The atmosphere was palpable with their eagerness to share their experiences about the practical difficulties they face in the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), working of ration shops under the Public Distribution System(PDS) and honest functioning of Gram Panchayats (village councils), with the representatives of the state Government, media and civil society.
They came from the 9 backward districts (Ambedkarnagar, Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur, Varanasi, Pratapgarh, Jaunpur, Basti and Mahrajganj) of a backward state, representing over 80,436 women from the marginalized and backward communities of these districts, under the umbrella of the ‘Empowering Rural Women’ (ERW) program. This program, nay mission, has encouraged them to form informal women collectives or Nari Sanghs and work towards claiming their entitlements, which have been provided to them by law (but denied by powers-that-are) under the Right to Work, Right to Food and Right to Health within the constitutional framework of India. They are also demanding their rightful place in the political and social arena. These women-led community based organizations or CBOs, are being facilitated by a group of 37 civil society organizations with the support of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Mumbai, and People’s Action for National Integration (PANI).
The ERW program, which started in December 2007 in 45 villages, is currently being implemented in 666 Gram Panchayats (GPs), comprising 1387 revenue villages of 36 blocks of the targeted districts. In each Gram Panchayat around 10 women leaders have been identified and efforts to develop their capacities have been made. Out of the 80,436 women collectivised so far, 5617 are in leadership positions. This unique programme focuses on bringing the rural, marginalized women out of their closets, and developing leadership qualities in them, despite their illiteracy handicap. It has an optimistic target of reaching out to more than 100,000 such women, to build a critical mass of women in leadership positions for strengthening women's informed participation in local governance and ensuring entitlements related to right to work/livelihood and right to food for the poorest of the poor-- both of, which are mandated by the law but beset with very poor implementation.
The ground situation in the targeted districts is such that land-holdings are low among Dalits and Other Backward Classes that keep them dependant on wage employment. Presence of Central schemes such as PDS for food security and NREGA for wage employment guarantee for 100 days in a year in the villages can bring direct benefit to the affected communities if implemented optimally. However, women find themselves unable to access these in absence of the required skills, understanding, information and a facilitating environment. The entitlement realization was abysmal in this area with regards to right to food and NREGA.
However these confident and articulate women leaders have now understood the merit of collective initiative, and are gradually giving strategic directions to Nari Sanghs in their respective GPs. There has been no looking back once awareness was followed by empowerment. Working within the legal framework, they have gheraoed officials, given ultimatums to gram pradhans (village council heads), filed applications under the Right to Information Act and formed NREGA Committees to identify works which can employ them gainfully in their villages—making of drains, paving of roads, construction of schools, etc. Their success shows the power of the collective, as well as their grit and determination. During this unique meet, the women leaders spoke of how they were courageously taking forward their movement for demanding, and also getting, their rights of obtaining work under NREGA and procuring food grains through PDS by the collective efforts of the members of the Nari Sanghs.
According to Senior Program Officer Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Nayana Choudhury, ‘As of now the combined efforts of the these women have resulted in getting 64,772 job cards made; getting work for 45,000 women under NREGA; streamlining the functioning of 268 ration shops thus helping 55,000 families; and improving the working of at least 286 Gram Panchayats . 522 of the women leaders have become members of Panchayats.’
This is no mean achievement in a short span of 4 years, more so, because many of these women are illiterate or semi literate. The basic structure of these women's collectives has also helped in layering the intervention with various other programs such as women's literacy, and the women’s independent initiatives for addressing social issues like alcoholism and violence against women.
The convention provided a platform to them to share their experiences and aspirations and help them realise their collective potential as Nari Sangh Leaders by i) Increasing visibility of the ERW program and Nari Sanghs at the state level and ii) deciding strategies for engaging with State level government machinery and Media for evidence based advocacy on the issues related to entitlements. (CNS)
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored "Saving children from tuberculosis" (March 2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: email@example.com, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)