Author: Rashid, Kulsoom
Date published: April 16, 2012
Dindori (Women's Feature Service) - The district of Dindori is perched almost on the border that Madhya Pradesh shares with Chhattisgarh and is remote by any standards. It is largely tribal and also extremely poor. So when a group of women located in Dindori names their federation after the famous local woman icon, Rani Durgavati, who is said to have courageously defended her kingdom of Gadha - one of the old independent Gond states - against the Mughal emperor, Akbar, the symbolism is certainly striking.
Today, like their famous ancestor, the members of the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh are courageously taking on patriarchal forces in their region that have long denied them their rights.
In late March, around 1,500 women came together for the annual general body meeting of the 'sangh' - which they term a 'mahaadiveshan', or mass meeting - and shared many joyous moments of dancing and singing together for an entire day and night. It is a rare sight in India to see rural women spend recreational time with friends, but what was rarer still was the spirit of camaraderie that existed between the women. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Running through the fun times, however, was a serious theme: Giving Didori's women greater social and economic autonomy and providing them with the tools with which to gain equality.
Today, the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh, which was set up six years ago, is a federation of 536 Self-Help Groups (SHGs), organised into 31 clusters, with a total membership of 6,432 women from 119 villages in the blocks of Karanjia (not to be confused with a block in Odisha with the same name), Samnapur, Shahpura and Amarpur. Most of the members are Gond tribals, but there are many from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), besides a sprinkling of Scheduled Caste (SC) women as well.
These SHGs, which at last count had earned an interest of Rs 6.14 lakh (US$1=Rs 51), were set up by Pradan, an organisation working with the rural poor, in order to make cheap credit available to local women and liberate them from the clutches of local money lenders and landlords. Pradan has also introduced new farming methods here, which have helped to buttress household incomes. As Sebanti Bai of Markum village in Karanjia block, puts it, "Now we have also started growing tomatoes, ladies finger and chillies during the monsoon season, something we had never done earlier. This has brought us additional income for household expenses."
Although Pradan's initial emphasis was on the economic empowerment of women from socially excluded communities, the women of these SHGs have evolved as community representatives demanding their entitlements, including their right to a life of dignity. Partnering this process is the Delhi-based women's resource group, Jagori, under a special gender empowerment project initiated in 2011 and supported by the UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality.
What women have gained the most by coming together is the capacity to collectively articulate their everyday needs and look for solutions. Drupti Bai, 34, explains how such discussions helped address the problem of drinking water in her area, "The issue of hardships related to collecting water was discussed at a cluster meeting. We women then decided to take action on it and with the help of Pradan we met local Forest Department officials. We were able to convince them of the crisis of water shortage we were facing and they allowed us access to water sources within the forest provided we ensured that we would not disturb the surrounding environment in any way."
Drupti Bai considers this an achievement to be cherished. "It is a great relief to us to know that our children are now drinking clean water. They are certainly falling less sick than they did in the past."
Interestingly, while most of the members of the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh are largely illiterate and had never seen a computer, these days the federation's work is expedited by a computer system run by hired experts, whom the women refer to as "computer munshis". These "computer munshis" key in the data provided by the women during meetings. The inflow of this data is through a 'Regular Meeting Transaction Entry 1' (RMTE 1), while the outflow of the keyed in data reaches the women through RMTE 2. With the help of this software, the women can monitor the functioning of their groups.
Explains Shikha Singh, Project Executive, Pradan, Dindori, "The RMTE system is accessed by 80 per cent of the members of the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh. It has brought them new confidence in a society that has traditionally taken away their rights, including their right to new technology. There are challenges of course, but these women are on the learning curve and have the potential to understand the technology and take their work forward."
Other issues that have been articulated by these women, and which found an echo at the 'mahaadiveshan', include violence against women, their exclusion in political decision making and the rising tide of communalism. According to Singh, the partnership with Jagori has not only helped the federation members understand gender issues better, it has also helped the Pradan staff perceive new ways to communicate important ideas. She says, "Women are now able to make the link between gender perspectives and everyday life. Moreover, they are able to talk about themselves and their experiences openly, reflect on sensitive issues like violence, and take initiatives together."
What is also notable is the fact that the women take all decisions involving the running of the federation, autonomously. Says Aziza Haleem, who is interning with Pradan and was deputed to help organise this year's 'mahaadiveshan', "I may have been in charge of the cultural programmes, but let me tell you this event is entirely the work of the members of the federation. They have been preparing for this annual day for months. They discussed the logistics, the programmes - this time a quiz was included - decided on the budget and who the guest speakers should be through a consultative process. It was totally their show and their energy is infectious!"
As I left this mass meeting at Dindori, I was struck by how women, who had so little going for them in terms of development, have now learnt to wield the tools of equality to make better lives for themselves. The words of the song they had sung during the 'mahaadhiveshan' then came back to me: "Par laga liye hain humne, ke pinjare mein ab kaun bethega (I have made wings for myself, now who will keep me in a cage)."
(© Women's Feature Service)