We often hear stories of women empowering themselves, fighting for justice and equality. However, the rhetoric that "empowerment is not an end itself but a basis for development" has become a reality in 40 villages in the petrochemical belt 20 kms away from Vadodara in the west Indian state of Gujarat.
Overcoming the obstacles of a low economic status, illiteracy, and alcoholism amongst men, women in this area have come a long way. Ten years ago, what was begun primarily as a health program by Deepak Foundation (an NGO initiated by a corporate sector company, Deepak Nitrite) has been transformed into something like a movement.
Savings and credit groups, dairies, anganwadis (village childcare centres), adolescent programs, a sexual health project and now capacity building for women - all this have lead to the formation of women's groups or sangathans. Each group has 10 to 15 women and it includes all the programs needed to develop and build the capacities of women. To cap this achievement, there is a men's support group, 'Sahakar Samiti', which deals with cases requiring intervention with the male members in the family.
The training undertaken for the project has instilled tremendous confidence and courage in the women. Until the advent of this training, women were involved in credit groups and dairy activities; but their role was limited to attending meetings, collecting their dues or procuring loans. Today, women in the sangathan view themselves in a different perspective. They are proactively involved in resolving community development issues - providing roads, water and drainage to their villages, dealing with the problems of alcoholism and violence. And proving that they can significantly contribute to the development of their villages.
Take Geetaben from Angadh village. Every other night, her husband would drink and beat her up over some pretext or the other. But after the sangathan and the Sahakar Samiti met and talked to the man several times, a phenomenal change has occurred - Geetaben says that her husband has given
up liquor and wife-beating.
Women fearlessly travel alone in local buses to the police station or to meet government officials to resolve cases connected to their villages. Networking with the Legal Aid Cell has helped solve many cases of marital discord and maintenance issues speedily and with minimal expense.
When cases reported to the police by the women were not given due response or taken seriously, a sensitization meeting was organized with officials of the local police Stations. This helped considerably in changing the attitude of the police towards women complainants.
In Hathipura village, women put up an application for drainage and water supply to the sarpanch (head of the village council), who understood the seriousness of the situation and was quick to respond. In another instance, a local school did not have any potable water and neighbors provided water for the children, but complained often. The sangathan women were quick in demanding and getting a hand pump installed in the school.
In Road Fajalpur village - located off the highway to Ahmedabad - women had to cross the busy road several times a day while ferrying water. The local sangathan women met the tehsildar (local administrator) and asked him who would take the responsibility if women died of accidents on the highway. Already, work is underway to address this problem.
The women of Rajgadh village were depositing their milk produce in another village dairy. Because Rajgadh supplied a major quantity of milk, the women demanded that a sub-centre be opened in the village. Much to the displeasure of a few men, women solely manage the dairy today.
A member of a panchayat (village council), Rajubhai says, "Women are able to manage things better. They don't have political differences and there is no siphoning of money. Some men do feel threatened but the majority who have witnessed the (mis)management by men have given their verdict in favor of women." He also says most men know that whatever women do, they do so for the betterment of the village. Due to the closure of industries, a majority of the men have lost jobs and women are contributing to the family income.
Says Jyotsnaben tellingly, "About 75 per cent of the men in the village are alcoholics and they resent us, saying 'women are going to sit on our heads now'. But the support given by 25 per cent of the men boosts our confidence to continue our work." Jyotsna is a member of the Rampura sangathan. In the past two years, her sangathan has resolved the water woes of four villages, initiated road building in three, and sorted out 22 cases of marital or family problems including violence and alcoholism.
Several men seem oblivious about the activities unfolding in their villages. Compared to the women, feel the project leaders, only a few men extend their support because their egos get hurt easily. In Rampura, during a gram sabha (general body) meeting, when women complained to the head of the village council that the anganwadi worker was not working efficiently, he felt hurt. He called the women separately and told them they could have informed him individually - why did they do so in front of the public?
Pratapbhai, a leader of the men's support group, holds gender sensitization meetings with men/boys - to make them understand the objectives of the sangathan and how their support can foster change in the village. He claims men are getting influenced - "They help around in the house, which was unthinkable a few years ago."
Are these men changing because their wives bring money and loans or because they are challenging their own attitudes? Is the increasing contribution of women in development leading to a decrease in girls' dropout rate from schools, a decrease in the preference for sons, delayed marriage for girls?
Is there an increase in widow remarriage (a serious problem in this area), a greater participation of women in decision-making and other related issues that are true indicators of empowerment?
These are the big questions that can be answered only after a few years. For now, it is heartening to know that women's voices are being heard - and respected.