The Self Help Groups movement - Women in Local Governance
By Vidya KulkarniThe Sarpanch (head of village council) of Aarli village stands up to read out a list of nine names who would be allotted free houses under the government scheme. He seeks approval of the general body after reading out each name in the list. No one raises any objection. The consensus, however, is short-lived.
Babytai confronts the Sarpanch, “How can a list be prepared without discussing with us? The government welfare programme has to be implemented impartially.”
The women are up in arms over the entire list. Some of the identified beneficiaries in the list already have their own houses and the genuine have-not cases have been totally ignored.
Babytai is also quick to seize the initiative. “We will identify a list of five names and you make a list for the remaining four people.” The forum is left with no option but to agree with the women who name Radha, an old woman living in a ramshackle hut with her husband as one of the beneficiaries. Names of other needy families as beneficiaries follow and soon gain approval.
Babytai still has vivid memories of that first ever gram sabha (village council meeting). Almost 20 women from six SHGs (self-help groups) made their presence felt in the meeting – a very unlikely scenario in a rural set-up where such meetings are considered to be men’s prerogative.
Women made their demands open; they wanted to know development programmes that the panchayat (village council) was planning to implement. Thus, raising questions and suggesting alternatives, women entered the decision making process in village governance.
Aarli- Class Apart
Situated in the tribal dominated Pandharkawada block of Yavatmal district, Aarli is an outstanding example of how women have taken advantage of their unified identity under the SHG banner to assert their political rights in the Panchayati Raj system.
Such initiatives by women also set a constructive trend in local governance processes which otherwise disregard the concerns of common people. With strong backing from the SHG members, Babytai Kumbre, their group leader, could also successfully contest the gram panchayat elections. Working as a member for five years gave her a chance to raise women’s issues at the panchayat level. She could bring out topics like village sanitation, cleanliness drives and also the appropriate implementation of government programmes. More importantly this political experience has fortified her confidence about women’s collectives. “A lot can be done if women come together and support each other,” says Babytai candidly.
Her belief is demonstrated in the women-led change process in the local school. Middle age, non-literate women have been making purposeful visits to the school. These regular visits by women to the school are meant to ensure an appropriate learning environment for the children of their village.
School monitoring and leadership
Babytai explains the logic. “We toil hard to send our children to school. Everything will be a waste if the school does not function properly. Therefore, the women from our SHGs have taken it upon themselves to monitor the functioning of the school and even extend help whenever required.” The women make sure that the teachers come on time and the needs of the children are suitably met. All this has gone to improve the environment in the school, making it more child-centered.
School monitoring and leadership in local governance are just a few of the examples in a series of activities that rural women in Yavatmal district have taken up after having formed SHGs. Based on the concept of Convergent Community Action (CCA), the empowerment programme was initiated in Yavatmal district since 2001 by the District Rural Development Agency with support from local NGOs and UNICEF. At present, over 1,860 SHGs have been formed in 465 villages of the district as a means to facilitate economic, social and political empowerment of women.
As an initial step village women are mobilized through SHGs, also referred to as thrift-and-credit groups. Once the savings become regular and the monthly meetings a habit, the facilitators prepare the women for a greater social and political role in the villages. They work together as collective building linkages with their schools, government offices and, more importantly, among themselves.
As a further step SHGs are also establishing linkages with the gram panchayats and taking active part in local decision making processes through gram sabha. A considerable number of group members, like Babytai, have also been elected as member in local gram panchayats. As the experience of Aarli women indicate, very often SHGs metamorphose into more than just a savings group. It leads women to take active part in public sphere and influence decisions in their favor.
Babytai succinctly articulates this changeover process, “Earlier we did not know what meetings meant and what rights could be exercised to bring changes in our lives. We were indifferent to problems around us, as we did not see any way out. Coming together has helped in inducing confidence among us. We have sensed the strength of the collective and understood that women too can play a greater social and political role in the village.”