‘We are women of India. Not flowers but flames’
They came like a river down the road. Women holding banners marched in line as far as the eye could see. The morning air reverberated with a slogan that had first sounded in Mumbai’s streets in the 1980s: ‘Hum bharat ki nari hain/Phool nahi, chingari hain (We are women of India /Not flowers, but flames)’.
They then poured into a tented venue pitched on fallow rice fields just outside the village of Lamta, in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district that lies on the border the state shares with Maharashtra.
Balaghat's sari-clad champions of change have enough reasons to celebrate (Photo: WFS)
The bags they hauled with them and the babies sleeping on some shoulders indicated they had come a long way. “Awaaz do, hum ek hai (raise your voices, we are one),” shouted somebody.
“We are one, we are one,” the marchers responded. They entered to drumbeats as smiling women on a decorated stage sang songs of welcome. Each woman, personally received, had a pink ‘tikka’ marked on her forehead. Tired she may have been but the energising effect of being part of a crowd of over 5,000 women like her was unmistakable.
This celebratory event, held in late February, was organised largely by the women themselves. Numbering 5,600, they are members of 437 self-help groups (SHGs) from 129 villages in the Lamta and Paraswada blocks of Balaghat district and the event was like a general body meeting of the federation they had formed and aptly named as the ‘Nari Shakti Mahila Sangh’ (women’s confederation of women power).
Its annual audit was made public during this event. Although most members were extremely poor, together they had successfully opened 314 bank accounts in various villages in 2011-2012, extended credit to the order of Rs 2.32 crore (US$1=Rs 49), redeemed loans worth Rs 1.84 crore and made savings of Rs 67.17 lakh.
Balance sheets, however, are just a small part of this story. Certainly, when the SHGs were first formed, the emphasis was on buttressing personal income and exploring livelihood options, but the journey since has been a continuous process of learning.
Recalls Sahana Mishra of Pradan, a civil society organisation that began working to form SHGs from January 2008 under the government’s Tejeswani project, “It was a struggle to form SHGs, since these villages are located in semi-isolated areas and populations are mixed, comprising tribals – Gonds make up a large chunk, but there are others, like the Baigas, classified as ‘primitive’ – as well as people belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs).”
During Pradan’s early interactions, personal experiences were shared. “Domestic violence emerged a huge problem. Women were beaten if the food was not cooked right, if they left home without permission, if they were ‘disrespectful’,” remarks Mishra. Abandonment was common she adds, “Dowry, never a tribal practice, had become normalised.”
Dr Vasu Chhatriy, Block Medical Officer, Lamta, agrees with this assessment, “Alcoholism is rampant here. Attitudes to daughters are distressing – the idea is to marry the girl as soon as possible so that parental responsibilities end.”
In order to address these issues, Pradan began an intervention in early 2011, in partnership with the Delhi-based women’s resource centre Jagori, with support from UN Women.
It aimed at getting women to speak out against violence; understand and assert their rights; and access political and economic opportunities meant for them under various government policies and programmes.
“Through our trainings, we got women to speak out. While there are instances of men preventing them from attending such meetings, what’s interesting is that sometimes village men realised women needed to come out more,” reveals Mishra.
The process of expansion has been an organic one. As women in SHGs, they realised they had to go beyond personal needs if only to secure their entitlements. So in 2010, they set up gram vikas samitis, or village development committees.
Later, five or six of these committees came together as a cluster. At the moment there are 21 such clusters here which, in turn, are the base of the Nari Shakti Mahila Sangh, created in late 2011, and which works separately in Lamta and Paraswada blocks.
In this way, otherwise faceless, powerless women – calling themselves ‘didis’, or sisters – built a collective strength they then leveraged. Last November, for instance, 220 ‘didis’ from various clusters met to discuss the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) threadbare, after which many ‘gram samitis’ were able to pressurise the authorities into giving 10 to 25 days of work to women in their villages.
Similarly, since alcohol-fuelled domestic violence was ubiquitous, women in villages like Bhamodi, Aamoli, and Kochovada were able to successfully stop the brewing and sale of liquor in their neighbourhoods. Their slogan: ‘Sharab nahi, pani chahiye/thekka nahi, kuan chahiye (not liquor, but water/not pubs but wells)’.
Agriculture continues to be the biggest source of employment and because many men have migrated, farming responsibilities increasingly fall on women. They now actively seek information on better cultivation methods, including the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) technique for paddy cultivation, and organic ways to grow vegetables like chillies, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and sem bean that can be sold in the market.
It has been just four years since the first SHGs were set up and today there are stirrings in the forested hills of Balaghat. How decisive will they be? Will they touch lives beyond the periphery of those 427 SHGs and their 129 villages? Difficult to say, but one thing is certain: For the ‘didis’ themselves, life will never be the same again. - Women's Feature Service