The past 20 years have seen the growth of grass root women’s active involvement, through programmes like the Mahila Samakhya (MS) in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). The National Literacy Mission, 1988, launched to eradicate adult illiteracy in India, led to the creation of the MS. The over arching objective of the ongoing MS programme is education for the empowerment of women. It has identified several socio-cultural and economic factors that inhibited women’s access to knowledge, information, education, mobility, and justice—complex factors that could not be tackled without the participation of women themselves. The principal strategy was to ensure this participation through mobilising and organising women into a sangh (collective)—a radical departure from conventional educational programmes at the
time. Unlike traditional literacy programmes, learning was led by women, rather than trainers providing inputs.
The mahila sangh, an independent collective of 30 to 50 women constituted at the village level is the nodal point of all activities within the MS. It provides a space for women to meet and begin articulating and negotiating their needs through collective action. Now, the sangh have expanded their spheres of activity and influence beyond just a single village through federations at the block and district level. Figure 1 represents the current structure of the federation in Andhra Pradesh which has representation from both cluster and sangh levels.
Thus, the programme emerged as a combination of literacy, mobilisation, and collective action ultimately leading to the empowerment of women. Today a strong, autonomous and mobilised women’s constituency has emerged through 37,000 sangh and 150 federations across ten states: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand—in identified educationally backward blocks (EBB) (Fig.2). Among these blocks, programme expansion was prioritised in areas with higher concentrations of tribal, scheduled caste, and minority populations.
The Panchayat Literacy Programme in Uttarakhand, a key MS innovation, is promoting women’s political participation as elected women representatives (EWRs) in the PRIs, as well as citizen participation in the gram sabha. It creates awareness among EWRs and the community about the panchayati raj system, the roles and responsibilities of the elected representatives, provides information on programmes, panchayat finances, and encourages gender equity among panchayat members. This initiative has brought thousands of sangh women into power, thus expanding their sphere of influence and ability to exercise their rights as citizens.
Federations across all states have developed networks and linkages with departments and institutions as part of an essential strategy to ensure sustainability (Fig. 2). In addition to youth groups and village committees, the sangh builds linkages with key people such as the village leader—sarpanch, village elders, and other community leaders to garner community support. At the mandal level, the federation develops linkages with government institutions to help the sangh access rights and resources across the block. These linkages include the mandal development officer, mandal education officer, bank managers, post office, and the child development programme officer, among others. Convergence meetings are conducted at mandal level, initially by the sangh and later by the federations. Government officials are invited to these meetings where the federation members present their work and negotiate around sangh needs.
At the district level, linkages with the district collector, line departments, district legal services authority and zila parishad enable federations to both gain recognition and leverage projects, like food for work awarded by the district collector to the federations in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh. Legal aid service agencies trained the legal committees and provided identity cards for the mahila court members.
Creating an enabling environment for women: An enabling environment is necessary for women and girls to exercise their rights and for institutions to function effectively. This requires families and local institutions to change their attitudes towards women and recognise their leadership. It also requires that practices that are detrimental to women leadership are challenged. Programmes such as Bala Sangham and Kishori Manch provide gender education to both boys and girls to change attitudes within the community. The campaigns run by the federation at the community level create broad based awareness on the rights of women and girls that sets the stage for subsequent activities of the sangh and federations. Over the years attitudes of the panchayat towards the sangh have changed, from hostility to acceptance. In Andhra Pradesh, the panchayat and the sangh have a mutually beneficial relationship. The sangh looks for panchayat support to solve village level issues in schools, health centres, and the anganwadi, and also takes these issues to higher levels of administration. The sangh helps the panchayat members in creating awareness, in identifying the right beneficiaries, mobilising the community to take up activities and in sensitising the community through demonstrations and campaigns. By working together with the federation, mainstream administrative structures have become more open to include policies and resolutions favourable to the women in the community.
Access to resources for the community:The federation takes up issues for the community like work for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), water, pension and health. The federation is able to access resources for the community through the strength of their collective, linkages and increased access to information.
Challenging corruption: The federations have been able to use their collective strength to deal with corruption. Federations question the status quo of corrupt methods by standing up for their rights, which the community otherwise would never have dared to raise. The federation’s reach to the district level allows them to exercise pressure on officials and local institutions. Unlike a typical hierarchical structure, the federation represents a horizontal organisation, with autonomy at various levels. Federation women, therefore, have the freedom to approach any level of the government to address issues without having to wait for approval. A woman in the Bihar federation once opined, “The police do not ask us for bribes because they know that we will raise our voice if they do.”
Creating second generation leaders: A second generation of gender sensitised leaders are now being developed by the sangh and federations through a series of initiatives. These include the Bala Sangham in Andhra Pradesh, the Kishori Manch in Assam, the Jagjagi Kendra in Bihar and the Mahila Shikshan Kendra across several states.
Fighting for issues: Feudalism and caste-related issues, which are not necessarily gender specific, are areas where federations challenge existing power relations. In tribal areas, the sangh has been able to protect their land and environment through the strength of their numbers. Sangh women in Saraikela district in Jharkhand were able to prevent a cement factory from taking over their land.
While the federations have not yet changed policies and laws, they have most certainly changed practices of local governments, and the manner in which laws, policies and programmes are implemented so as to favour women. A direct impact of the consistent efforts of the federation is the active democratic participation of EWRs in the panchayat, and of women in the gram sabha, earlier attended only by men. With their links to local governments, there is improved access to information on public goods and services, which makes officials more vigilant to the fact that women and communities have more knowledge about their entitlements. Thus, they help in making the local government more accountable, transparent, inclusive, equitable, and efficient, especially with respect to poor women (S Purushothaman et. al, 2008, ‘Role of grassroots women’s networks in engendering governance: Case of mahila samakhya, Karnataka’, Sage Publication).
This relationship between women’s federations and the state transcends the typical categories of relations described till now. This new relationship is best described as mutual investment (ibid.), recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses and understanding that individual actors cannot handle the complexity of issues and problems inherent in development processes and unequal growth.
Lastly, the federations have been able to bring back the sense of ownership of women over community issues. The insensitivity of formal and traditional governing systems has hitherto kept women from taking action. Women either tolerated the inefficiency in services or expected the men in the family, who were themselves far from empowered, to take action. The federation is a forum where women demand services as a right and enables the community to get faster and more efficient responses to their needs.