Once women were organised into collectives, they became more proficient in making decisions on livelihoods and enhancing economic stability; challenging family, caste and social norms then was a natural consequence
T he formation of women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) has now become, by and large, synonymous with acquiring credit and achieving economic betterment; this has, however, tended to obscure the deeper contributions of these collectives to social change.
This article tells the story of the women’s collectives in Champadih village in Padma block of Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand, and highlights how the collectivization of women has helped them challenge family, caste and village structures.
The journey of these women as a collective started 18 years ago, with the support of PRADAN, an NGO working in the area. After facing many obstacles from their families and immediate society, the women of Champadih were able to convince their husbands and other family members to let them go out of their homes and join an SHG. In the initial days, the SHG was used as an instrument by the family members of these women to meet their credit needs. However, for the women, this was an opportunity to meet and talk about their lives with each other. They spoke of the different ways they experienced violence in their families and in society.
Working very closely with the women, PRADAN imparted several trainings, arranged for exposure visits, provided hand-holding support and stood with them at every step of their learning phase. The training programmes included subjects such as finance management, credit planning, and improved technologies for agriculture, poultry and tasar rearing. These helped the women enhance their income as well as their technical know-how and to take decisions regarding family livelihoods. Gradually, they started to discuss other aspects of their family and village lives.
At this point, trainings on gender, violence against women, including its legal aspects, patriarchy and power dynamics helped the women understand their lives considerably. Their articulation and narration about life started to change and they started to see societal norms and people’s behaviour through the lens of gender. Subsequent information and knowledge regarding governance and citizenship helped the women understand issues through the perspective of rights and duties of a citizen. Gradually, a few women became capable of leading change in the village.
T he village experienced the first large collective movement when two women, Neelam and Maya, were verbally abused by men in the village panchayat. Neelam and Maya had gone to Hazaribagh to attend a residential training on poultry. They stayed in Mayuri Regency hotel. Some of the villagers saw them and brought the news back to the decision-makers (the powerful men) of the village. After the three-day training, the women came back to the village. At night (around 10 pm), they were informed that they had to attend the panchayat meeting the next day. Both of them were very young and were afraid for their family’s reputation and the future implications this might have for the family.
The next day, they attended the panchayat meeting and tried their best to keep as composed as possible. The men used humiliating language and marked them as ‘characterless women’, as if only characterless women spend nights at a hotel. The two women tried their best to justify themselves but found it difficult to face the hostile and insulting gestures of the men.
Suddenly, around 30 women from several hamlets of the village walked boldly into the meeting. It was a very strange moment for the village panchayat. Some husbands, fathers-in-law and even sons started to scold their respective wives, daughters-in-law or mothers. But this did not stop the women. They explained how these two women were trying to bring alternative options of livelihood to the village, which is why they had gone to attend the training in the hotel. They challenged the men for daring to call the women ‘characterless’. The men had no option but to leave the meeting without uttering a word against the collective voice of the women.
It was the first time the women’s collective raised its voice in defence of its own dignity.
The consequences of the above incident were visible when the very next day, Maya’s mother-in-law died. The men of the village refused to take the dead body to the crematorium. It was a humiliation for the family as well as a real problem. Maya went to every man and apologized but no one was willing to listen. Some of the women gathered (except some who could not muster enough courage to go against the men in their family) one by one and took the decision to go to the crematorium. For the first time, a large number of women took part in this kind of an occasion.
T he story did not end there. On the day of dash-karam (memorial service), the women from other villages joined in; it was a huge procession of women from the village to the river. For the first time ever, women took part in the bhoj (feast) arranged for this cause. The men had to accept the power of the women’s collective and how aware the women were now. Since then, women have been invited to such feasts, not only in this village but also in other nearby villages. This became an example of what could be achieved through the solidarity of the women’s collective movement.
The women’s collective took many initiatives for gender equality in the village. When any woman of the village is now asked what she thinks is a radical change that has taken place, the prompt answer is: “Maar-pitai bandh hogaya (The beatings and violence have stopped).”
All of these women were being beaten/hit/thrashed at least once by their husbands or other family members. Now, they claim boldly that domestic violence has been reduced by as much as 80 per cent. The men too have become somewhat more sensitive because they know that the women are not alone and that they have other women behind them. This has not been a smooth journey—the women worked hard for it. They fought cases, went to the police station, and to the victims’ families and counselled family members.
The women took several initiatives for girls’ education. They arranged several awareness meetings with the women on gender division, discrimination in girls’ education and on patriarchy. They arranged for nukkar nataks (street plays) on the girl child and bahu-shiksha (educating the daughters-in-law). In 1993, there was only one woman who had passed her Class X Board Exams. Now, there are a number of girls who are studying in Class XII, doing their graduation or pursuing higher studies.
Along with gender equality, the women also took steps to move towards caste equality. Previously, during meetings, the Dalit (the Bhuiyas, the Rabidas) women did not sit with the other women on the same mat. Now, after many discussions, all the women sit on the same mat. Not only that, the women, and their families drink water from the same hand-pump or even in one another’s homes. There is a temple in the village that the Dalits were not allowed to enter. The women’s Village Organization (VO – a collective of Self-Help Groups of the village) took the initiative to break the social culture/norms. Now, the Dalits also take part in the worship of the Goddess during all the festive occasions. Not only that, now the Hindus and the Muslims of the village take part in each other’s rituals and meet one another.
Inter-caste marriage was a crime three-and-a-half years ago. Now, around 12 girls and boys of the village have had inter-caste marriages and all the marriages are well-accepted in the family as well as in society. In a few of these marriages, no dowry was taken or given.
B ringing changes in the caste and dowry dimensions needed constant efforts from the women’s collectives. But the women say that there are still miles to go to before the system of dowry is done away with. Within a few years of the initiation of the SHG collectives in this village, the women leaders identified dowry and female foeticide as the main issues and needed to be dealt with first. They started to discuss this in various forums such as the SHGs, the Cluster, the Federation meetings, and the Maha-adhivesans, keeping it as the prime agenda.
The women presented many plays, performing nukkar nataks on this theme in hamlets, on the roads, in common places of the villages, in order to create awareness on this subject. Owing to the prevalence of the dowry system, kanya bhrunhatya (female foeticide) is quite frequent in the area. The women plan to meet the Presidents of the different jati-sabhas (the committees of the various castes), which are quite influential in their particular caste, and talk to them about coming out with some plans to stop the dowry system.
The economic prosperity of the village can also be linked to the women’s collective movement. Nineteen SHGs of the village have transactions of around one crore rupees. Some SHGs have savings of Rs 100 or 200 per week (an increase from Rs 5 per week). When one enters the village, one sees a number of shops selling fruit, groceries, utensils, stationery, shoes, clothes and even photocopying shops. The women narrate the history of these shops and the contribution of the SHGs in setting them up.
On the local market day, one can see women selling vegetables. Most of the houses are pucca. The SHGs have provided credit and built linkages with the bank, helping women develop their entrepreneurial skills. Improved technologies and practices for vegetable and other field crops have been learned and adopted by a number of women, who are now earning a substantial income from their agriculture practices.
W omen of this village have shown courage in raising their voice in the panchayat and other places. One woman was in an illicit relationship with a man of that village. The man was a zila-panchayat member. During a panchayat meeting, the men asked the women to remove the concerned woman from all their collectives. The women responded that they would decide after discussing it in their collective meeting and that it would be their own decision. However, if this woman had to leave the women’s collectives, the zila-panchayat member would also have to leave his position. The panchayat was not ready for this type of a response, but appreciated the women’s decision.
In another panchayat meeting, the husband of the Mukhiya chaired the meeting in place of the real Mukhiya. The women said that they would not allow the meeting to start until the real Mukhiya arrived and took responsibility for steering the meeting. The Mukhiya’s husband left and sent his wife to do her work.
The experience in Champadih raises certain questions. All the villagers, including the men and the young boys and girls, appreciate the changes that have taken place and accept the role played by the women’s collectives in bringing about these changes. One observation, however, is that the participation of men in the change process has not been equal to that of the women. It seems that only women have taken the responsibility to bring such a massive change in the village. Sometimes, it seems that the men are indifferent. They say, “Mahila mandal bahut kuch kar rahe hai (The women’s collective is doing a lot).”
This raises the question of what motivates the members of the collective to continue to work for change in society. Another question has to do with how these outcomes can be replicated in other villages. How can all the villages move towards transformational change in gender, caste and class?
The answer of the women leaders of this village is that the changes are happening in most villages in the area, if not to the same degree as in Champadih. These leaders have themselves taken the initiative to develop visionary and transformative women leaders in all the villages of their area.
Women’s collectives, with their visionary and active leaders, are capable of enhancing the relationship among villagers and making the villages a better place to live.