The Mahila Samakhya Programme

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The Mahila Samakhya Programme – Short excerpts of this 16 pages article: … The Mahila Samakhya experience over the past twelve years offers a unique case of trying to explore and understand the issues of women’s education and empowerment and the inter linkages thereof in different regional and rural contexts within India. It offers an example of the importance of empowerment of women as a critical precondition to facilitate greater inclusion of women and their daughters into education. Further, it provides an alternative paradigm to women’s mobilisation and empowerment to the current and dominant focus on economic interventions as the principal strategy for women’s empowerment. The uniqueness of the MS strategy was pithily captured in the Programme Appraisal Report of 1989. “There is no programme comparable to the Education for Women’s Equality programme in terms of the scale and mix of activities, in terms of organisational location and form, or in terms of the long term ambition to grow into a major vehicle for women’s empowerment throughout India.” Has this euphoric expectation been met? Successive evaluations have generally concurred with this early expectation with some limitations. The organisational form and diversity of activities has been an effective vehicle for women’s empowerment and education in the areas where the programme is being implemented. However, it has a long way to go to have an impact across the country.

Mahila Samakhya started as a pilot project in 10 districts in the States of UP, Gujarat and Karnataka during 1988-89 and has grown into a programme of scale and is currently being implemented in 60 backward districts in the country covering over 9000 villages in 10 states. It is estimated that over two lakh women are actively mobilised and organised by the programme with a much larger number being impacted indirectly …

… For the women, participation in and the decision to be active in the sanghas has often been the first gateway to be crossed and their first empowered step. While poor women are always outside the four walls of the home working and toiling, this is a new experience for both the women and their families. Women meeting for no apparent or specific purpose. The dilemmas are many. For most women it was the ridicule and heckling by village men that is the most difficult for others it is the reactions of the husband. A sangha woman in Tehri, Uttar Pradesh recalls, “my husband told me to stay at home and look after the housework, in stead of going and gossiping. If I was late in cooking his dinner after a meeting, I was beaten.” Another woman in Andhra Pradesh recalls the taunts she and her friends faced in the village, ’’today you could not cook because of the meeting, tomorrow you will ask men to wash clothes. What do you think you are going to do, rule the country?” As most of the women the programme works with are poor women and generally belong to the lower caste, the pressures at home were further exacerbated by the fact that they were mobile in spaces traditionally reserved for men and in many cases for upper caste men only. During a field review in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the perceptions of what women saw as the greatest benefit from the programme was tellingly brought forward. For the programme person the greatest change from her point of view was the ability of poor women to raise their voices against age-old traditions and prevent the initiation of girls as joginis. For the sangha women, while this was important, what was more significant were their regular meetings at the panchayat building. As one woman said “ this change will be there forever. We too have the right to use the panchayat building.” This is establishing rights in several ways, the rights of women, poor women and women from lower social castes, and especially the rights of joginis who constituted the majority of that sangha …

… While no two sanghas address the same issue at the same time, today we are in a position to broadly categorise the issues being addressed by the sanghas as the following:

? Education of children especially girls, child labour.
As indicated later the greatest impact of women’s mobilisation has been in the area of girls’ education. Often women have taken difficult decisions of withdrawing children especially girls from work and providing them an opportunity for education. Khatimabehn from Rajkot district sent four of her daughters to the Mahila Shikshan Kendra (a residential learning centre) for a period of 8 months. The girls had dropped out after class 4 and were each earning Rs.40 per day in normal circumstances and upto Rs.80 per day during agricultural sessions. Khatimaben preferred loosing a huge amount of money, which these girls would have brought in 8 months time, had they not been to Mahila Shikshan Kendra. “ All their lives, these girls have been working and in future too, they will work. Let them study and enjoy life for sometime at least.”

There is a great concern that their daughters are not in the same position the women find themselves in. A Sakhi (sangha leader) from UP is emphatic “I want to make sure that our daughters and granddaughters are not humiliated by having to make their thumb-marks instead of writing their names.”

? Seeking and obtaining literacy and numeracy skills for themselves
MS consciously took a decision not to exhort sangha women to acquire literacy skills. Instead waited till the sanghas themselves felt the need to acquire the basic skills of reading and writing. Over the past few years with an increasing number of women standing for elections in panchayat elections, and sanghas also federating at block levels, each sangha recognises the need for at least some of their members to be fully literate.
A song composed by sangha women in Gujarat says, “we though we were uneducated but we were only illiterate. Now we know we can learn reading and writing-we know we are not inferior. We are part of this world!”

Though every sangha now has at least 4 to 5 of their younger members who are fully literate, this continues to be an area where the women and the programme are struggling.

? Health
Discussions on health have enabled discussions on women’s work, nutrition, health status and how all these are determined by women’s social status and societal attitudes and perceptions.
In Andhra Pradesh for instance, sanghas especially in Mahabubnagar district decided to withdraw their girls from working in cotton fields as they understood the adverse impact this was having on the health of prepubescent girls and the longterm disadvantage these children face as they lose the opportunity to study.
There has been a consistent effort to retrieve and validate womens’ knowledge of herbal medicines. Sangha women in Raichur district in Karnataka say, “Our sangha has got some land from the Panchayat. We have planted an herbal garden so that we can collect the herbs and make our own medicines. We don’t have to depend on the doctors for every small illness.”
In Karnataka, sangha women decided on a moonlight dinner festival for themselves to celebrate what they had learnt on nutrition in health trainings. High protein laddoos made of pulses and jaggery, women bringing other dishes were to be the menu. The festival was to be held in a public place in the village so thay they could demonstrate many things, their right to enjoy food, their right to look after their health and their right to meet and celebrate in a public place!

? Livelihood issues, savings and credit, access to government resources, natural resource management
Addressing livelihood issues has not been easy for the MS programme. How does one mesh this into a primarily educational programme? How does one ensure a critical decision on livelihoods? Given that almost all the members in the sanghas are poor women, livelihood security has been high on the agenda. The programme is still struggling to arrive at a clear understanding on this issue. The fear has been that it is very easy to fall into the same rut of extant governmental efforts that have not really enabled women to move out of the poverty trap, or reduce economic exploitation, or enhance women’s skills and capabilities in marketing and management at local levels …

… The self help and livelihood group activites in turn have started a spiral of learning writing, numercay, book keeping and maintenance of accounts.

? Participation in local governance

? Ensuring effective delivery and functioning of government services and structures

? Articulating their concerns and tackling social issues like alcoholism, violence against women/child marriage, challenging and changing traditions that discriminate against women …

… Programme strategies and interventions are essentially as follows:
? Ensuring information flow on the issues raised by women, using a variety of print and oral media followed by discussion and analysis from a woman’s perspective.
? Periodic thematic training’s on health, social forestry, environment, panchayati raj, etc
? Skill development in literacy, masonry, herbal medicines, accounts, book keeping etc
? Capacity building in leadership, decision making, negotiation, conflict resolution, participation in local bodies
? Provision of educational alternatives like Mahila Shikshan Kendras, which are residential learning centres and facilitating the emergence of alternative fora for women such as the health centres, women’s courts

Over the years a clearer understanding has evolved of the dimensions to the education for empowerment that MS seeks to provide. As the women’s collectives and the programme have matured there has been a broader understanding that has unfolded from the initial understanding of enabling women to come together, to be mobile, and find time for themselves to meet and reflect on their lives. As Jain and Krishnamurthy (1997) have pointed out three strands of this empowering education can be seen. 1) Education as life skills that validates the existence of self, builds self esteem and confidence through collective strength, enables decision making and planning for the future and action for change. 2) Education as information and knowledge. This entails not only acquisition but also effective application of this information and knowledge for instance in the areas of health, environment, law, government. schemes and programmes. Knowledge and information is demystified and women are enabled to take action themselves (for e.g. make Primary health centre, the anganwadi, school, block office bank, police station, courts etc accessible and accountable) 3) Education as skills. Acquiring basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy; acquiring skills to directly address livelihood concerns, breaking gender stereotypes by entering male domains and acquiring skills traditionally seen as male and becoming of hand pump mechanics, masons and forest watch and ward.

One of the most effective expressions of women’s understanding of their life situations is in the decisions that women across all the states have taken with regard to children’s/ girls education. This is manifested in various ways. Taking decisions to send children/girls to schools or the Mahila Shikshan Kendras (residential learning centres) which in several cases means decisions to withdraw children from work and a loss of income to the household. Acting against child marriage and postponing marriage by several years. Ensuring that the educational system is effective through monitoring of schools and actively participating in school bodies such as the village and school education committees. One of the most important markers of this sense of ownership has been the degree of voluntarism and financial support that the sanghas provide to the various educational interventions and bridging courses (like the Bal Mitra Kendras in Andhra Pradesh, Jagjagi centres in Bihar and Jagriti centres in Assam) run by the programme.

Perhaps the greatest and most heartening impact of adult women’s empowerment and education has been the impact that it has had on the lives of girls, especially adolescent girls. The focus on adolescent girls has evolved over a period of time. While the programme objectives envisaged that the programme would impact and ensure girls’ education, and that appropriate and supportive educational interventions like the Mahila Shikshan Kendras (residential learning centres hereafter referred to as MSK) would be introduced, the issue of girl’s education did not surface from the very beginning. In the initial stages of the programme there was a conscious focus on mobilising and organising women. As the sanghas coalesced and discussions began to centre more and more on the status of women, the questions of how to change the future invariably centred on how to equip the younger generation to negotiate and challenge an unequal world … (full text of this 16 pages article).

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