Kavita is the editor of Khabar Lahariya (News Waves), an eight-page weekly published in Uttar Pradesh in certain rural dialects of Hindi, including Bundeli, Bajjika dialects besides Avadhi. She is a sterling example of the success of the Mahila Samakhya (MS) programme that has helped mobilise rural women from traditionally marginalised groups to define and chart their own course towards empowerment.
Taking a cue from the National Policy on Education of 1986, the Mahila Samakhya (MS) programme was launched in 1989 by the Department of School Education and Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development. Given the low status, survival tasks and poverty women from marginalised groups have to face, and realising that literacy alone is not sufficient for their empowerment, MS was designed as a holistic programme with a view to enhance women’s participation on an equal footing in several areas.
Women participating in the programme learnt about their rights and entitlements and Kavita who is now a recognised journalist in UP, said she was the first woman in her family to get an education when the MS programme was started in her village.
“Growing up in rural Chitrakoot, the kind of things we were told were, ‘Why should a girl study? Is she going to be a DM or Collector?” I am the first person from my family to get an education – I fought and started studying at the age of 12 or 13, when the Mahila Samakhya programme came to our area,” she had said in an interview.
Like Kavita, many rural women in India who are generally silenced in largely male dominated society have found a voice after getting associated with the MS programme.
Sunita Verma, 38 years, who also hails from Chitrakoot district in Uttar Pradesh said that after getting enrolled in MS, she discovered a new strength in her.
“I am associated with MS since 1992. When the MS awareness camp started in our village, I used to watch it from my house but never mustered enough courage to participate in it. Then one day, I somehow sat in on a session and was enthralled by its thought-provoking ideas,” she says, adding that she passed her high school and now her 19-year old daughter is also getting educated through the programme.
However, for Verma the journey has not been easy. She said that initially her husband didn’t allow her to join MS and even resorted to violence when she resisted.
“It was not easy for women to go out and get education, in villages it is still considered a kind of taboo, but slowly my husband started to understand its (MS) benefits. Today, I have his full support. I even travelled to Lucknow and Delhi on educational tours and met many people. I never thought that I would ever come out of my village,” Verma says.
Saddened by the Government’s decision to merge it with NRLM or National Rural Livelihoods Mission, Verma said that it would be big blow to many rural women like her who have been its beneficiaries over the years.
Safiya Zameer, District Co-ordinator of MS in Sitapur village of UP agrees that it would be a “big blunder” on the part of the Government to close down the programme.
“After putting so much effort over the years and with such great results, it is shocking to hear that Government is thinking of its merger. All our hard work will go waste. We are pained by this decision,” Safiya rues.
The Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) published their evaluation report last year on the MS programme.
It shows that the programme that started as a pilot project in 10 districts in the States of UP, Karnataka and Gujarat, had in 15 years spread to cover 130 districts and 679 blocks/Mandals in the country. The programme covers 36 percent of the blocks/mandals in the districts in which it is working that indicates a sizeable coverage of rural parts. It had a presence in 44,446 villages that is in about a quarter of the villages of the districts where it is present.
Some interesting findings of the study are that MS that began with a strong focus on the most vulnerable women—women who were at the receiving end of multiple modes of discrimination – has steadily shown a horizontal expansion. One way of interpreting this pattern is that MS by and large reveals a bottom-up approach to empowerment, where the initially most vulnerable have to close in upon themselves till such point as they develop enough power and confidence to be able to relate with some confidence and measure of equality with other social groups.
There is also strong evidence of high levels of participation in institutionalised democratic spaces by Sangha women; 96 percent of the Sanghas rated their participation in Gram Sabha, or village committee, meetings as regular; 86.4 percent of the individual members surveyed report regular participation in the Gram Sabha deliberations.
Though the women’s collectives often put them in conflict with powerful local actors, by and large the groups have persevered in their efforts. A total of 30,090 Sangha members have contested Panchayati Raj elections, out of which 12,905 (43 percent) have been elected. Sangha women also find representation on the school management committees. There are 30,377 SMC members who are also sangha members. There are 481 Nari Adalats, which have dealt with, cumulatively, 30,410 cases up to now. This picture is corroborated by non-members as well.
A shocking move
Therefore, it comes as no small surprise that the Government of India (GoI) is planning to “close the programme indefinitely”.
Minister of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) in a new proposal has decided to merge the MS with NRLM as funding for the programme from the education budget is set to end on 31 March 2016.
The move has drawn severe criticism from many quarters, for what many believe would end the unique character of this globally lauded programme. Expressing their concern about the GoI’s decision, women’s rights activists, researchers, academics and scholars have written an open letter to the MHRD to reverse their decision.
“Closing MS would block these empowered women from influencing the course of development and achievement of sustainable development goals, and would be a huge loss to the nation” says their letter.
Vijaya Sherry Chand a professor and chairperson at Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at IIMA who was a part of the 2014 national evaluation of the MS programme told Policy Pulse that even though NRLM has objectives that are complementary to, yet it is no substitute for MS’s focus on structural exclusions faced by marginalised women.
“MS has addressed issues related to violence and enabled women to contest their exclusion from other public spaces including local self-government, with reasonable success. There is some discussion to merge MS with NRLM, but the discussion is still ongoing, and we are aware from news reports that there are demands from some states to retain MS as a separate programme,” Chand said.
Surprisingly, the Government so far has given no convincing reasons for the decision to close it despite the positive evaluation of the programme.
Sources in MHRD, refusing to be named, said that the decision has come directly from the Prime Minister’s Office and they too haven’t been given any reason for it. “All the reports and studies conducted on MS impact and its relevance have strongly commended MS contribution towards women empowerment. Why this programme is being closed down no one has a clue,” officials said.
Officials also add that in its current implementation framework, the NRLM does not have adequate mechanisms for mobilising women and addressing issues of social and gender discrimination and exclusion.
“Sustaining and nurturing this overarching focus of MS may not be possible if it gets subsumed in NRLM. Integration would also mean the loss of freedom and autonomy in fixing programme focus, determining interventions, and in recruitments. All these would be influenced and determined by NRLM which is the larger umbrella under which MS is getting placed,” they said.
In the MS programme, the perspectives and knowledge base of poor and marginalised women have been kept at the centre. The challenge will be to retain this approach when MS integrates with NRLM which largely focuses on savings and credit.
There are also severe structural implications of merger, as MS currently is run through independent State societies. Issues that could arise relate to structural autonomy, dedicated budgets, sustainability of alternative structures such as Nari Adalats, Nari Sanjivini Kendras, etc.
Prime Minister’s words
The irony is that the move has come at a time when the Modi-led Government has been making all the right noises to seriously address gender inequality in the country.
During a launch of National programme "Beti bachao, beti padhao" in a bid to encourage birth and education of girls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an emotional speech exhorted people not to regress to 18th century mindset and called for an end to the discrimination between sons and daughters.
“We have no right to call ourselves 21st century citizens as long as we have an 18th century mindset. We don’t have the right to kill a girl or deprive her from getting an education,” Modi had said.
“We are puzzled that a Government which one hand advocates gender justice in its beti bachao, beti padhao slogan would want to do anything other than encourage such a programme,” said Ankur Sarin, a faculty member of IIMA, who was a also a part of the 2014 National evaluation of MS.
“MS is primarily an educational programme, focusing on training and mobilising women for empowerment, and does not focus on delivering services. Its ability to address social injustice through this process should be leveraged. MS can augment other initiatives of the State and civil society that aim at gender justice,” he added.
In a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, India’s score represents extremely high level gender parity. India’s global Gender Parity Score or GPS is 0.48 as compared with 0.71 for Western Europe and 0.74 for North America and Oceania.
The report suggested that about 70 percent of the GDP increase can happen by raising India’s female labour force participation rate by 10 percentage points, from 31 percent now to 41 percent in 2025. If Government goes by this projection it would mean jobs for 68 million women over the next 10 years, the report says.
Therefore, many associated with the MS programme are hoping that the Minister for Human Resources, only the second woman to head the Ministry, Smriti Irani, will take a personal interest in maintaining one of the few programmes that have displayed effective and successful progress towards achieving women’s empowerment.