Women’s Empowerment – SWRC
In the Beginning…
SWRC was fortunate that it began its professional life with a strong women’s team in its organisation in 1973. Three women from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences came to manage health, education and child care. They were soon joined by a woman doctor.The health team had to make frequent visits to the village and break down immense caste barriers to convince women and men to take health seriously.
The first women’s group to be identified were the midwives, along with the unemployed women who needed income and got involved with craft. The ‘dais’ or midwives were always strong women, opinion makers and influenced decision in their village. The formation of dai groups excellent in their function however failed to take strong positions on development issues, since they were mothers-in-law and within the traditional power structure in the village. The handicraft women’s groups proved narrow in their perspective, not willing to look at breaking social mores, income generation became a primary and consuming concern.
It was soon clear that a woman who was progressive enough to look for socio-economic change as a process of liberation of herself and other women be identified. Four women emerged – Mangi, who broke the taboos of health; Naurti, who was a born leader and led the minimum wage struggle; Bila, who faced caste criticism to forge a new life and; Haseena, who had faced community criticism to have a civil marriage, although within the community.
In the struggle for minimum wages in Harmara, the battle began with women understanding that there was a minimum wage. Empowerment of women therefore, did not begin with training for leadership, which was impossible, but identifying leaders. The SWRC initiated an empowerment training, where the 4 women came for the whole day and were paid a stipend. The first half was literacy and skill training. In the afternoons, the trainees became the teachers. They held class for the literate women and some men on social, political and economic conditions amongst women, the role of caste and the manipulation of power in a village.
This experiment worked so well that it attracted the attention of civil servants with commitment and drive. Anil Bordia, a civil servant, friend and supporter of new ideas was a frequent visitor to SWRC and had interacted often with the trainees, and supported the idea of a six month training in political literacy. This resulted in the creation of Sathins and the concept of a Women’s Development Programme (WDP), by the Government of Rajasthan, where leaders were not trained, but leadership potential was identified and strengthened.
Women’s Mela/ MahilaMela
Tilonia formed 11 women’s groups around the leadership of 11 powerful women, but where there was no single leader. She was accountable to the group. They travelled to Himachal Pradesh and came back with a desire to have a big congregation of women. It was then decided that we would soon plan a meeting of women from the SWRC network – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh (members of SAMPADA) and other women. In 1985 it was the decade of the international women’s struggle for equality. The SWRC held a “Women’s Mela” on the campus in Tilonia for rural women. It turned out to be a phenomenal experience for the 1000 women gathered there. It ended with the first rally against rape, protesting against the assault on an 11 year old girl. SWRC continued to participate in women’s issues in Rajasthan – sati, Bhanwari Devi rape case, Vishakha mobilisation. The women from SWRC subsequently formed a separate independent unit called Rajasthan Mazdoor KisanMorcha (RMKM), which has carried on the work and has been in the forefront of many women’s struggles.
The women in rural Rajasthan enjoy very little freedom. The purdah system is still very pronounced here and women cannot leave home without a veil. A community which is very rigid in its outlook is especially so towards its women and girls. The Barefoot College began the women’s development program to facilitate collective and direct action for change. Women’s issues included organizing for better wages, legal rights, as well as family planning and other health concerns were the focus of initial efforts. It has contributed largely to womens development in Rajasthan.
Mahila or women’s groups were formed to discuss and change attitudes. Initially, the rural men were extremely hostile towards these meetings. Gradually however, communities realized that the women were not revolting but were trying to improve their lives of their families. Today there are about 150 Mahila groups throughout India. Awareness camps are organized by the group to share information on women’s rights, health, hygiene, legal issues, and political practices and policies, like the Pachayati Raj, government policies that affect them, and their role in the various projects run in the village. They also deal with personal issues.
Many women have been trained in digital literacy, including educating them sufficiently to enable data entry operators for accounts, stocks and so on, within the organisation. One of the women from the Rajasthan Mazdoor Kisan Morcha, who trained in computers, also became a sarpanch and was empowered more than her data operator, to oversee her work.
Projects for Women
Since the College believes in an integrated development approach, the women in the organisation also get involved in other projects like communication, handpump maintenance, and sale of handicrafts. These income-generating projects help teach the women money management, sales and other business skills in the marketing of Barefoot College Crafts.
Annual Report 2020