A journey in a woman's life doesn't necessarily proceed in one direction but in multiple ways and through various paths. Lata Sachdeva who works with Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) describes the journey that KMVS has undertaken to empower the political and social participation of women from the margins. KMVS has grown as an organisation over two decades from working with women to make them self-dependent in socio-political and economic contexts to moving towards ensuring their larger participation in their respective communities. This blog takes you through a journey of an organisation that has build many roads and paths as alternatives for women, in Lata's voice.
KMVS that is located in Kutch is one of the largest districts in Gujarat. It is a drought prone area which disturbs the natural equilibrium for farming and animal husbandry – the primary mode of survival. All the traditional practices were once being controlled by men and in order to break this monopoly, of men over the means of production, KMVS focused on providing alternative paths for sustenance which included production of traditional Kutch handicraft. This wasn't a new means of production as it was being produced from a long time but KMVS helped in the removal of middle men and provided a platform for women to enter public spaces without feeling threatened by men who occupied the economic spaces.
The economic empowerment of women made access to public spaces possible if not available. We (KMVS members) realised that while women could work and earn but their rights and demands were being neglected. Patriarchy was entrenching itself deeper and furthering the marginalisation of women in different spaces; household, public sphere, governance, work place and others. Around the same time some Gujarati activists attended a conference at Beijing in 1994. The conference emphasised on the need for political participation and empowerment of women. When the activists returned they decided to bring women to the forefront of politics and governance. While this was a general promise activists made to themselves, KMVS initiated this process in Kutch. KMVS did this by invoking the Panchayati Raj provision of reserving 33 percent for women and advocated women in the governance aspect and the importance of belonging to political institutions. They also accentuated the importance of decision making processes at a political level by explaining the power it would provide to bring about changes for the benefit of their respective communities. As this process was gaining fervour I also got involved and worked with women in Panchayati institutions as their role and position had a lot to offer to other women in Kutch. Women Panchayat leaders (called as Sarpanch) who were trying to foreground themselves by making decisions for women and men of their communities experienced discrimination every time they put forward their ideas because Panchayat as an institution was and is dominated by men.
We at KMVS realised this and conducted a study to understand the kind of challenges, women as leaders in Panchayats experienced.
We understood that women were removed from their post by passing a no-confidence motion against them every time they tried to reinforce their opinions and demands. This discrimination led to removal of 18/19 women sarpanch whereas no male sarpanch experienced such a motion against him.
KMVS initiated various processes to fight this discrimination. One of the major initiative was founding of a federation where both sangha women and Elected Representative Women (EWRs) assembled on the same platform to engage with issues of oppression and discrimination. This led to confidence building as women together were able to envision change. The best example one can provide of this; is an incident where a woman sarpanch from a small village in Kutch rallied and and fought for the survival of the local populations. She did this by challenging the construction of the thermal power plant that was being built in her village that has grassland . She followed every step from researching over the usage of thermal power with help of other activists, formulating a case against such projects, confronting the MLA who was making false promises regarding withdrawal of the project and fighting legal battles. She even took the case up to the Supreme Court to get her demand approved. She was able to fight this issue because she was in a position of power and had support from the villagers whom she was fighting for. Even after her death other elected women representatives from the village continued with development work for the community. This surfaces the changes a woman can bring if she is confident and strong enough to fight the battles that come along by the virtue of being in position of power.
I was with her at each step and realised how important it was to pursue ones goals with confidence and strength. This success made other women think of political participation and over time, the women at the federation had seriously started pursuing leadership and also became the thought and executing force behind the successful voter awareness campaign in December 2011. In the following elections, 25% of the women from the federation were reappointed and brought to power.
While political, social and economic participation has increased the information production and dissemination were seen to be lacking. To bridge this information technology was used in a context that it enabled dissemination of information. With this belief KMVS started a radio show in 1998 by introducing a slot in All India Radio programme. The technology initiative was furthered by introducing SMS services on mobile phones to address the issue of domestic violence called 'Hello Sakhi.' We finally succeeded in getting the licence for a community based radio station called 'Ujas', that covered 26 villages.
We as women have different associations with institutions both personally and professionally but KMVS has not only empowered us but has helped build solidarities with other women and communities. These solidarities are helping us in initiating different programmes to help women in socio-political and economic ways.
Lata's reflections takes us through a journey which aims to empower women in a holistic way which has made them view and express themselves as citizens. KMVS has constantly engaged, and continues to engage in, democratising information and participation of women in social, political, environmental and political contexts. It has used various methods and approaches the latest being technology as Lata stated.