The idea and agenda of women empowerment by governments, funding agencies and other non-state actors has a long and chequered history within and across countries. Till date it is not clear at what point one can emphatically assert that the programme of women empowerment has been successfully achieved or is on the verge of being achieved; countries across the world, in particular developing countries, whose women are generally deemed to be the most ‘disempowered’ have in place a whole array of ‘women empowerment’ programmes designed to address one or several aspects of the functioning of [formal or informal] institutions/societies that contribute to ‘disempowering’ women.
Following Kabeer (1999), we conceptualise power as the ability to make choices: to be disempowered, therefore, implies to be denied choice … the notion of empowerment is that it is inescapably bound up with the condition of disempowerment and refers to the processes by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such an ability. In other words, empowerment entails a process of change, (ibid.: 436-437, emphasis as in original)
Against the backdrop of the above notion of ’empowerment’, here we discuss two different kinds of attempts and approaches to ’empower’ women that the author has studied in some depth (Swaminathan and Jeyaranjan, 2008: 77-86; Swaminathan, 2008: 48-56). These approaches, among other things, reveal how the leadership instrumental in conceptualising and implementing these programmes had completely opposing views of what constitutes women empowerment, thereby leading to divergent results. The relevance of revisiting these studies lies in underscoring the point that the State’s agenda of ’empowering’ women continues to be charity/welfare-based, such that the ‘process of change’ mentioned above results in dependency rather than women empowerment.
CASE 1 OF WOMEN EMPOWERMENT: CREATING SYNERGY ACROSS GOVERNMENT PROGRAMMES AND ENSURING OFFICIAL DELIVERY OF SERVICES
This case study explores the manner in which a non-governmental organisation (NGO) has, through its programme aimed at ‘Empowering Women through Collective Action’, operationalised to a substantive extent the notion of gender mainstreaming by combining economic transformation with social emancipation. It also highlights the processes that are required and those that need to be put in place to expand the substantive freedoms of people (Sen, 1999), both as the ‘principal means’ and as the ‘primary end1 of development.
This case study is a programme of the M.V. Foundation (henceforth MVF), namely, ‘Empowering Women through Collective Action and Environment Programme’, operational in the Ranga Reddy district of Andhra Pradesh, a rural hinterland, whose economy is inextricably linked with the expanding urban economy of Hyderabad. Like many rural hinterlands, Ranga Reddy district provides the much needed unskilled labour force for the city, among other things. Most of these workers are small peasants and are generally from the lower caste and class. The land that they owned in the hinterland was uncultivable and they had no resources, either in kind or money, to convert this land into productive assets and/or use the land productively. Most of their land was ‘assigned’ land. Assigned lands are the redistributed surplus lands to the landless by the State under some land reforms programme. Under these circumstances, when the city of Hyderabad provided some regular employment, most of the peasants either migrated or began commuting daily to the city. The living conditions in the city were deplorable but in a situation where they had no productive employment in their villages, the peasants chose to work in the urban economy. They were discriminated in the urban labour market as well. They managed to fetch only poorly paid and irregular employment when compared to other migrant workers.
NATURE OF MVF LEADERSHIP
M.V. Foundation entered the arena (towards the end of the 1990s, early 2000) at a time when the situation had considerably worsened. It set out to regenerate the environment and livelihoods of these marginalised peasants in the hope that if it could demonstrate that the land at the disposal of the peasants, however, degraded, could be converted into a dependable livelihood source and if, in addition, it could establish the viability of land-based activities, including agriculture, the distress migration of peasants to the city in search of some source of livelihood could be arrested. To achieve this objective, MVF devised a unique strategy. It firmly believed that the State had, over a period, conceived, announced, but half-heartedly implemented several land- and rural-based programmes that could be profitably sourced; more importantly, MVF also realised that most of these programmes were backed by sufficient budgetary allocations. It leveraged such programmes to achieve its objective. Towards this, it worked with the targeted marginalised communities, on the one hand, and the State bureaucracy on the other. A more crucial aspect of the model that we will elaborate concretely as we go along is that a catalyst is needed to create the much-needed synergy and sequential interlinkage between conception, resource dedication and implementation of the programmes on the ground. M.V. Foundation played this crucial catalytic role.
The core competence of MVF is the strategic alliance that it establishes constantly with key actors. On one side is the State. The State is referred to here in a very broad sense. The State, with its developmental and social sector agenda, has periodically announced several programmes that directly impinge on the lives and the livelihoods of the people. However, it is quite well understood by now that only a fraction of the intended benefits have reached the people for whom the programmes have been conceived and for which programmes enormous scarce resources are being earmarked, year after year. The problem is not just in the realm of implementation. The Foundation has correctly diagnosed the problem as one that, of necessity, requires multiple and simultaneous actions on several fronts to actualise the benefits Of the programmes. Where MVF stands out is that it has ventured to work along with the State and through this collaboration make the State accountable to the people for whom the latter has designed the programmes. In contrast, many NGOs intervene by mobilising resources from various sources and in the process project themselves as a substitute for the State. Can any organisation substitute for the State? The philosophy of working through the State, or rather make the State programmes work, has been the guiding principle for MVF, not only in this relatively little-known programme of ‘Empowering Women through Collective Action’, but also in its universally well-known programme of women education and child labour.
GROUP VERSUS INDIVIDUAL BENEFICIARIES: PROCESS OF WOMEN EMPOWERMENT
The beneficiaries of MVF programmes are clearly differentiated on the basis of caste and gender. While Dalits and tribals, in general, and women among them, in particular, are the main focus, in some areas, other backwards classes (OBCs) are also included, as many of the programmes are implemented for a group as a whole; hardly any programme is individual-based. The Foundation facilitates and ensures full and continuous participation by beneficiaries in all of its programmes. For instance, under the wasteland development programme, the State earmarks a fixed sum but often such sums are grossly inadequate to complete the task. Under such circumstances, the beneficiaries are required to put in considerable resources in terms of both time and money to complete the work and realise the benefits. As a policy, MVF does not mobilise money from any other source to supplement State-funding, and hence, the beneficiaries have to put in their own resources. However, and as a consequence of this strategy, beneficiaries own the programme. Further, the continued functioning and viability of a programme depends not just in being able to access funds from the government for that particular programme, but in being able to source other related programmes involving different departments of the government. Sourcing resources and technical help from several departments of the government in itself is a huge task apart from being time-consuming. Beyond initial facilitation by MVF, beneficiaries are themselves required to follow up with the various government departments to access related programmes to bring about the much-needed synergy that the simultaneous functioning of these programmes create.
For example, the ability of beneficiaries to procure heads of cattle distributed under a particular programme is directly linked to their ability to procure fodder, which, in turn, needs land as well as initial technical inputs in terms of the kind of fodder that can be profitably grown on degraded land. Such interlinked factors need inputs of all kinds — technical, monetary, personnel and physical. Above all, the most crucial input that it requires is coordinated effort on a sustained basis so that beneficiaries do not lose the initial momentum because of delays in any one link or effort. The M.V. Foundation ensures that its intervention helps in facilitating the creation of synergy between programmes, in enabling beneficiaries to make their presence felt in various government departments, in overseeing the operationalisation of these efforts on the ground, and in ensuring that, at all times, beneficiaries adhere to the basic principles that made them a beneficiary in the first place.
Even if MVF’s programme intervention is largely biased in favour of the marginalised, ultimately who benefits or gets defined as a beneficiary depends to a large extent on the nature and type of the programme. While some programmes can be clearly targeted, other programmes are not amenable to such targeting. For instance, the wasteland development programme clearly targets Dalits and Adivasi landholders towards land improvement so as to ensure a stable and sustainable livelihood for them. In contrast, the watershed development programme cannot be as clearly targeted, since, in this case, it is the common property resource of the social system that is accessed. And, therefore, the benefits of such an improvement cannot be confined to the intended beneficiaries alone. In fact, the benefit to non-intended beneficiaries because of the watershed development could be much larger as compared to the intended beneficiaries. A series of check dams are constructed in a village and the rain water is stored. This, in turn, results in the rise of the groundwater table of the village. Anybody who has a tube well can benefit from this rise in the groundwater level our social structure, one can easily expect the better-end farmers to benefit disproportionately because they possess tube wells, as well as land for cultivation when to compare peasants at the margin. But, wherever possible, MVF has clearly targeted its beneficiaries.
MAKING GOVERNMENT GENDER-SENSITIVE: STRUGGLING AGAINST GENDER DISCRIMINATION
Despite the visible presence of women in the forefront of activities related to land and natural resource management, in general, and despite the knowledge that MVF was facilitating the operationalisation of the programme under its larger agenda of empowering women, different government departments dealing with land-based development programmes actively discriminated against women. The most visible form of discrimination was in the fixing of wages for the different tasks of a land-development programme. As soon as MVF provided relevant information to women on official guidelines regarding payment of wages, women questioned the rationale of payment of unequal wages and made it an issue for discussion and resolution at their meetings with all concerned departments. Apart from ensuring that government departments pay equal wages, MVF ensures through the women’s sanghams that equal wages are the norm in all of its activities. While the institution of payment of equal wages is no mean achievement, the challenge for women remains to continually demonstrate their ability and capacity to carry out all tasks hitherto solely performed by males, namely, construction of check dams, measurement works, etc.
ADDRESSING RURAL ENERGY PROBLEMS AS DEVELOPMENT, NOT AS A WOMEN’S ISSUE
Availability of fuel and sources of energy for domestic and agricultural work is a major, but scarcely addressed, theme in the rural areas and among the marginalised sections of the population. M.V. Foundation set out to confront this issue head-on. To begin with, MVF staff was given an orientation on local sources of energy for agriculture as well as for domestic use, climate change and its possible link with recurrent drought. Thereafter, this information was imparted to women’s groups in the 35 villages that showed interest in exploring different sources of energy. One aspect of the energy programme was the demonstration of the use of solar energy for lanterns, driers (that would facilitate drying, pounding and preservation of excess agricultural products, thereby adding value) and street lights. Initially, 105 solar lanterns and three solar driers were procured by 16 women’s groups on credit. The women’s groups had to decide the logistics of operating the solar lanterns and driers, which included the logistics of product manufacturing, sales, book-keeping and accounting, and, sharing of profits among the women who had come together to operate a drier and/or commercially hire out the solar lanterns. The number and intensity of use of solar driers and lanterns started increasing as women gained confidence in the technical and financial aspects of their use and operation. Besides, the process of solar drying ensured hygienic preservation, the reduction of wastage of products due to non-availability of such facility earlier and, more important, it has led to value addition to local products. The demand for these dried and powdered products from urban areas has also increased due to the credibility that they have earned as being unadulterated. The success of solar lanterns has a lot to do with the availability of trained technicians (including among women) to maintain these facilities at the village itself. Households using these lanterns spoke of reduction in their electricity bills over time. The challenge, however, is the need to address the procurement of spares that are expensive, leading to heavy recurring cost.
Another aspect of the energy programme consisted in exploring the possibility of using biomass and biofuels for the generation of electricity. For this, women’s groups were given training on: the kind of plants that needed to be cultivated (such as jathropa and pongamia) for the eventual production of biofuels; the technicalities of installation and the functioning of oil expellers that extracted the oil from the seeds of these plants. The women were also sent on exposure visits to other places in Andhra Pradesh and to neighbouring Tamil Nadu where biofuel was being produced through such plantations and oil-expellers. It was also demonstrated to the women that trees from whose seeds biofuel could be extracted could be intercropped along with vegetables, minor millets and other nurseries. Quite a few women in several villages opted for such cultivation. The Government of Andhra Pradesh has recognised the beneficial impact of the kind of efforts taken towards new energy sources and has allocated resources for nurseries and bio-plantations. This recognition and allocation has created a ripple the effect, such that farmers who were initially not enthusiastic about the programme have now come forward to experiment with the same. These initiatives are as yet nascent and have already thrown up several challenges. Apart from the fact that they require constant upgrading of technical skills, the fact that the country as yet has a long way to go in terms of research and field experience with large-scale cultivation, production and use of biofuels, means that the village community has very little to fall back upon when, and if, it wants to upgrade its knowledge and/or technology.
We have discussed only a few of the several activities that MVF has facilitated in the villages where it has intervened through its programme aimed at empowering women through collective action simply to highlight the process and conditions of intervention that underlie all MVF activities. These processes and conditions are, at one level, making governments accountable to people by ‘delivering development’ through the various schemes that have been and are periodically announced for the welfare of the people and for the improvement of sources of livelihood of the most marginalised. At another level, MVF believes in investing time and effort (but very little money) in mobilising stakeholders and working along with them rather than for them despite this process being time-consuming and difficult, only so that the stakeholders develop an abiding interest in the programme and sustain it once they are convinced of its beneficial impact on their lives and livelihood.
PERCEPTION OF STAKEHOLDERS ABOUT MVF
The marginalised sections, women among them in particular, are the prime stakeholders of this programme of MVF. They have a very high regard for the manner in which MVF has conducted the programme. Specifically, in areas where MVF has been working for quite some time, and which we had occasion to visit, we not only witnessed but also heard and conversed with women who had benefited from being part of the programme. They clearly articulated how initially they had reacted sceptically to MVF’s plan of action; it took them a while to realise that:
(a) MVF was not after their land; on the contrary, MVF wanted to reclaim assigned lands and hand it over to the rightful owners.
(b) MVF’s priority was food security; MVF also targeted women rather than men since it realised that years of neglect of land and/or unavailability of work in agriculture had led to seasonal migration of men. Women’s opportunities to migrate being less than men, the demonstration of viability of working on land and creating opportunities for livelihood in the village itself could be better achieved through women.
(c) MVF’s emphasis on making livelihoods sustainable and its willingness to struggle along with the villagers to make the government and bureaucracy operationalise the various programmes earmarked for land development, among others, has contributed immensely to the real women empowerment and their households.
(d) On being asked whether they still needed MVF support in their struggles, the women were able to express very clearly that, while they would now be able to manage a number of tasks on their own, including knocking at the doors of the government for their legitimate demands, they needed MVF support to tackle larger issues such as urban encroachment, environmental changes because of indiscriminate construction, pollution of groundwater, among others.
UNDERSTANDING WOMEN EMPOWERMENT THROUGH THE MAINSTREAMING OF GENDER IN DEVELOPMENT
How does this account of the process of operationalising the programme of ’empowering women through collective action’ by MVF cohere with our understanding of the notions of gender-mainstreaming and engendering development? It would be useful to recapitulate the nature of shifts in gendered relations and operations that have taken place consequent to the intervention byhttps://successfullady.in/women-empowerment-women-in-india/ MVF. The most significant aspect of the intervention has been the attempt to address the issue of erosion of livelihoods leading to permanent or seasonal male out-migration and which left women to shoulder the full responsibility of the farming household. What needs to be underlined here is the fact that MVF did not resort to the conventional set of activities that normally make up programmes aimed at women empowerment, namely, pumping money to train women to take up income-generating activities in the name of introducing women to non-conventional activities. The several adverse fallouts of such modes of intervention are too well known, not least among them being the inability of intervening NGOs to monetarily sustain these training and activities beyond a period as well as the tremendous difficulties faced in marketing products produced from these activities. The unreasonable emphasis that many funding agencies place on achieving and making results visible in the shortest possible time prevents any sort of intervention that is aimed at investing time and effort in mobilising the affected/marginalised community of people, such that the very mode of intervention convinces the community of the long-term benefits and sustainability of the programme. The Foundation has gone several steps further. It has not only mobilised and worked along with the most marginalised among the affected community, but it has, through this mobilisation, enabled the community to approach the governments in power and make the latter operationalise and release funds for several land development programmes to which the community and area are entitled. The catalyst’s role played by MVF has not only facilitated the development of synergy among the different land-based programmes, thereby strengthening association among the community of beneficiaries and in enhancing the effectiveness of the programmes but in also placing the most marginalised women, in particular, at the centre of all of its intervention.
A significant gender-mainstreaming shift that has ensued is the incorporation of a gender perspective to the manner in which the mainstream economic agenda of the land-based development programme was operationalised on the ground. As already mentioned, the area in which MVF chose to intervene was marked ‘by considerable distress migration on the part of the male members of a number of households. Hence, to that extent, MVF had to perforce begin work with the women members of these households. Nevertheless, MVF and the women whom MVF had identified as beneficiaries of its programme had to explicitly deal with patriarchy and the caste bias that began to unfold when women knocked on government doors to demand (of government institutions and bureaucracy) information regarding the different development programmes, including rules that governed release of funds allocated to these programmes. Since many of these programmes were not the usual ‘women-only’ ’empowerment’ programmes, and since the unwritten rule of not recognising women as farmers continues, MVF and the women beneficiaries had to expend considerable time and effort in convincing the bureaucracy of the rights of women as citizens, and of the capability and seriousness of women to source and make use of land-based programmes of the government.
Another development, an important shift towards gender-mainstreaming, is not only that equal representation of women and the marginalised is ensured in all programmes, be it natural resource management, watershed development programmes, etc., but considerable effort also goes into ensuring that members of these committees acquire the necessary gender expertise to be able to become conscious of the mechanisms that cause and reproduce gender equality. Thus, for example, MVF beneficiaries were able to prevail over the forest department and their own menfolk in resisting monoculture in the forestry programme, which would have otherwise curtailed the area or even destroyed the sources of minor forest produce items gathered by women, in particular, and which contributes to household income and food security. The knowledge that the extension of monoculture, though financially beneficial in the short run, plays havoc with the forest environment over time leading to entire villages/households dependent on forests for their livelihoods to be adversely affected is well understood. In MVF villages, through a process of education, negotiation and struggle, the beneficiaries have managed to take along with them the forest department and officials in not only conserving green cover but in productively using forest resources to enhance their incomes. Further, women have been at the forefront of changes in watershed practices in forest areas and this has visibly resulted in the regeneration of water bodies within the forests as well as in the adjoining villages and also in enhancing the quantum and regularity of the supply of biomass to the village.
We have not explored in any detail what shift has taken place within the households of the beneficiaries. However, the fact that an MVF beneficiary household has to adhere to certain non-negotiable norms, such as ensuring that all children are in school and not made to labour at the expense of schooling, that violence against women in any form is not tolerated, etc., combined with the emphasis by MVF on payment of equal wages, has considerably enhanced the value and status of women, and of girl children, in all areas where MVF has a presence. These shifts have not come overnight, neither are they complete for us to certify that a social transformation from a gender perspective has already taken place. But, given the fact that MVF’s intervention consists largely in targeting people along with activities with almost nil transfer of money from MVF to its beneficiaries, and given that all interventions are premised on an adherence to certain norms that inform the broad philosophy of the Foundation, it would not be off the mark to state that the programme of women empowerment through collective action is not just aimed at gender-mainstreaming but its actual operationalisation on the ground is visibly resulting in centre-staging and addressing development programmes from a gender perspective. To that extent, by incorporating a gender-mainstreaming perspective into its intervention MVF has, in our opinion, succeeded in at least engendering delivery of development services.
CASE 2 OF WOMEN EMPOWERMENT: DELIVERING WELFARE BUT NOT NECESSARILY EMPOWERING WOMEN
The economic surveys presented to Parliament, year after year, just before the annual budget do not evaluate the effects of economic development and growth on the more material aspects of the well-being of people, such as, for example, the quantum and nature of employment generated by economic growth. In an interesting exercise, Dev and Mooij (2002) have analysed the budget speeches of finance ministers starting from 1988-89. Among other things, they find that all the 12 budget speeches analysed by them were generally silent about employment-creation in the regular economy. While they found separate sections devoted to agriculture and industry, there was hardly any mention of employment and labour-market policies, except of specific anti-poverty employment programmes. It is ironical that the first time that the labour market is specifically discussed in a budget, it is to make the point that lay-offs, retrenchments and closures should be made easier… ‘It would be no exaggeration to state that, as far as one can judge from these budget speeches, India in the 1990s had no employment policy… A new term brought into the budget speeches in 1999 is empowerment…
This empowerment has nothing to do with changing power relations a redistribution of productive assets’ (ibid.: 52, emphasis added). Further, according to the authors, the post-1998 budgets reveal the implicit interpretation of poverty by the government. ‘It [poverty] is a residual interpretation—in contrast to a relational one. Poverty is seen as something that can disappear with a capital injection. A relational interpretation, on the other hand, would hold that poverty is the result of social and economic relations: the poor are poor as a result of their position within the social and economic structure’ (ibid.).
What this discussion reveals is that the disjunction between development and employment generation is built into the basic conceptualization of economic growth in the annual budgets of the government.
The conventional notion that growth powered by the secondary and tertiary sectors would generate sufficient employment so as to absorb surplus labour from the primary sector has not taken place; on the contrary, the primary sector continues to maintain its rank as the largest employer of the rural people even as income from the primary sector has declined over time. In an attempt to understand the nature of risks faced by the poorest among the poor and also their coping mechanisms, we undertook a ‘livelihood assessment survey’ in several villages across Tamil Nadu between July and October 2004. The relevance of reproducing here the observations from the survey lie in the remarkable manner in which people on the ground, women in particular, in their own words, linked their inability to make a transition to a better life because of the disjuncture they perceived between the macro-economic issues of employment and growth on the one hand, and on the other, the low scale and poor quality of the otherwise ‘functioning’ welfare institutions in their villages.
The field visits provided crucial insights into how the vulnerability of the rural agricultural households had increased over time. At the outset, it needs to be recorded that across the villages, and among almost all sections of the agricultural labouring population, the risk and, therefore, vulnerability due to declining agricultural activities (the most important source of livelihood for those with and without land) had increased considerably. The villagers, women included, traced the decline in agricultural activities to a combination of factors: continuous failure of monsoons, depletion of groundwater, change in cropping patterns, changes in institutional patterns that govern agrarian relations, among others, all of which had combined to erode their livelihood base. A direct economic consequence of this combination of factors was the decline in the number of days of employment, hitting landless agricultural labouring population the hardest. Most villages had no other major activity that could provide alternate employment to agriculture. Landless households among the agriculture-based employment groups were the most vulnerable. They were forced to cope by cutting down the number of meals they took in a day, discontinuing schooling of their children, delays in seeking medical attention for their ailments, defaulting on repayment schedules on their loans and/or become more indebted, thereby further increasing their vulnerability. The gender question that emerged here was the differential impact that this vulnerability held for men and women: while to some extent men ventured out in search of coolie work, at times even staying out of the village for days together, such options were not available to women. They had neither the resources nor the support system to enable them to make these search trips. At the same time, we realised that a resolution to this gender problem did not lie only (or not even) in enabling women to go out in search of coolie work, but in addressing the larger question of the erosion of the main source of their livelihood.
A drop in and/or lack of income had other adverse fallouts. For example, women in one village pointed out that all children were not in school and further that there was considerable dropout at the middle and higher levels for one or several of the following reasons: deteriorating income standards meant that they were forced to pull out their children from classes that did not serve noon-meals and also because they could not meet other school-related expenditure, such as travel to the secondary school outside the village and schoolbooks. In some cases, older children had to discontinue schooling in order to share household responsibilities while their parents went out in search of work. In quite a few villages, girls’ education was especially constrained by the combination of limited income as well as poor transport. While parents expressed their willingness and desire to educate their daughters further, they could not translate this desire into practice. Hence, beyond the eighth standard, the gender gap in educational levels becomes stark.
Another dimension of the gendered nature of the problem was the following: in almost all villages women clearly expressed the point that, while they were happy that some among their village children, girls as well as boys, had managed to study up to the 12th standard, they were very aware of the futility of being ‘educated’ only up to the 12th standard. It was pointed out that pursuing education beyond this was expensive, even in government higher educational institutions, and also at times non-accessible (because of non-fulfilment of eligibility criteria by these children). Not everyone could afford to educate all their children; forced to make a choice, parents opted to spend on higher education and hostel accommodation for their sons rather than for daughters. The parents had a reason for this gendered choice: opportunities for employment outside of the ones available in the village, namely, agriculture, were nil, unless the educated chose to go to large metres and towns.
While in fact a few boys from these villages had found some service jobs in metres like Chennai (such as lorry-booking, cleaner jobs with transport companies, etc.), educated girls were handicapped by the lack of social support and economic opportunities, and were therefore confined to their households. Villages close to metros such as Chennai were sourced for adolescent girl labour to work in garment units, particularly in the EPZ; the latter organised pick-up and drop services for such labour, but most villagers were reluctant to send their daughters.
All sections of the population were extremely anxious about the uncertainty facing their children, educated or otherwise. Their hopes were shattered because of the realisation that their children had no future either in the ‘traditional’ occupation of agriculture or in ‘modern’ occupations, the latter requiring the kinds of qualifications that the village population could, as of now, ill afford. Women were frustrated that their work and earnings were not sufficient to enable their children to rise above a certain level of education and/or acquire some professional skill. This, in turn, implied that they could not get into better paying jobs—a necessary condition for reducing the insecurity of their lives. The institution of self-help groups (SHGs)—a much-touted women empowerment intervention policy of the government—had a pervasive presence in almost all the villages that we visited. However, what came out quite clearly was that the nature Of activities and the ability of SHGs to sustain these activities had a lot to do with the general level of economic activity in the village, the cohesiveness of the village population, plus the institutional support provided by the panchayats. The women in almost all the villages were also aware of the limits of SHG-sponsored activities and realised that while their SHGs could tackle short-term contingencies and support them in times of crises, the SHGs were no alternative to large-scale employment, good infrastructure and functioning public institutions—in all of which the State has a primary role to play. During the discussions on the quantum, nature and adequacy of the government’s welfare policies aimed at different categories of people such as the poor, women, disabled, widows, destitute, girl children, pregnant women, among others, the women were very emphatic that, while through their local bodies and/or SHGs, they did source the different programmes and very often also ensured that the targeted population benefited from the welfare schemes, these ad hoc ‘schemes’ did not address the two hard questions that they posed: one, restoration of their livelihoods, and two, what would enable their children to make a transition to a better life since their present levels of education had failed to do so. These questions made us re-examine the rationale of our ‘social sector/welfare policies’ and its relationship to ‘economic development’.
REFLECTIONS ABOUT WOMEN EMPOWERMENT
For governments in this country, the picture of gender gaps in achievement/outcomes that analyses of secondary data relating to employment and education indicate, the solution consists in instituting ‘welfare’ measures ostensibly aimed at eliminating such discrimination and in also ’empowering’ the discriminated. For political leaders the persistence of poverty and vulnerability despite the ‘social sector’ has contributed very little to the way they perceive discrimination; there is, in fact, at the policy or macroeconomic level, very little use for nuanced analysis (of the type provided in the case study from Tamil Nadu) of the underlying causes contributing to gaps/discrimination, vulnerability and disempowerment. On the other hand, there are, across the country, individuals and organisations like MVF, who are involved in operationalising schemes that are making a difference to the lives of people on the ground, including women. The insights from some of these efforts at engendering development clearly point towards the range of measures that need to be taken simultaneously when addressing the intertwined issues of poverty, caste, class and gender. By the same token, such initiatives also reveal the risks, dangers and sacrifices that are inherent when the effort is not merely towards redistribution, but also towards restructuring social, political and bureaucratic institutions and ways of functioning. Therein lies the rub.
Scaling up such interventions to cover larger geographical areas and numbers of the marginalised would immediately attract political, bureaucratic and social opposition since entrenched, unjust privileges will need to be parted with. Therefore, while pockets of inclusive development models exist wherever organisations like MVF function, the models themselves cannot be replicated through political or administrative fiat. Neither will a programme of political mobilisation and action alone suffice, since their sustainability needs to be premised on access to and protection of sources of livelihoods. In other words, what the MVF leadership model has demonstrated is not only that the State needs to be brought in, but, more important, the State needs to be held accountable to its citizens and to its promises.