April 1996

For over a decade the term 'women's participation in development' has gained legitimacy in the development discourse. However, inspire of widespread usage and far reaching implications, it remains a nebulous concept. There have been few explorations of what it really means for women at the grassroots.

What forms does this participation take and how does it transform development processes? Where women have succeeded in transforming development processes how can their efforts be strengthened and sustained? These are some of the questions we sought to answer, through a consultative process that we named Engendering Development

This process, supported by the Asian Women and Shelter Network - AWAS, and organized by SPARC on behalf of the Swayam Shikshan Prayog network, sought to explore the different ways in which women have been brought into the centre of development processes and how women's concerns have been integrated into mainstream development. Participants at the consultations were representatives of both women's collectives and NGOs.

The human settlement within which women play multiple roles, becomes the ideal ground for transfer of learning across issues. The consultations were an attempt to create an environment in which women working on different issues could come together and learn from each other.

The underlying objective was to look at micro initiatives that have succeeded and try to work out how they have been sustained over both time and space. We wanted to look at processes through which changes can be brought about as well as those through which change can be institutionalized.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog
Swayam Shikshan Prayog is a self education network that seeks to promote peer learning processes wherein women share information and learn from each other. Although this network focuses its activities primarily on credit and livelihood related issues, it recognizes that sharing experiences across sectors - livelihoods, health, local governance - can enrich learning processes and create opportunities for women to understand and articulate development processes which they are part of.

The Process
In January 1995, as part of the Habitat process, SPARC organized a consultation, in which participants drawn from a variety of fields asserted the need to view settlements' development as more than housing and land related issues - settlements form the environment in which communities live and work. A settlements perspective thus encompasses a range of issues which women have to address for the survival of the communities. At the same meeting participants expressed the need to create learning forums to promote inter-sectoral exchange of ideas.

In December 1995, we held a "pilot" consultation in which teams from 6 organizations shared their stories. We intended to analyze these stories in terms of strategies. There were two elements that we wanted to examine:

  • strategies that open up spaces for women's participation in settlements development
  • how women's initiatives in settlements are strengthened and sustained by mainstream institutional structures

What we learnt from the first round of discussions was that only some participants would be able to analyze stories in terms of strategies. Others would gain from the process an opportunity to articulate their perspectives, while still others would simply be exposed to new ideas.

In March 1996 teams from over 50 field organizations came together to share their experiences and insights. Some organizations who had done sustained work in their fields were identified as resource teams who would present their work in greater detail. What follows is some of the insights gained from Engendering Development

Understanding Settlement Issues from a Gender Perspective
Involving women in development often provides a whole different perception of a problem. Utthan, an organization working in the drought prone areas of Gujarat, found that the lack of water resources was perceived by men as a livelihood issue. The lack of water meant that the land could not be cultivated and hence they would have to migrate in search of employment. For women, on the other hand, the most acute problem was the perennial lack of drinking water. The women also pointed out that without drinking water any programme that sought to address the problem of low incomes would not really work. Drinking water became the entry point about which women were mobilized.

NGO participants acknowledged that organizations often have ideas - but these ideas need to be tested out on the ground with people. As organizations keep experimenting, meeting with women and analyzing and reflecting on these ideas, their collective capacities as problem solvers grow.

NGO plays an important role in assisting communities to understand problems in their settlements in the context of the larger, macro environment. For example the shortage of water needs to be understood as not only a result of low rainfall but also in the as a result of centrally controlled water management systems. Communities also need to be aware of political priorities that seek to allocate larger resources for urban, industrial use rather than rural domestic needs. Participants asserted that it was necessary to understand these aspects of the problem for in the long term communities will have to address such institutional arrangements.

Collective Action
Clearly the women's group or collective is the primary unit of participation. The collective provides a space for women. This space for participation is not only the medium through which they can collectively intervene in settlement development processes but also the space to which women can bring their everyday experiences, learn from each other and thus strengthen their capacities as problem solvers.
Collective action ranges from spontaneous one-time protests to ongoing activities such as savings and credit. Whereas one time spontaneous demonstrations and protests may have succeeded, sustaining initiatives requires women to meet regularly, take decisions, resolve conflicts and continually learn new skills. Where women's initiatives have blossomed into larger movements women have also made a transition from a single issues to multiple issues.

Participants from Agragamee, Orissa told of how they progressed from addressing food security by forming a grain bank, to other areas such as village schools, anti-liquor campaigns, livelihoods and minor forest produce. Using the money that they saved from stipends paid during livelihood trainings, the women's groups and youth groups from 15 villages collectively paid a deposit for a Public Distribution System or ration shop. These same groups from the cluster of 15 villages decided that they would not stop with the success of the ration shop, they then decided to assert the rights of tribal communities to collect minor forest produce and sell it at a fair price.

Also crucial to the sustenance of the group is the perception that it is part of a larger movement or network. Interacting regularly with other women's groups serves to energize women's efforts. Other groups become part of informal support networks that help not only to reaffirm ones own work but also to provide a range of localized approaches and activities from which to learn. Very often what one group in a village is struggling with can be successfully accomplished by the pooling of resources by ten groups working together. Federations of women's savings and credit groups have been able to leverage bank loans where smaller groups would have found it difficult.

The Tendu Patta Sangharsh Samiti in Udaipur District, Rajasthan was able to get minimum wages for tribal tendu leaf pickers by organizing a strike in villages throughout out the block The tendu leaves have to be picked within a month and the strike lasted 16 days thus contractors were forced to increase wages.

Transforming or Re-organizing the Community
The re-negotiation of gender relations within communities is a protracted process whose starting point is usually resistance from men as women make the transition from merely working on community issues towards managing and controlling resources. From the experiences narrated it was evident that women's presence in non traditional spaces, can transform their position in traditional spaces. For instance for women from Banda, becoming hand-pump mechanics changed the way in which they were perceived within the community.
Rename from Sri Padmavathy Abyudaya Sangam in Tirupathy, Andhra Pradesh told us that while initially she had no support from her family, her ability to manage money and to get loans from which the household benefited, changed their attitude to one of cooperation and support .

One could even venture to say that women acquire skills that are technology or money related it has more powerful effect because these are perceived as part of the male domain. As a participant from Banda pointed out , "previously men would rarely consult women for anything. Their attitude was one of , " they are only women what do they know". Today, the women's abilities to repair hand-pumps is a sign of their capacities as problem solvers in communities.

Support from men within the community is vital in sustaining women's initiatives in settlements. Women are generally aware of this and hence choose to start by addressing issues which benefit the community as a whole before taking on areas that have a potential for conflict within the household. While in urban areas women start with addressing issues related to basic amenities, in rural areas they generally begin by addressing income and livelihood related issues.

In Bombay, when women working with YUVA were able to get water supply for their settlements, they were invited to become members of the chawl committee.

Sharing tasks and responsibilities without reinforcing gender stereotypes that limit women's roles is an effective strategy for the re-negotiation gender roles at the community level.

In some cases women have gained support of men by acquiring skills that allow them to take on non traditional activities. One such activity is marketing. Once women learn to visit the market, gauge the demand for goods, learn how to negotiate in the marketplace, they then have a choice. They can choose to exercise their skills - where only men went to the market earlier, women may choose to go to the market. They could also choose to let men continue to handle marketing activities. In either situation, women have greater control over local resources and communities are more accountable to them.

Structures that Work for Women
What are the structures that women have evolved in order to participate in development issues effectively? The group plays an important role in strengthening the capacities of members, but a single group's capacity to transform the larger environment is constrained by the fact that it is an informal, micro arrangement. Structures such as the federations, cooperatives and networks have been created in order to impact mainstream institutions thus validating and legitimizing people's alternatives.

Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) in Gujarat has chosen to promote taluka or block level committees rather than village level committees. This means that all decisions concerning the management of local resources are made by representatives of a cluster of villages rather than single village. This structure was adopted in light of the fact that village groups tended to seek the support of neighboring villages before undertaking any new activities with KMVS.

In Maharashtra, savings and credit groups working with Stree Jagat Vikas Sanstha are in the process of creating a federation that will facilitate access to larger amounts of credit from banks.

ASTHA in Rajasthan's Udaipur district has facilitated the formation of cooperatives of tendu leaf pickers so that tribal communities of tendu leaf pickers rather than middlemen can benefit from the sale of leaves to bidi manufacturers.

Mainstreaming Women's Concerns
Women's presence in decision making bodies such as the Tendu Leaf Struggle Committees or residents associations (chawl committees) is a means by which women's participation gets institutionalized. It begins to become the rule rather than the exception to the rule.

But women's presence alone means nothing - it could be merely tokenistic. Those women who have participated effectively in institutional structures even at the most micro-level have drawn considerable strength and support from collectives. In many cases it has been the savings and credit groups that have supported and encouraged members to enter into local governing bodies.

Accessing government schemes can also be strategically useful in creating mechanisms that make state institutions more accountable to women. Aside from the direct and more obvious benefit of accessing state resources, these schemes provide opportunities to understand and influence with hierarchical institutional structures. There are several instances where such interactions have evolved into partnerships and alliances through which women are able to influence development processes within the settlement. For collectives and NGOs working with Swayam Shikshan Prayog in Maharashtra, accessing the D.W.C.R.A, a state poverty alleviation scheme, became an opportunity to explore meaningful partnerships with state institutions.

Similarly the NABARD Self Help Group Scheme, a rural credit scheme, provides opportunities for bankers and savings and credit group members to interact and negotiate.

In Gujarat, Utthan Mahiti along with several other organizations have formed a state level network called Pravah. Pravah seeks to experiment with alternative approaches to watershed development. and to influence water management policies in the state. The network's perspective is informed by the diverse experiences of communities across the state.

Other groups such as those from Annai Therasa Social Work Association in Andhra Pradesh have devised simple strategies in which groups have identified the appropriate officials to address their concerns to. Their understanding of the hierarchy within the district authorities helped them to not only address the right official but also to give him a time period in which he should take action before they took the problem to his superior. In Chitoor, Andhra Pradesh women from 5 villages went to the BDO to complain about the lack of potable drinking water, there was no response. When women from 15 villages went, giving the BDO 15 days to respond, the BDO assigned a tanker for the villages.

Changing Roles of Actors
In Bombay women from credit unions working with Jagruti Kendra are now able to go to the police station and get the information they need. In Banda Jal Nigam, the State Water Supply Board are now allies of women hand pump mechanics. The Jal Nigam looks after major repairs while the women do the minor repairs.

The Bhal Samiti, an area resource group representing community groups from 47 villages in Gujarat, is proposing a scheme in which 1000 households will construct rain water collection tanks. The scheme envisages the state's role to be that of providing financial support while the collection and managing of water and the maintenance of water harvesting structure is left to communities

Assessing Gains for Women
Undoubtedly women's role in development is changing. They have moved on from being beneficiaries to active partners who are shaping development processes in their settlements. One of the questions before us is how do we assess these processes in terms of gains for women? Assessing practical gains for women is simple. What is relatively difficult is the assessment of strategic gains. A useful tool for such an analysis was presented by Anita Gurumurthy of WOPRA (Women's Policy Research and Advocacy Unit of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore).

As part of an in-depth study on the status of women in Karnataka, WOPRA has developed a set of indicators of women's status. In a situation where women's participation has become part of development rhetoric, there is an acute need to differentiate between participation that is real and truly responsive to women's needs, as opposed to participation that is nominal and instrumental.

The six indicators of status are as follows:
  • Control over labour and income
  • Control private assets
  • Control over public resources
  • Control over political spaces
  • Control over physical mobility
  • Control over bodily integrity
    These indicators provide the basis for women themselves to articulate and review their work in order to determine whether or not they are on the right track.

Thus Engendering Development provided a platform for collective sharing and reflection on the numerous ways in which women have sought to gain greater control over resources. The lessons that emerged from the process transcended sectoral barriers. This reaffirmed the fact that processes that allow for exchanges across issues recognize the multi-faceted roles that women play in communities and thus serve to strengthen their capacities to re-negotiate gender relations.

For women - this process provided opportunities for learning from a diverse range of experiences. It was eloquently put by Soumini Devi from Bihar, "Some things I learnt with my eyes, some I learnt with my ears and other things I learnt with my heart."

Swayam Shikshan Prayog
5th Floor, CVOD Jain High School, 84 Samuel
Street, Pala Gali, Dongri, Mumbai - 400 009,
Tel: +91-22-3780730, 3700853
Fax: +91-22-3700853, 3728833
Attn. SSP
Email: [email protected]


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