Voices from the Grassroots: Empowering Rural Women for Sustainable Development

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Armene Modi & Betty Reardon

(Featured article: Issue #90 January 2012)

 This introductory article anticipates the themes of this year’s session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.  

Extracted by Betty Reardon from “Voices from the Grassroots: Empowering Rural Women for Sustainable Development” by Armene Modi, it speaks to the possibilities for progress toward gender equality that lies in the efforts of NGO’s working in the development realms of peace education.  Armene Modi, founder and director of Ashta no Kai, organized the 2000 International Institute on Peace Education (IIPE) in Pune, India and is a member of the GCPE global network.

ashta-empowerWomen are increasingly making more of an impact than men in the development of rural India. Initiatives taken by Ashta No Kai (ANK), an NGO working in a rural setting to empower women, using pro-poor, pro-women strategies is making a significant contribution toward this social transformation. ANK’s simple and practical strategies have assisted women in making a transition from passive acceptance of their inequality to becoming confident and vocal actors in their own development. They are increasingly becoming aware of their rights, demanding fulfillment of basic needs and a share in household and community resources. ANK is among those non-governmental organizations (NGOs) playing a pivotal role in linking the needs and concerns of women to all critical issues on local, regional, national and global agendas. They have made significant inroads towards addressing issues of gender inequity while advancing women’s empowerment and human rights. Their efforts at the grassroots level towards poverty alleviation and social justice have provided poor women with effective economic and social empowerment strategies to overcome and combat gender marginalization. Despite the many challenges they have had to face in their efforts to empower women, NGOs have helped bring about an environment of positive change for millions of poor women by enhancing their understanding of the patriarchal system that has exploited them and deprived them of their rights for centuries.

ANK started more than a decade ago with the vision of empowering and improving the quality of life for marginalized women and girls in India’s underdeveloped rural areas. The project’s mission was to meet rural women’s multi-dimensional needs by increasing education, training and health investments.  ANK promoted women’s economic self-reliance by introducing women-friendly credit systems and gave poor rural women access to information, opportunities, and choices to help them make a better world for themselves.  The project area is spread over 10 drought prone villages and hamlets. These villages are agrarian, economically marginalized, and lack basic infrastructure, such as adequate, clean water, electricity, basic health care facilities, and good roads. At the time that ANK initiated its work, the status of village women was low. Gender bias, poverty, illiteracy, lack of job opportunities, as well as social traditions and superstitions continued to hamper women’s progress.

Literacy initiatives were given the highest priority when work in the villages started in 1999, beginning its campaign by establishing 14 literacy centers with approximately twenty-five students in each. The program had a grassroots approach, involving women in its planning and implementation, providing content that was relevant to their lives, and conducting the learning through an interactive and democratic process. However, after a few years the novelty of ANK’s approach to literacy wore off and fewer women participated. Their need for literacy paled in comparison to the immediate necessities of their daily life. ANK then launched an oral literacy campaign building on the oral tradition of storytelling in villages. The first initiative that provided legal literacy informing women about their rights proved to be very effective. The local ILS Law College volunteered the services of their staff and students. Boosted with the success of the program and the large numbers of women who attended, ANK continued to provide oral literacy on many critical issues related to women’s everyday life, conducting workshops on gender equity, health, nutrition, and sanitation, among others. These workshops where women gathered away from their daily grind helped to not only provide information about vital issues for the women but also promoted unity and a sense of sharing and solidarity.

ashta-bikeANK has also focused on education of the girl child.   Because target villages are over four to eight kilometers away from the nearest high school, limiting girls’ education to the 7th standard, a Bicycle Bank was initiated in 2001. With 900 bicycles donated, the enrollment rate for girls from ANK villages in high schools is at 100% today compared to the national dropout rate for girls of 41% according to the 2011 census. The simple bicycle became the wheels of change for village girls, preventing early marriages, arresting dropout rates while encouraging them to complete their education. With the increased enrollment of young girls in high schools, ANK was further able to assist in the campaign for equal education by providing scholarships to 450 girls to date to continue their education beyond high school. Village girls are now venturing into fields such as pharmacy, computer applications and electronics and automobile engineering. Moreover, recognizing that one of the other major hurdles for girls going to school was the lack of toilets, ANK provided toilets for all its village high schools. Furthermore, with increasing incidences of violence against women, Karate classes for adolescent girls to learn self-defense techniques were offered.

Kishori Mandals, weekly workshops for adolescent girls, raised awareness about educational, social, health and legal issues.  Empowered grassroots workers who became role models for the girls conducted these workshops. Recognizing that women’s empowerment required behavior change among both men and women, the empowerment activities were extended to include adolescent boys. Raising awareness of gender bias, they provided boys with a better understanding of their capabilities and roles in promoting a more gender equitable and just society.

Such efforts to develop confident, assertive rural girls who can become active partner in village development are but a few of the multiple projects initiated by ANK to contribute to a more gender equal economically just Indian society recounted in the complete article from which this excerpt is drawn, can be found here online.

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