Women move forward, one step at a time

How an initiative for Empowering Women in Local Development is bringing about tangible change

Arti Manchanda Grover and Ellora Mubashir | May 16, 2024


#Development   #Gender   #Women  
A group of women playing a ludo game on the importance of participation in local institutions like gram sabhas (Image courtesy: S M Sehgal Foundation)
A group of women playing a ludo game on the importance of participation in local institutions like gram sabhas (Image courtesy: S M Sehgal Foundation)

“Women’s rights are not a privilege but a fundamental aspect of human rights.”
—Savitribai Phule

In India, where almost two-thirds of the population resides in rural areas, women’s empowerment initiatives are extremely critical for intensifying local development. Women in rural India are particularly disadvantaged due to low literacy and sociocultural norms that prevent their equitable access to resources. The results include poor self-esteem and low self-confidence. Such limited agency further worsens the opportunities for women to participate actively in village-level institutions. Fostering the capacities of women so they are empowered at individual and collective levels to participate effectively as leaders in matters of village development happens in stages that begin with the development of individual agency andunderstanding to make structural and relational changes.

In January 2021, Crossing Borders collaborated with S M Sehgal Foundation (SMSF) for an initiative called Empowering Women in Local Development. The SMSF Women Leadership School (WLS) model is a capacity-building and collective action platform for women leaders at the grassroots that empowers rural women for their local participation and action as advocates of development in their villages. This includes active community members, elected women representatives of local institutions, members of self-help groups, and frontline health workers such as anganwadi and ASHA.

A “learn by doing”methodology in a year-long training programme equips women leaders with information and skills to participate in the functioning of local institutions and government programmes on health and sanitation, education, nutrition, and agriculture, building their confidence and self-awareness along the way with soft skills such as public speaking, negotiation, effective participation, conflict resolution, and more. Women leaders learn about themselves, gender equity, confidence building, participation in local institutions such as gram sabha, gram panchayat, and school management committees, and community monitoring.

The engagement of 25–30 women leaders once in month on this platform is an empowering process as they realise the importance and power of a collective voice and actions for influencing village development. Participatory games such as Snakes and Ladders andLudo help to communicate the messages. These tools are designed to empower individuals and groups to participate actively and make their own choices.

The WLS initiative has become a cornerstone that ensures the engagement of women in various areas of development. WLS holds immense promise in communities with low literacy and development indices, such as Muzaffarpur in Bihar.
 
Abha Kumari belongs to Narayanpur village of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. She runs a local grocery shop along with her husband, Ashok Kumar. Abha has been part of the WLS since 2021 and has become a change agent in her community. In the second phase of the WLS training, select women leaders, like Abha, with the passion to work with other women in their community, became change agents and further mobilised and worked together with other women in the WLS.

Abha’s guidance and motivation encouraged other women to voice their opinions on development-related issues in panchayat and gram sabha meetings. Abha says, “Earlier, women never came out of their houses to participate. The discussions and conversations were limited to small gatherings in the neighborhood. My husband’s views echoed the limitations society placed on women, which held me back. Now women have started to take charge of families, work, and their identities. Things are changing, and the men are coming forward to support us. Earlier, I used to be addressed as the ‘wife of Ashok,’ but now I am called ‘Abha, who runs the grocery shop.’ Being acknowledged by society and in the family as individuals encourages and inspires us to improve the environment and circumstances surrounding us.”

In addition, the initiative engaged women by providing them with training on sustainable agriculture practices. The Women Farmer School (WFS) platform promoted women’sparticipation in livelihood generation, nurturing equality among men and women farmers, andcreating positive role models for other women farmers.

WFS training focuses on accessing government programmes on agriculture and promotingawareness and adoption of new practices that include soil health management, climate-smart interventions, crop production management, and small farm mechanization like zero tillagetechnique, among others. Ruby Devi learned about the zero tillage technique as a participant in the WFS and successfully grew wheat on herfarm. A zero tillage machine allows for the direct sowing of seed and achieving higher productivity with less cost.

She laughs at how surprised her ninety-year-old father-in-law was to see the result of this new farming technique. She has also inspired her neighbours to try this method after seeing the results.

“Nutri kitchen” gardens established by women have improved nutritional diversity and security, adding to the basket of food choices and helping households save money. Women farmers were trained to prepare composts from the animal dung collected at household levels and use it in their nutri kitchen gardens and their fields, which led to increased yields.
Hemanti Devi, from Narayanpur village in Muzaffarpur, came to know about the Mukhyamantri Kanya Uthan Yojanagovernment scheme in a WLS meeting. The programme awards a scholarship of Rs 25,000 to girls who complete 12thgrade (high school).
Her daughter, Neelu Kumari, says, “I have passed the 12th grade and my mother told me about this scheme. Immediately we sought more information and submitted the required paperwork for availing the benefit, which I received. Now I am pursuing a college degree, after which I will be eligible for a scholarship again. Had it not been for these WLS meetings, we would not have known about this scheme.”

The Women’s Leadership School and Women’s Farmer School platforms have not only accelerated women’s empowerment but also equipped women community leaders to collectively participate in village development processes, agriculture, and gradually overcome the notions ofgender inequality.

The S M Sehgal Foundation’s role in engaging with women is one of advocacy, working with rural women to inspire and accelerate their active participation, accruing benefits, sharing knowledge, developing skills, and establishing leadership qualities. The foundation's diverse initiatives empower women by offering a range of resources and support. Through training and capacity building, women gain valuable skills and knowledge and are provided with platforms to apply their skills through negotiation and collective action. As a result, women make tangible changes in their lives, their families, and their communities. These ongoing empowerment initiatives hold great promise for the future, as they continue to uplift and transform the lives of women atvarious stages of empowerment. Change agents like Abha and women trainees across these platforms are charting a new path to empowerment each day, moving forward one step at a time.

Arti Manchanda Grover is senior manager, Public Relations, and Ellora Mubashir is project documentation specialist, S M Sehgal Foundation.

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