by Nitin Jugran Bahuguna
(IPS) -- Serious levels of female illiteracy are closely linked to the shiftlessness of the menfolk coupled with their ruinous drinking habits.
That was the finding of women in this remote village on the Tibetan border in picturesque Uttaranchal state.
Organizing themselves into a small but determined Self Help Group (SHG), the women set about the twin tasks of getting their girl children to school in defiance of male opinion, while simultaneously launching an aggressive anti-liquor campaign.
Walking fearlessly into homes and forcibly breaking pots and distilling equipment used for brewing home-made liquor, the women compelled their men to take seriously their twin programs of improving literacy and banning alcohol.
Now, five years later, the women are looking back with satisfaction and ready to reap the benefits of keeping Naitri village alcohol-free, with children of both sexes to be seen tripping cheerfully to school and back.
But the women of Naitri swear that none of this would have happened but for the formation of their SHG in 2000.
Indeed, the Naitri women's organization has become such a force that today it has practically taken over the village panchayat (local body) and its leader Rampyari plans to run in upcoming elections for Gram Pradhan (village chief) -- unthinkable for a village woman just a few years ago.
Wresting away this bastion of patriarchal power and control took grit and perseverance in the face of male resistance, although national law reserving 33 percent of elected seats in local bodies for women helped. At the moment, the women are busy constructing a building to house the panchayat. "As we are looking after several development works in the village, we approached the authorities with our request for a panchayat bhawan (panchayat house)," Rampyari, 38, told IPS.
Males in the village objected to the construction of a building which, to them, appeared to institutionalize the new power of women, but they were easily ignored.
"We women have a lot of power. We needed a place where we could meet and discuss important issues pertaining to our village, such as crop protection and better roads," Rampyari said.
When actual acquisition of land for the panchayat house became a battle between the sexes as men of the 100-odd families that form the village resisted, the women took their demand to the district magistrate at Uttarkashi -- a powerful bureaucrat who represents the central government.
"The district magistrate decided in our favor and ordered a police inspector to visit our village and ensure that we could put up the building without hindrance," said Rampyari. "I personally oversaw the construction which was completed in about 10 months," she added.
As for funds, the SHG members pooled money needed to buy the land for the panchayat house and once that was achieved, the government stepped in with the $3,500 needed to construct up a proper, two-room building.
The Naitri story is an inspiring example of how women can break free of cultural and traditional shackles if they unite as a pressure group to demand their rights, But it is not an isolated one in these parts.
At nearby Kimi village, a 10-member women's self help group is working alongside the panchayat to ensure that development work in the village gets carried out speedily and efficiently.
"Our group is an effective forum to discuss issues, like cleaning and clearing of paths, providing water, collecting fodder and other community matters," said Lakshmi, 55, group chair and panchayat member.
The self-help group imposes and collects fines of about 40 cents on people who allow their cattle to stray into cultivated land and, thereby, asserts its authority. "The group has provided so much to us in terms of knowledge and savings -- otherwise who bothers about us illiterate, mountain women," said Lakshmi.
The Naugaon block (basic administrative unit) of Uttarkashi district, in which Naitri and Kimi villages fall, has an overall literacy rates of 41 percent among its 56,000 people, while the female literacy rate is an abysmal 6.8 percent.
"In our time, girls were not allowed to go to school. We were told it was not important because we would be married off anyway and sent to another village. But today, all girls in the village go to school," says Surjidevi, a former secretary of the Kimi SHG.
The SHG concept has also been instrumental in improving the economic status of women in rural areas, says Chhaya Kunwar, coordinator of the Himalayan Action Research Center (HARC), a non-government organization (NGO) that is based in Dehradun town, capital of Uttaranchal state.
HARC has for several years now been working for the social, political and economic empowerment of women in the mountain region and initiated the process of building and empowering women's SHGs in the Naugaon, Purola, Barkot, Bagasu and Rajgarhi blocks of Uttarkashi district in 2000.
Over the last three years HARC facilitated a total of 182 SHGs in Uttarkashi district and Chaya believes this has gone a long way in reaching the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially those on achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and poverty alleviation.
It has not been easy work in these remote marches of the vast Indian sub-continent . "We believe that any success has been the result of a slow and gradual process of institution building," Chaya said.
She explained that HARC has in place a phased strategy to build and strengthen the SHGs followed by capacity building. "Training sessions, exposures, face-to-face interaction with experts, practitioners and government officials are organized to build confidence in the women, develop leadership qualities and enhance group management skills," Chhaya said.
Motivators were trained to help the groups on issues which, if not handled sensitively, could result in disintegration of the SHG especially in the initial stages when clashes of ideas would erupt over issues.
The motivators played a key role in strengthening the SHGs, recalled Ameeta Kala, an activist with HARC for over eight years.
Lack of understanding on the functioning process of the group, not updating minutes of monthly meetings, not paying loan installments in time, poor discipline and disinterest were just some of the many hurdles, she said.
Many groups emerged strong because they were encouraged to start income- generation activities based on locally available resources.
The Naitri SHG maintains a small kitty of $100 stashed away in the local bank besides a revolving fund of $300 that enables members to avail of loans for emergencies such as illnesses, marriages and buying seed crops.
At Kimi, the villagers are more ambitious and its SHG has begun lobbying authorities to have a dispensary set up in the village and also install more water pipes to enhance the well-being of residents and raise productivity.
August 18, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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