How feminism works in rural India

How feminism works in rural India

by Vinta Nanda May 11 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 16 secs

Vinta Nanda explores how feminism works in rural India and the Grassroots Leadership Development Program of CORO India.  

I’m Shahjahan Mirza. I’m 37 years old. Today if I’m able to speak with such confidence and self-belief, it is solely because of CORO India. The life I have been able to lead, I owe it to them.

I’ve known love only from the people in my community. I am currently working with 350 families on reducing domestic violence and gender discrimination. I also work with the police, hospitals and other state mechanisms to support women who face violence or abuse. But it was never like this. My life always consisted of struggles, which I face even today but I have risen from the ashes and continue to fight every day.

I’m from Gonda, Uttar Pradesh but I was born in Mumbai. I couldn’t study beyond 7th grade and had to start earning a living. My father was an alcoholic, who couldn’t hold a job. The entire burden of taking care of the family fell on my mother and me. We used to work as rag pickers in the dumping ground at Govandi, Mumbai.

I was married off at a very young age. My fate turned out to be the same as my mother. I faced abuse from my marital family. After some time, I gave birth to a baby boy and went to live with my mother. She told me, “In life, a woman should always stay with her husband. If she chooses not to then people will spit on her”, and I accepted that as my fate.

I was working 12 hours a day to earn money. It felt like I had hit rock bottom. One day I came in contact with Badrunisa Khan from CORO who was forming a ‘women’s group’ to specifically work on domestic violence. She took me into this group and I started attending several meetings with these women. For the first time I felt that people noticed that I am a human being. I met many women who had a similar fate and my pain could be shared with them. I joined these women in helping other women who faced violence. It felt like I finally had a voice and an identity. It gave me confidence to stand up to my husband and marital family.

In my community women aren’t allowed to step outside the house and talk to other men; speaking up against violence was unimaginable. Such women were looked down upon; these social norms always held me behind. However, my work gave me the opportunity and encouragement to challenge them. Today I’m a strong woman who can take on any adversary. It is this same community, women and men, who support me in every way.

CORO gave me a platform to fight for my rights. Now I can put forth my thoughts with confidence and it gives me the power to move ahead. Now that I have stepped out of the darkness into the light, I have taken charge to do so for all the women in my community.

CORO has been working with single women in Marathwada, Maharashtra through a multilevel rights based intervention to address the issues they face. Over the last three decades, CORO has developed a community-based approach​​ to facilitate change from within India's most marginalized and oppressed.

Single women face discrimination because they are widowed, divorced, separated, unmarried or abandoned by their spouse. They are denied access to education, employment, government schemes and the option to lead an independent life. CORO works on eliminating the stigma attached to them and enables them to become leaders and agents of social change in their communities. The aim is to build robust organisational and individual leadership from within them and combat violence against women. The evolution of Ekal Mahila Sanghatana (Single Women’s Organization), a women-led grassroots organisation, has ensured collective leadership of women to solve their own issues. The association helps single women stand up to social stigma, claim their entitlements and lead an independent life. It has 19000+ members - both single and non-single women, unwed women, or divorced, or widows, or those abandoned by their husbands, or those who have abandoned their husbands. The association name was adopted by the women themselves.

The Single Women’s Program has been successful in building a network of organizations called  ‘Maharashtra Ekal Mahila Adhikar Parishad’. These organizations actively work on issues faced by single women. Collectively they are working on registration of single women in local self-governance. The program’s key strategies is to mobilize community women in accessing government schemes, by creating awareness through informative booklets on schemes like pension, housing, employment guarantee act, food security schemes etc. This encourages them to collect all necessary documents in order to avail those schemes. This exercise enables single women to create an independent life and avail their rights.

“Our experience in facilitating ‘Leadership from within’ has spurred us to design and implement our Grassroots Leadership Development Program (GLDP) that builds capacities of leaders primarily from Dalit, Muslim, and tribal communities. We have trained about 1300 leaders so far since 2008 (program is implemented in the States of Maharashtra and Rajasthan) of which 70% are women, 70% are from the most marginalised communities and 40% are illiterates or have studied till maximum Class IV”, says Sujata Khandekar, Founding Director and Secretary Board of Trustees, CORO India.

So far, through the Grassroots Leadership Development Program, CORO has impacted the lives of about 2.5 million people in the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi, creating a network of 320+ grassroots organisations. Many campaigns begun under the program are now full-fledged movements running for over 5 years, including: the Single Women’s organisation with over 19000 members, the Right to Pee united front for clean, safe, free public urinals, the revival of water bodies in drought-stricken villages, the pursuit of forest rights for indigenous tribes, and more. Common to each thriving campaign is the core value of leadership from within.

At the heart of the program is an 18 month course, which aims to build leadership capacities along various dimensions - understanding oneself, understanding local issues, understanding one’s rights under the constitution, understanding the concept of participatory research and communication, understanding how to mobilise people in communities, understanding the administrative and legal recourse available to solve local issues, understanding ways of doing advocacy (people centric, executive, media, judicial and legislative).

The pedagogy is based on critical reflection and conscientization as conceptualised by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and is a mix of classroom training, activities and assignments for the participants to apply their learnings to solve specific problems in their area. In addition to the change and impact created by individuals in their communities, over the last ten years, the Grassroots Leadership Development Program has generated a cadre of formidable local leaders who are steering various campaigns for inclusion to secure the rights of indigenous people to their native forests, of urban populations to safe, clean sanitation, of single women for dignity in a society that rejects them, and many more.

The larger objective of this program of COROs is to develop a movement amongst marginalised communities so that they can effectively work on their local issues by leveraging their own strength, the solidarity of people coming together and the entitlements available to them under the Indian Constitution. The vision of the program is a bottom up movement where individuals in the grassroots become stronger, become more aware of their rights under the Constitution and understand how to claim their rights and come together to form an equal, healthy and mature society.

The Women’s Empowerment program at CORO has been working towards eliminating violence against women and girls in different communities across Maharashtra, where social inequalities compounded with violence and social norms put women at multiple disadvantages. The disadvantages deprive women of social, political and economic equality. Hence, creating spaces of equality becomes crucial to end all forms of violence against women and girls. 

Sujata tells us, “It became vital to tackle the root causes that lead to violence: Gendered Social Norms. These norms based on the frameworks of masculinities and femininities form basis of gender based discrimination. These frameworks have predefined roles for men and women, that if challenged is met with violence. Therefore, realizing, understanding and challenging social norms through dialogue is our most important strategy. This is addressed through cultural practices, challenging gender roles and expected behaviour, spaces in the community for women/girls and the role of multiple stakeholders in these processes. Challenging and changing perceptions about gendered social norms is at the core of the Women’s Empowerment Program”.

The CORO team works with 14,200 families across Maharashtra in rural, peri-urban and urban areas of Mumbai, Nashik, Ahmednagar, Marathwada, Vidarbha and Western Maharashtra, through multilevel interventions. It engages members of the community, various state mechanisms and creates support groups in the community, and explores and studies gender norms that impact lives of women and girls.

As part of this intervention, CORO started working towards building robust support systems for women and girls in the community. CORO focused on creating immediate (nearest environment) ecosystems that not only actively redressed the incidents of violence in communities but also proactively acted for prevention of violence against women and girls. “This ecosystem consists of community leadership of local women in a micro unit of 350 households supported by adult and/or young women and men in that unit.  The team also works with government officials, police, hospitals and other such systems that support”, says Sujata.

We meet Laxmi Wagmare and she tells us her story as well:

I was married off to my maternal uncle when I was 9 years old. I was forced to drop out of school in 9th standard because I started menstruating. My dreams of becoming a PSI shattered. Some years later, a day before the final exam of 12th standard, I went into labour and gave birth to my daughter. I couldn’t give the exam and I already was a new adolescent mother, surviving amidst poverty.

As I turned 16, the struggle deepened when my husband developed an addiction to alcohol, like the many other men in the community. But then something changed. In 1999, I got the opportunity to work as an ASHA worker. I earned a salary Rs.300 ($3.25) per month, which went towards supporting my family of 5. Even then, as I struggled to make ends meet, I did not find the emotional support I needed from my partner. Instead, I continued to be harassed by members of his family.

At this time, I initiated a Bacchat Gat in my village that would enable other women like me to achieve financial independence, or form some kind of economic and social security. Through this Bacchat Gat, I was able to help some of these women secure loans to start their own businesses. The frontline health work and networks I developed led me to participate in various local programmes that gave me experiences and greater visibility. This is how I encountered CORO’s grassroots leadership development programme where I started mobilising women to take up leadership roles in local self government, organising and coordinating meetings, helping local communities resolve questions and problems around ration supplies and prohibition of alcohol.

Since 2015, I have been a core team member of CORO’s Single Women programme in Marathwada. The association helps single women stand up to social stigma, claim their entitlements and lead an independent life. The journey from child bride to adolescent mother, survivor of abuse and abject poverty, to an advocate of women’s issues, has not been easy.

Through CORO’s leadership program, I was able to build self-esteem and confidence, understand how to mobilise people and reach the roots of a social problem. To be able to enable and empower women, hold their hand and walk along with them on the path of self-discovery, is my ultimate purpose in life.

This piece was written with inputs provided by Shivani Mehta, CEO CORO India, and Pallavi Wardhan, Shishir Sawant and Mahendra Rokade.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.