Case studies

Battling Gender Discrimination

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Shyamvati Dhurve, from Ratamati village in the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh in central India, had to fight many battles to secure work for herself and other local women, under government schemes. Her actions led to a backlash from the authorities, and even harassment from her own brother-in-law who objected to the unwanted attention she was bringing to her family. However, with support from PACS and partner CASA, Shyamvati continues to assert her rights and supports members of her community to assert theirs.

Shyamvati Dhurve with her family in front of their house.

Fighting for the rights of community members

The road is long, winding through verdant forests and lush valleys and a gently rolling landscape. The village of Ratamati in the Betul district of central India is perched on top of a small knoll, a single concrete road making its way through the village and beyond. This is where you find everyone: boys and girls playing on the street, bullock carts being unharnessed after a day’s toil in the field, women unbundling firewood for the evening meal, and the obligatory cows, goats and street dogs getting in everyone’s way. 

Shyamvati Dhurve, aged 38, is busy making evening tea for everyone in the house, which includes her husband Dheeru, her daughters Surekha and Nikita, students of class 9 and class 5 respectively, and her son Ravindra, a student of class 3. As the family sits around on the floor mat on the small-but-tidy veranda, the discussion turns to her work in the village. 

‘I only studied till class 5, and my husband, who works as a agricultural labourer, is illiterate,’ says Shyamvati. ‘But that has not stopped us from doing whatever we can for our village.’ She looks to see if anyone needs more tea.

Forming self-help groups

It was in 2012 that Shyamvati met Santosh Evene, a village volunteer with the local PACS partner CASA, during a village contact programme. He encouraged her to form a self-help group (SHG) with other women in the village to address their concerns. The Meena Self Help Group was subsequently formed by Shyamvati and 10 other local women, while another group – the MGNREGA Sangathan (MGNREGA collective) – was formed, comprising 20 men and 20 women members. 

Shyamvati explains: ‘People, generally, feel women do not make good leaders. Invariably, I had to go through a similar struggle. First, I had to address opposition from family members; second, I had to deal with patriarchal prejudices and resistance in the village, and third, I had to prove I was capable of handling people’s problems. For me, personally, it has been a challenging journey, but the biggest challenge has been the social construct – addressing patriarchal masculinity – crucial to achieving the goal of gender equity.’

Rright to work under MGNREGA

When she first formed the group, Shyamvati applied to the panchayat for work under the Mahatma Ghandi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour, but the panchayat was not willing to consider it. 

‘Panchayat members were uncomfortable with our group members demanding work under MGNREGA,’ she says. ‘By and large, the women of the group carry out proper and transparent implementation of government schemes, but the local panchayat leaders felt threatened. They felt challenged by the newly emerging leadership of the women of the village and began to create hurdles to their participation. It was not unusual for them to resort to undermining women’s morale by making baseless allegations against them, including character assassination. In my case, we were accused of having been “taught” by the local PACS partner to ask difficult questions, or of working on their behalf to fulfill their “agenda”, whatever that was.’

Because Shyamvati was assertive, the panchayat members were forced to give a receipt for every application she made. As a result, the panchayat had to start the work for which applications had been made, within 15 days. This was how the cement-concrete road in the village – the only one, – was constructed. But it did not mean that Shyamvati’s troubles were over. 

For example, the panchayat instructed the MGNREGA supervisor executing the work not to employ individuals who had made formal applications to the panchayat for work under MGNREGA. This did not deter Shyamvati: she wrote another application and gave it to the panchayat, and took a copy of this application to the janpad panchayat (under the three-tier Panchayati Raj System, the zila panchayat is at district level, janpad Panchayat at block level and gram panchayat at village level). But the sarpanch of her panchayat telephoned the janpad panchayat and told them not to accommodate her, on the pretext that she was working under the sponsorship of the local NGO, and that while the panchayat was giving work to group members, they were refusing to work! 

Not to be put off easily, Shyamvati took the janpad panchayat to task, sternly warning them she would file a complaint with the district collector if they continued in the same vein. ‘I told them I wanted what was my right, and I was not going to back down after coming this far. The ball was in their court,’ she explains.

Shyamvati (in pink) consults with members of PACS partner CASA. 

The very next day, the panchayat offered new work under MGNREGA in Shyamvati’s village, and everyone was offered jobs. However, wages were not credited to their accounts even after a month, so Shyamvati went to the panchayat to seek an answer. They told her there was no money and thus wages could not be paid. So off she went, once again, to the janpad, armed with yet another application. All the women were paid within three days!

Surviving the backlash

Because Shyamvati had begun plugging the gap between rules on paper and their actual implementation – tackling mismanagement of job cards, for example, which was already adding to the widespread cynicism amongst the rural poor – the panchayat members targeted her and her family. 

Egged on by the sarpanch and sachiv (secretary), her brother-in-law began to protest against Shyamvati attending meetings away from home. After bouts of drinking, he even resorted to physically assaulting her, despite her mother-in-law’s protestations. Shyamvati and her husband threatened to lodge a police complaint, but even at the police station, her brother-in-law did not stop threatening her. Four days later, he called a jati (caste) panchayat of five villages. 

‘He even had the temerity to invite me to the meeting,’ says Shyamvati. ‘I refused and instead went to the police station and told them about this latest harassment. But when the police called him to the police station, he did not go and instead began to abuse and berate them. Eventually, the jati panchayat ruled in my favour, though they also fined me Rs. 5,000.’

As the police case wore on, Shyamvati had to travel frequently, and over long distances, to attend the hearings, and in the meantime, she had to face her brother-in-law’s ire. ‘He was very abusive, and kept threatening me,’ she says. ‘One day I got fed up and told him, “if you continue to lie and character-assassinate me, I will ensure you rot in jail the rest of your life!”.’ 

The power of collaboration

The hearings lasted for more than six months, but her brother-in-law did not attend any of them. Shyamvati concedes that women trying to work in a patriarchal society face many challenges, but she adds that the combined strength of her SHG and MGNEGRA Sangathan have given her tremendous support. 

‘I have been able to make a niche for myself in the public space, but people continue to be cynical about a woman’s ability to perform and deliver,’ she says. ‘The backlash has been enormous… the road to success is like the one outside my house –with more craters than concrete! But now people flock to my house if they have any problem: from tractors impounded by the police to women not getting admission to the local hospital, from motorcycles stuck in the mud far from the village to having no balance in their pre-paid cell phones! And I stand by them all, for they believe in me and look to me for support!’

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