Case studies

Leadership Role for Dalit Lady

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Savitri Devi is a dalit woman from the village of Tendui in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. Before, the women of Tendui would stay in their homes, veiled and allowed only to perform the role of housewives and mothers. However, since PACS and partner Gramya Sansthan started working with them, these women have started to raise their voices, taking on leadership roles within the community and improving the services in the village! Savitri is no exception… as Vice President of the School Management Committee she has found new responsibility, recognition and respect.

Becoming aware of women’s rights

It was back in 2012 that Urmila - a field facilitator for Gramya Sansthan (Gramya) - first came to Tendui to speak to the women as part of the PACS programme.

“We did not even know that we had rights that were separate from the men!” recalls Savitri. “Urmila spoke to us several times, and this got us thinking and talking. The ideas she gave – about working on health, education and other community issues – sounded very good and everyone agreed they wanted to do something… but how? We had no idea!”

Supported by Urmila, the women formed the Mahila Manch - a Community Based Organisation with 25 women members.

Empowering women to speak out

At first, the women were tentative about opening up about their concerns. However, once they started, it was difficult to stop the Mahila Manch members from speaking! There were just too many issues, and everyone wanted to be heard.

Gramya held regular awareness sessions to inform the members about various laws, schemes and government programmes such as MGNREGA (a government employment scheme), the Right to Education Act and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme.

As well as educating the women about their rights, Gramya has been promoting community participation by empowering the women to make their voices are heard in decision making processes.

“The members are trained to participate in the local governance process by introducing them to Jan Sunwais [Public Hearings], where they put forward the issues of their community,” says Kusum – the Field Facilitator who has taken over from Urmila. “This has resulted in a sense of responsibility and ownership among them.”

 Kusum sits with the women members of Mahila Manch who she supports with advice and information in her role as Field Facilitator for Gramya.

Sitting on a School Management Committee

Under the Right to Education Act, all schools should have a School Management Committee (SMC) – a body of parents, teachers and other community members who are responsible for monitoring and improving the functioning of each institute.

When Savitri was chosen unanimously by the community to take on the role of Up Adhyaksha (Vice President) of the village SMC in 2013, it was a momentous occasion. As a woman and as a dalit, Savitri was used to being excluded from decision-making processes, not being part of them.

“The SMC meeting is held on the 8th of every month,” explains Savitri. It was at these meetings that Gramya began to conduct trainings, specific to SMC issues and to the roles and responsibilities that SMC members have (such as monitoring and improving the enrolment, attendance and retention of children, managing the Midday Meals programme and deciding School Development Plans).

Improving Midday Meals

One of the problems that Savitri and the other SMC members highlighted was the milk supply for the Midday Meals. “The milk that was being supplied by the local milkman was practically water,” recalls Dukhna – another SMC member. “Moreover, he supplied only 3 litres of milk whereas we needed 9 litres.”

After much discussion, the SMC cancelled the milkman’s contract and asked a local dairy to supply the milk instead. “Now, not only does the milk arrive on time, but it is adequate both in quantity and quality,” says Dukhna.

Today, Savitri personally checks the quality of the Midday Meal food served to the children.

 Savitri sits with some of the other SMC members who, thanks to their training from Gramya, now effectively monitor the local school.

Newfound respect

For Savitri, her role on the SMC has not only brought her newfound responsibilities, but also a recognition and respect that, as a dalit woman, she had never encountered before. January 26 2013 will always be a day that she remembers for this reason.

“There was a general buzz in the community as children and parents prepared to finish their chores early to go to the school for the Republic Day celebrations,” remembers Savitri, her eyes brimming over at the memory.

As a SMC member she knew she had to go to the school but, when the Head Master walked into her house, she was worried that there was a problem. However, he was not there to complain, he was there to ask Savitri if she, as Vice President of the SMC, would officially hoist the national flag at the ceremony.

“I was dumb-struck!” says Savitri. “Here I was - an illiterate, dalit woman of little consequence to the village and certainly not a VIP by any stretch of imagination – being asked to hoist the National Flag at the Republic Day function in the school!”

For Savitri, this was a momentous occasion. “When the moment came and the Head Master handed me the rope to hoist the flag I was overwhelmed and became emotional and began to cry!” Savitri laughs now.

Making a difference

Thanks to the work of Gramya in empowering women, like Savitri, the village is very different from how it was in 2012.

As well as improving the school, the women have been monitoring the local Anganwadi Centre (under the Integrated Child Development Services programme) to improve child nutrition and immunisation. There has also been an uptake of women giving birth in hospital under the JSY maternal health scheme.

“Now, things have changed,” says Kusum. “Because of the effort of the Mahila Manch, more and more women are volunteering to work as SMC members or monitoring health services. All interventions are led by women, who best understand each others’ concerns. That is what is making all the difference.”

 Savitri stands with the other members of Mahila Manch who, thanks to the work of PACS and Gramya, are confident about their rights and are taking up leadership roles to demand them.


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