Case studies

Pioneering Women MGNREGA Mates

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45 year old Kari Devi may not look like a pioneer, but she is just one of 1008 dalit women in the Jehanabad district of Bihar who are challenging cultural and societal expectations by taking up roles as MGNREGA Mates. PACS and partner Pragati Gramin Vikas Samiti have trained these women to oversee MGNREGA work sites and labourers - a job that is usually done by men. In taking up these management roles, women like Kari are helping to make work sites more inclusive, encouraging more women and other socially excluded groups to participate in MGNREGA work.

Providing rural employment

Before she became a Mate, Kari used to work during the harvesting season as an agricultural labourer, and also as a brick maker at the local kiln. “I also used to migrate with my family to Delhi or Haryana for 9 months in a year in search of work,” she recalls.

This situation is not unusual – without enough work in the countryside, rural to urban migration is a common problem in India. As a response to try and curb it, the Government of India introduced the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005. MGNREGA commits to providing 100 days of paid manual labouring work to any rural household that demands it.

However, MGNREGA does not always help those it seeks to reach. For example, women’s participation in the scheme is significantly lower than men’s - women are often turned away, perceived to be unable to carry out the manual laboring tasks required. “Even now in many areas, women are treated with indifference and men regard them as not capable of doing much outside their homes,” Kari explains.

Minority communities such as dalits and Muslims also find themselves discriminated against and excluded. Like women, they are typically kept at bay and thus denied the opportunity provided by MGNREGA to improve their economic status.

A pioneering project

To try and address this situation, PACS has undertaken a pioneering pilot project in Jehanabad to train 1008 dalit women to become MGNREGA Mates.

Under MGNREGA, every project that is carried out (for example building a new road, digging a well or building a school boundary wall) is managed by a Mate. Mates are responsible for managing the project worksite, deciding who and how many people to employ, keeping a record of the labourers’ hours and monitoring the progress and quality of the work.

However, to have women managing labourers is extremely rare and to have women from dalit communities is almost unheard of. “Women working as Mates is still a novelty, and both the men and women sometimes initially find it hard to accept,” reflects Kari. “We are still looked upon more as workers rather than as persons capable of supervising other workers.”

Kari directs both male and female MGNREGA workers on a farm bunding (irrigation) project near her village.

Training and support

Pragati Gramin Vikas Samiti has been working in Kari’s community under the PACS programme since 2013. When they announced they were looking for interested women to become MGNREGA Mates, Kari jumped at the opportunity: “Women have to come forward if they are to be counted; we cannot expect to get our rights by just asking – we have to prove we are determined to be just as good as the men working on MGNREGA sites.”

Before she could attend the training, Kari’s application to work as a Mate had to be approved by the Mukhiya (headman) and then by local MGNREGA officials. Having had her name accepted, she then attended a 3-day PACS training in August 2015.

“I learnt about issues like worksite management, ensuring good working conditions at the worksite, and provision of mandatory worksite facilities,” recalls Kari. “This helped me perform the required technical and supervisory tasks such as measuring work, assigning work to labourers in small groups and supervising.”

Serious, sensitive and fair

Since her training, Kari has managed various MGNREGA work sites including a project digging water harvesting ponds and one deepening local irrigation canals. “I ensure that the muster roll is filled out properly and that women get their share of entitlements like work shelters and drinking water. I also ensure there is inclusion in every worksite - that it is open for workers from all communities and castes.”

In addition, Kari has been encouraging women in her village to demand work under MGNREGA and she feels that her identity as “one of them” has helped in this. “The presence of male contractors posed a barrier to women earlier,” she says. “But with more women Mates like me, the participation of women in MGNREGA has increased.”

Kari takes great pride in her position, carrying out her responsibilities seriously and sensitively. For example, she has been giving elderly women different tasks from other workers as they are unable to undertake hard labour. “In cases like these, I can look at the issue from their perspective and help them,” she says.

Kari is also very fair and this has earned her respect: “I don’t demand a ‘cut’ and I don’t cheat on measurements to benefit one person or a group from an upper caste because I don’t come under pressure easily. Most importantly, I have the trust of both the men and women workers in our worksite.”

As a Mate, one of Kari’s responsibilities is to ensure that there is drinking water provided on site.

Encouraging other women

Since becoming a Mate, Kari has not only increased her earnings, she has also improved her confidence. “I never thought I could hold my ground against anyone, let alone government functionaries,” she reflects. However, with the knowledge of her rights (and the rights of the workers that she manages), she is now confident about lodging a complaint with any number of government officials if something is not happening properly.

When asked about what she likes most about her job, Kari anwers, “The satisfaction of having worked as hard as any other man for my wages and having played my part in ensuring that the poorest and those from socially excluded groups like me have been offered fair wages for their work.”

Now, the challenge is to encourage other women to follow in Kari’s footsteps. Thanks to consistent PACS advocacy, the Government of Bihar has recently issued a notification mandating that at least 50% of “Mates” should now be women.

Kari believes that education is the key: “Women need to get themselves educated so that they can take up more responsibilities like this; our illiteracy is our biggest constraint to moving shoulder to shoulder with men.”

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