Case studies

Women Assert their Rights

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Living in a tiny mud-and-thatch hut with her family and goats in the village of Bhatpurva, in Uttar Pradesh, Kamrunissa earned meagre and irregular wages as a farm labourer. Her disabled husband had migrated to Mubai for work. With support from PACS and partner GEAG, she learned about her rights under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour, and joined a women’s self-help group (SHG). This gave her the confidence to demand work under the scheme, and despite opposition from local men, she stood her ground to boost her earnings and status. 

Kamrunissa and her son Tabrez prepare fodder for the buffaloes.

Living in poverty

Kamrunissa, aged 40, lives with her three sonsin a tiny 10ft by 10ft mud and thatch hut she also shares with her three goats in Bhatpurva village, Mehdawal block in the district of Sant Kabir Nagar in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. a few feet away. 

 Tethering her buffaloes to the peg in the ground so she can milk them, Kamrunissa explains: ‘My husband, Ashiq Ali, is partially paralysed. Because of his paralysis he could not get any work here so he migrated to Mumbai to work as a painter. He earns Rs, 4,000 (USD 60) per month. He sends some of it home, off and on, when he can spare it.

‘Because of my poverty, my 21 year-old daughter Zainab Khatoon could only complete class 8 before she got married, and it is the same story with my son, Tabrez, 12, who is a class 2 drop-out. My other son, Tafseer, aged 10, does not go to school either.’

Kamrunissa says that, in 2012, several project workers from the CSO Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) came to the village and spoke about the kisan (farmer) field school. She attended the field school meetings and was impressed with the activities.

Self-help groups

‘During one these discussions, the topic veered around to how the organisation was also working with women to help them access their basic rights and entitlements under various government schemes and programmes,’ says Kamrunissa. ‘I decided that, since they were not asking me for any money or investment, there was no harm in joining the SHG. If anything, I would save Rs. 30 (USD 0.44)  per month as my contribution to our group’s savings, and maybe even learn something useful. Because I am very poor, my priority is to ensure we have enough money for a meal in the evening.’ 

For Kamrunissa, the rewards were almost immediate. ‘In our village, the women were rarely given any opportunity to work under MGNREGA. I had a job card but it was only a piece of paper – I had hardly used it. During one meeting, I asked the NGO staff about how to access MGNREGA work, and whether we women really did have a right to work under the scheme. I was astonished to learn that 33% of the workforce on any MGNREGA worksite had to be women!’ 

Project Officer, Ram Kumar Dubey, outlines GEAG’s work with local people: ‘We have formed various CBOs in the community, two of which are extremely popular with the (predominantly) farming community here: the Laghu Seemant Kisan Morcha (LSKM), a club for small and marginalised farmers which meets every month and  has 100-plus members, and the farmer field school to discuss farming-related issues. The club helps small/marginal farmers and landless labourers, particularly those belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC), to access and establish rights over land, to support livelihoods, assess land-related disputes (encroachment and ownership issues), establish women’s rights over land, and hold public hearings and village-level discussions on land-related issues.

Kamrunissa does chores outside her hut.

‘Kamrunissa had been attending our meetings regularly. She would sit in the back and just listen,’ he continues. ‘She was very impressed by the concept of the farming club, and often we would have discussions based on her experience as a marginal farmer.’ 

Women’s empowerment

Ever since her husband migrated to Mumbai, Kamrunissa had been depending on MGNREGA to supplement her meagre income as a farm labourer, which earned her no more than Rs. 2,000 (USD 30) most months.

Ram says: ‘Women’s empowerment has long been a central feature of PACS’s work, and a key instrument for supporting women’s empowerment are SHGs, whereby 10-20 rural women from the same village, mostly poor women, come together to contribute two-weekly or monthly dues as savings and provide group loans to their members.

‘Women in rural areas here have harder lives and are often discriminated against with regard to their rights or access to medical facilities or credit and finance. Kamrunissa was one such woman: desperately poor, alone, doing the more onerous tasks involved in the day-to-day running of her household, like collecting firewood for cooking and fetching drinking water. Nobody had asked her about her nutritional status or financial security or how she would educate her children. She just existed in the village, trudging through life, a day at a time. We wanted to empower her about small things that would impact her life, like equal wages and demanding work in MGNREGA, having a voice in the running of institutions.’  

Kamrunissa went to the pradhan (village head) and demanded work under MGNREGA. ‘He was skeptical and told me there was no work,’ she says. ‘He brushed me off by saying, “you are old; do some light work. Why do you want to break you head doing labour under MGNREGA? I’ll let you know if I have work”.’

Standing up for legal rights

‘But I was not about to be brushed off by him again,’ she asserts. ‘I soon learned that some men were already working on digging a pond under MGNREGA, and the next morning, I gathered my shovel and basket and went to the worksite, along with two women from our SHG – Indravati and Shanti. When we reached the pond, we saw that there were only men working there, no women. When they looked up from their work, many had amused or skeptical looks on their faces. As we got down to work, we were pushed away by some men, who told us to go back home and look after our families.’

A heated argument ensued. ‘I told the men that we had a right to work there and they could not stop us,’ recalls Kamrunissa. ‘I screamed at them: “The law says it. You cannot stop us or you will be doing an illegal act,” but they just smirked and remained unmoved. I went on arguing with the men and did not relent. Meanwhile, my two friends gave up the fight and decided to return. I told them not to, but they were scared and not in a mood to take on the bullying by the men. But I stood my ground.’ 

Finally, Kamrunissa gained three days’ work at the site, and started going regularly. Seeing her, other women also started working on MGNREGA worksites, and though there was a lot of resistance and pushback, the women stood up to the men and got their way. There are now 70 women and 10 men working in MGNREGA worksites in the village! 

Kamrunissa and her son with GEAG project officer Ram Kumar Dubey.

‘I get my wages in my account, though there are delays at block level because the assistant programme officer for MGNREGA has to compile the data and send it to Lucknow before our wages are released,’ says Kamrunissa. ‘More and more women should work in MGNREGA; that is the only way for us to demand our rightful place and contribute to the community as equals, otherwise the pradhan and his men will continue to give work to those who are close to them or who can give them a commission. I now also get the social pension because of the support of my SHG. This is how we must move ahead, bit by bit.’

Ram points out that when the organisation started working on awareness generation and the capacity building of women in the community, it faced hostility and resistance from the pradhan and his men. ‘We have facilitated SHGs by advising and training members in a variety of on- and off-farm income-generating activities, he says. ‘The biggest impact has been in improving the overall status of women in terms of income, empowerment and welfare. But many see red, even in these activities, because we are encouraging women to breach the traditional bastions of male dominance and work as equals.

‘But now things are better. The pradhan has begun to understand that we are not aligning against him or challenging his leadership. Even today, we invite him to our activities – after all, he is the head of our ‘family’ – and he attends when he has time.’ 

Two-pronged approach

Using a two-pronged approach, PACS has focused on improving institutional capacity of key service providers to enable them to serve marginalised communities effectively. It also seeks to empower communities directly, to seek – and demand – quality services, via the formation of pressure groups, such as women’s SHGs, which inform members of their basic rights and entitlements under various government programmes. By acting collectively, the women not only secure information crucial to improving the quality of their lives, but also expand their capabilities and choices.

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