There is no one reason alone for backwardness of a community. Sexism, poverty, illiteracy, religious bigotry, etc always go hand in hand. Recently I had a chat with one of the members of an organization called GramVikas who aim for healthcare and sanitary development in different villages in India. Founded in 1970 to help the victims of the devastating Orissa cyclone, Gram Vikas grew into a big organization helping thousands across the country. The following interview was given by Ms. Debjani Mitra, Manager of the MANTRA team in Sunderban.
When did you join the organisation?
Last August( August, 2013)
What are the areas covered by you and your team?
North and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal.
Since GramVikas works in a number of different fields, what particular area are you in charge of?
Sanitation mainly. The objective is to convince the local people about the need for proper sanitation and hygienic facilities and then involve them in the construction of toilets.
Travelling with you once, I had noticed you try to involve a lot of women in the work.
Women are closer to the domestic scenario than men. Sanitation is directly related to their water needs. So it is important that women actively participate in the discussions and help in the process.
Are these women married of unmarried generally?
How do you convince women to take part?
We hold discussion sessions and groups where we constantly encourage women to come forward. It is entirely a word- of-mouth procedure where we try to make them understand the basic needs and requirements of this entire effort. We hope that those who understand would convince their neighbours and families and spread it around. Of course, it is not something that happens overnight. It takes weeks to spread that kind of awareness. Usually after a couple of meetings, when a handful of them realise the issue they sometimes go on a door-to-door campaigning to get other women interested.
The process must be definitely helped by the fact that you are a woman?
Yes. Since women are involved, it is always better that I, or any other woman addresses them directly.
What are the obstacles that you face?
It varies from community to community. In certain places, the process runs more smoothly than others. In others it is much more difficult owing to the sexism that works in certain societies. In North 24 Parganas there are ample Muslim families where women cannot express their opinions or financial independence. They face a lot of opposition from their families about actively taking part in something that requires their stepping out of their domestic roles. For instance, even after participating in the meeting and the campaign, women may go home and face opposition from their families. Some of these women have alcoholic husbands and face domestic violence. Fieldwork hence entails changing the entire mindset of a certain society, and that never happens overnight. A lot of opposition, threats, fears need to be overcome in places where the gender gap is so huge.
In the course of your work in a particular area, have you noticed any change in attitudes?
Of course. The first meeting in any region usually has just a handful of women coming. However, their numbers considerably increase with subsequent sessions. Which means that things are changing, not just on a material level but also in terms of real life-changing education.
Any anecdote pertaining to your work.
We have met a seventy year old widow in North 24 Parganas who has an alcoholic son living with her. In spite of her financial weakness she displayed immense courage and dignity of character when she herself took an active part in the construction of a latrine in her home.
Any last comment-
We have encountered 10-12 families who came forward by themselves to be involved in the sanitary development. All these of course mean positive changes are taking place and financial backwardness is not holding them back.
Women empowerment thus is not something that should be taught to unmarried adolescent girls only. A woman throughout her life faces patriarchal oppression in many ways. She must always resist such sexist discrimination. The story that I spoke of, is one such positive tale of a woman who even as a septuagenarian embraces life and wants to live well.