Shramshakti (1988): Report of the National Commission on self employed women and women in the informal sector||
Earlier we had tongues but could not speak We had feet but could not walk Now we have got the strength to speak and to walk" 1 (Malan Devi, during the struggle for land in Bodhaya).
2. Today we are witnessing the gradual rise of a movement of self employed women Poor women are organising on issues, asserting themselves, articulating their needs and bringing themselves to the forefront of our political consciousness. Organisations of self employed women including unions, voluntary organisations and cooperatives have multiplied and are spreading across the nation. As these organisations grow and spread, as they become more articulate, as they link with each other to highlight common issues, so the movement snowballs and emerges into consciousness. We are presently at the beginning of the growth of this movement. Many of us will be privileged to see in the future a full-scale movement of self employed women which will transform the face of our society.
3. The present day movement has only recently become a self-conscious movement of self employed women. However, it has been possible only because of many earlier movements and attempts to organise by those women. There is very little data about women in earlier movements. What little documentation is available indicates that poor women did indeed play an important role in earlier movements. These earlier organising attempts were of two types—participation of poor women within a larger movement such as the Nationalist Movement, and the Labour Movement, or localised struggles of poor women over specific issues. In this section we will first explore the participation of poor women—general movements and then at their issue-based struggles
Participation of poor women within larger movements
4. The Nationalist movement. The nationalist movement started to become a mass
movement with the advent of Gandhi in 1915. As the movement expanded to draw in the poor masses, the issues of self-employed women began to be addressed for the first time. Khadi was perhaps the first issue which reached the needs of poor women
"Gandhi's relentless propaganda in favour of Charkha spinning and weaving of Khadi and designed to bring the spirit of nationalism and freedom in every home, even in the most remote village—I swear by this form of swadeshi, because through it I can provide work to the semi-starved, semi-employed women of India with, the destruction of India's village craft especially the textile industry, due to the impact of colonialism, millions of women lost their means of subsistence. They responded to Gandhi's appeal "2
"The salt Sstyagrah marked a new high watermark of women's participation in the movement On the famous Dandi March through the village of Gujarat, Gandhi originally started off with 79 satyagrahis thousands of people walking with Gandhi Among them were many women Some of them were certainly from the cities but a majority were ordinary village women"3
6. Poor women were also very active in the anti-alcohol campaign, Gandhi's struggle for prohibition reflected the deep concern of self-employed women for the safety of their homes
7. However when the movement achieved its objective and India became independent, there was no longer any need for agitation and civil disobedience. Now a new nation had to be governed, to be developed, self employed women were not seen as having any role in this new task and their issues were no longer given any importance. The participation of poor women declined and the sprit generated by them during the nationalist movement, faded away
The Labour Movement.
8. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw a growth of industrialisation in the country. The industries were built up by poor men and women who labourerd under which the self employed labour works today. Slowly these industrial workers began to organise. At first there were spontaneous strikes and other organising attempts These attempts gathered momentum, and by 1920 there was a fast-growing labour movement, with workers taking an active part in the process of organising. The struggles of the jute workers in Bengal, textile workers in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Coimbatore, the plantation workers in the North East and the coir workers in Travancore all involved the active participation of women workers
'The textile strike in Bombay in 1939, which I witnessed, was something to remember for the militancy of the women workers. They picketed the gates of the mills early before 6.00 a.m. and distributed hand bills, enrolled thousands of workers, spoke at meetings. They beat the strike breakers wherever they found anyone trying to enter the mills "4
9. As the trade union movement became stronger, the workers became more organised and wrested considerable concessions for themselves. They acquired skills and education, their living condition improved, as did their working condition.s. However poor working women gained little if anything at all. As the trade unions became politically powerful, the participation of women decreased not only within the trade unions but within the organised workforce itself Furthermore the trade unions found it comfortable to operate only within the organised sector They did not attempt to reach out to the mass of poor working women in the unorganised sector. Thus, the very working women whose militancy had made a success of
the labour movement, ended up being excluded from the movement. It is only after 1975 and the rise of the women's movement, that the labour movement has very slowly begun to try and re-organise these women.
The Women's Movement
10. The first stirrings of the movement for reform of women's status can be seen in the 19th century stretching into the 20th century. These included the socio-religious reform movements, notably the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthna Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Muslim Reform movement and the like. However,
"The general impact of all these movements has been most pronounced on the urban middle class. Some of the ideas projected by them, namely disapproval of child marriage and ill-treatment of widows, education and better treament of women within the family, ensuring them a position of greater dignity, have become part of the general cultural heritage of this sector of India's society. Being elitist in character and limited in approach, they have never tried a proper investigation of the problems that weighed on women outside the middle class."5
11. These reform movements did not include the self employed within their purview.
12. Poor women first began to be drawn into a women's reform movement with the advent of Gandhi and the nationalist movement. As the nationalist movement expanded to draw in both women as well as the poor masses in general, the issues of self employed women began to be addressed for the first time. The post independence period saw a decline in the participation of poor women in women's issues. The largest and most influential women's organisation, the All India Women's Conference, did not actively take up the issue of self employed women. They focussed more on the passing and implementation of laws concerning child marriage, widow marriage, equal rights within marriage, and the right of
Individually she is vulnerable, in togetherness she seeks strength
women to inherit property. The participation of poor women in the Women's movement dropped sharply Mahila Samitis, Mahila Mandals and Mahila Samajams were formed all over the country during the fervour of the nationalist movement. After independence these local women's groups remained as ongoing organisations but the participation of poor women in them declined, as did the militancy of the group itself
13. In Assam for example, Mahila Samitis have their beginnings in the wake of the national movement which did make an impact on the socio-political life of Assamese women in the first half of the century, because of its nationalistic appeal considerable number of women from towns and villages came out of their houses during this phase to fight for freedom and assist people in need
14. It was in 1962 that the state level apex body and Mahila Samiti was formed under the name of Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti
15. The effort has resulted in the formation of district Mahila Samitis under which comes the primary (village) Mahila Samitis. The objectives of these organisations include matters like mass education, social reforms, maternity and child welfare besides developing weaving and village industries
16. While the continued presence of Mahila Samitis all over Assam does contribute to women's development in general, there is no rigorous effort on the part of the apex and district members to involve rural women in major issues and neither are they able to reach down the village women in assisting them with practical problems because of feeble institutional support and acute problems in communication We see this is in the case of some Mahila Samitis like the Dibrugarh District Mahila Samiti where most of the 300 primary samities under it are dwindling while 150 are being kept alive in the hope of getting subsidised yarn from the government "6
17. In 1974 the Report of Committee on the status of women in India was released The report gave a lot of prominence of the position of 'unorganized workers' as well as the status of poor women in with regard to education, politics and the law Thus the report highlighted the role and problems of the self employed women This report followed by the International Women's Year, 1975, saw a sudden growth and a new turn in the women's movement in India
18. Groups with a distinctly feminist perspective were formed and feminist theories and ideas began to permeate the jargon of social reform The new groups included urban middle class groups such as Forum Against Rape in Bombay, Progressive Organisation of Women in Hyderabad, as well as self employed women's groups such as SEWA and WWF As the women's movement has grown, it has begun to realise that a genuine movement must project and concentrate on issues that involve the masses of women Consequently there has been an attempt to organise poor working women to project the issues that affect the most, such as deforestation unequal wages and indebtedness
Women within other struggles after 1975.
19. The rise of the women's movement in the 1970s saw an increasing awareness of the importance of women's participation Although, as we have seen, women participated with fervour and militancy in struggles and social movements, yet their role had not been fully appreciated There was little documentation of their achievements, they could not reach positions of importance and after the movement achieved its goals, their participation rapidly declined
20. After the 1970s, women's role in general struggles began to be not only noticed but encouraged There emerged a new breed of women activists who struggle within the larger
struggle for women's issues, for equality and leadership.
21. This "struggle within a struggle' is graphically described by Nalini Nayak, an activist from Kerala who played an important role in the Fisherpeoples' struggle
22. Nalini Nayak in her thoughtful book "struggle within the Struggle" describes how within the larger struggle for fisher peoples' rights, women have asserted themselves to play an important role
"It must be mentioned here that it was the women who first mobilised and went out on demonstrations and representations to the government before the men, so much so that in the following years, when the large fish workers' struggle took place, women were in the forefront-not only in the forefront of the struggle but in the organising of actual task as well It is true that they were obliged to play also the service roles but it was obvious that militancy of the struggle was a result of their active and committed participation It is interesting to see how minimum successes lead them into further struggles against exploitative unjust market taxes, lack of proper facilities in the markets, lack of facilities at the local government hospitals, absence of teachers at the local government, schools etc. And so the movement evolves not without its difficulties "7
23. Gail Omvedt, a rural activist and researcher, described a similar militant role for women in peasant struggle.
"The role of women in peasant struggles—more specifically in poor peasant and agricultural labourer organising was brought home to me in visits to the state of Maharashtra in Western India in the summer of 1973 In this area there had been a major rural upsurge between 1970 and 1973 in years of famine, time and again male organisers of various left parties testified to the fact that women were the most militant Women, they said, were in the forefront of marches, the first to break through police lines and fight, the most tenacious in negotiations, the inventors of new forms of struggle such as blocking of traffic on roads This awareness of women as a force was leading to a new conciousness of the specific problems of women's oppression along with class oppression. 8
24. Even the labour movement has begun to force trade unions take women's participation seriously Llina Sen, an activist in the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh. describes the role of women in her union
25. "CMSS is a trade union of mine workers in Dalli—Rajhara an iron ore mining town in Madhya Pradesh
26. The CMSS fought its first major battles on the issues of bonus and housing allowance for the contractual workers Strong pressure exerted by the union has also held at bay the management's plans to mechanise the manual mines, as it was foreseen that this would lead to massive retrenchment of the manual mine workers CMSS has been unique among trade unions in its attempts to go beyond mere bread and butter issues, it led a successful anti-alcoholism campaign among the workers In CMSS women participated in all union struggles and activities They played a major role in the first strike of 1977, as well as in the 1981 movement to secure the release of union leaders arrested under the National Security Act Women are elected union office bearers from the mines in equal proportion of their numbers Women played a leading role in the anti-alcoholism campaign In propagating the philosophy of this campaign, in organising 'mohalla (residential) committees for the detection and punishing of offenders, women were much more active than men Women related to this campaign especially because alcoholism was easily seen to be related to wife beating and the whole range of women's oppression In addition, with men drinking away their earnings, the burden of sustaining
the household fell on the women Side by side with the support of the entire union, fought successfully for the achievement of maternity benefits in accordance with constitutional and labour laws "9
27. CMSS was a union which achieved a genuine participation of poor women within its activities, but other unions too began after 1979 to realise the importance of organising poor women On the whole, this realisation was from topdown And it was first the trade union federations—CITU, HMS, INTUC, AITUC, BMC—which formed 'women's wings' At first, these wings were mere tokenism. but gradually a women's force began to emerge from below and now some of these wings genuinely organise poor women Similarly political parties began to realise the importance of the poor female electorate and they too started women's wings
Localised, Issue-based Movements
28. Poor women have participated not only in general movements such as the labour movement, and the nationalist movement, but also in movements on specific issues which particularly affected them Time and again women in different parts of the country have agitated against the easy availability of liqour, against threats to their employment and even against foreign rule.
"Manipur is a state where women have been especially active. The trail that women have blazed in popular movements in Manipur in the present century is novel, and unprecedented For example—in 1904, forced labour was sought to be introduced in Manipur. Before the men could comply, women in Imphal demonstrated violently against the proposed re-introduction of forced labour The demonstrators were "market-women" who succeeded in foiling the agent's bid to use compulsory services of the male population. Again in 1925, Manipuri women agitated collectively against enhancement of the water tax They took out a procession in Imphal and organised noisy demonstrations near the durbar offices. The most dramatic of the women's agitations in Manipur. was the Nupi Lan or 'Women's War' launched in 1939 The poor women rice traders felt threatened by the large Marwari traders who had, encouraged by the British cornered a large share of the rice was destroyed by inclement weather, and there was unrest in the foodgrains market and tried to prevent rice-laden bullock-carts and lorries from leaving Imphal for destinations outside the state About 2000 women shouted slogans outside the darbar office where an emergency meeting was being held to consider the deteriorating situation in the supply of rice. Characteristically, the women, whose numbers had welled to 4,000 confined the political Agent Civil Surgeons and some other officers to the telegraphic office for several hours in an original enactment of the modern day gherao. The tense atmosphere outside the telegraph office in Imphal on 12th December, 1939 echoed to nationalist/feminist cries, Bande Mataram and Manipur. MatajiKi Jai In order to disperse the thinking crowd, mounted troops charged at the women The armed troops carried bayonets and it is reported that 21 women were seriously injured, several with bayonet wounds The gherao lasted well past midnight This incident has since gone down in public memory on the day of the "Bayonet Charge" Rice export was finally banned on 13 December, 1939" 10
29. The 1970s saw further rise of such localised struggle where women organised around specific issue
"At the end of 1973 for example, women from several left parties—including Mrinal Gore. a Socialist leader who had toured the rural areas, Ahilya Rangnekar, a CPI (M) leader who had worked among tribal women and women powerloom workers in smalt town areas as well as in her home base of Bombay—joined together to form the United
Women's Anti-Price Rise Front. The Anti-Price Rise Front sought to mobilize working women and housewives of the cities against inflation. Marches of up to 10-20,000 women were organised in Bombay, often brandishing traditional symbols such as the thali (plate) or latha (rolling pin). Gherao actions of smaller groups, 30-40 women, were staged, focusing on state ministers and big capitalists associated with high-price consumer products The Anti-Price Rise Front spread to other cities and towns in Maharashtra and other State in India, but the Bombay organisation remained the strongest"'1
30. The Chipko Andolan—the movement to hug trees—is probably the world's most well-known grassroots ecodevelopment movement
"The movement was born one morning in March, 1973 in the remote hill town of Gopeshwar in Chamoli District, where representatives from a sports goods factory came to cut down 10 ash trees, the villagers courteously told them to do so. When the contractors persisted, they hit upon the idea and hugging the earmarked trees The villages have also seen and resent the manner in which successive governments— beginning with the British—have taken away their forest wealth and turned it into a resource bank for distant urban markets. Even for minor forest produce, and articles of daily necessity like firewood, the local people have been forced to become thieves in their own homeland Slowly, the entire ecology of the region has changed The local people prefer the broad-leaved oak But with the demands of the industrial culture increasing, oak forests have been destroyed and replaced extensively by the chirpine. Today when the local villages want to grow oak wood to make ploughs, they are allotted pine trees, whose wood is useless for this purpose
31. The Chipko movement reached its climax in 1974, when the women of village Reni, some 65 km from Joshimath, got involved in a dramatic way One day, when their men were away in Joshimath protesting against the auctioning of a forest neighbouring Reni, the contractor arrived at the village to begin felling trees. Taking this as an opportune moment, undaunted by the number of men or their axes, the women of Reni, led by Gaura Devi, an illiterate woman of 50, barred the path to the forest which went through the village. As the women stood there, they sang "This forest is our mothers' home, we will protect it with all our might".
32. The non-violent, action oriented Chipko movement has greatly helped to unite the people and focus attention on the mismanagement of forest resources"12
33. These localised, issue-based movements have revealed that poor women have the ability to mobilise and organize for change It reveals that they understand the issues that affect them, and under the right circumstance can unite in a militant way to change them However, the agitations described above have been unsustainable When the organising is for a particular issue only and at a particular place only, then although the movement may be strong at a certain time, it slowly dies away and does not give rise to an ongoing organisation, which would take up one issue after another and which would gradually include many different occupations within its fold These short localised struggles reveal a potential but do not crystallize into a movement
34. Some interesting exceptions are organizations which have traditionally developed to accommodate the needs of self employed women and sustain even to the present day as viable women's groups Small women's mutual credit societies and chit funds for example are found in abundance all over the country
35. In Assam, there are examples of women traditionally organising for collective self-help around economic issues
36. Traditional collective are identified with Plains Tribal women such as also Bado
Kachari, Karbi and Mishing Communities. These collectives evolve around economic issues only To give an example of form of organising, women of Plains Tribal villages run paddy banks in that young women from several households stock substantial amount of grain together from their share which is then open to loan Any needy person can borrow an amount of grain from these banks with which she gets six months to repay the loan, along with an interest of half the amount that she borrows This way the paddy bank swells and women claim their share whenever the occasion arises Even in traditional collectives where several women weave for the village., about 40% of the total income collected is kept aside for the organisation The money is often spent on yarn for weaving It may be added that there is a strong tradition of female entrepreneurship in context of weaving in Assam in fact, village. economy functions largely in women and entrepreneurship "13
37. Left parties, especially the marxists were involved in organising the masses of rural poor/women in all the three major types of movements. Labour movement jute and textile Labour) Nationalist Movement, localised issue-based movements (anti-price-rise) and other major struggles in 70s (peasants' movement) It was often the Militancy of the leftists which led to an involvement of the poor with other movements This was true in the labour movements as well as the involvement of poor women
38. The first women's organisation amongst the left parties—The National Federation of Indian Women was formed in 1954 by the CPI The Federation aimed at "raising political and social awareness of women to fight for social justice and transformation which alone can release them from their present restricted positions in society. Their constructive programmes include mainly literacy but they have been active in mobilising women's protest against all types of injustice and social evils They have been emphatic in condemning the ill-treatment and exploitation of Harijan women and women workers The protests by women in different parts of the country against rising prices, hoardings, adulteration and corruption were organised as a result of an appeal from the National Federation of Indian Women "14
39. Although the National Federation of Indian Women still remains the mass front of CPI, it was inactive for years Marxist and regionally based communist/Marxist organisations (e.g. Lal Nishan Party of Maharashtra) also concentrated on class organising. But this kind of mass organizing brought significant change in the attitudes and orientation of many Communists in the last few years Gail Omvedt attributes this change and rise of non left led women's organisation to role of rural women in rural upsurge
40. Since 1969 this rural upsurge has taken three main forms
(i) Armed struggle, most often under Naxalite leadership among indebted poor tribal peasants in border regions, on West Bengal ('68-'69), Bihar ('68-'69) and Andhra Pradesh ('78-79) and parts of Kerala,
(ii) Intensive mass union-type organizing of agricultural labourers over demands for wages and sometimes land has occurred in localised plains areas most often involving the low-caste labourers of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, Ahmednagar and Dhulia district of Maharashtra. This type of organizing which has most consistently brought women's issues forward The leadership. in this type of organizing has come primarily from the established parliamentary communist parties, but more recently non-parliamentary groups—communists independent Marxists, and radicalised tribal leaders—have been involved
(iii) Extensive mass campaigns on particular issues, including the nation-wide CPI led "Land grab" campaign of 1970, Massive campaigning by CPI(M) in West Bengal
between '68 & '70 to seize illegally held land of landowners and widespread farmers' agitation in Maharashtra. from 1970-73 primarily led by Lal-Nishan Party.'
Organisations of the Self Employed Women
41. The 1970s witnessed a new phenomenon in the history of organising, the rise of organisations of self employed women themselves Unlike the localised one-issue movements, these organisations dealt with the multitude of problems that surrounded the working and living conditions of self employed women The focus of most of these organisations was the self-employed woman in her work-life and as one issue was taken up, so another emerged Furthermore, these organisations did not concentrate only on one set of working women such as forest dwellers, or peasants, but continuously expanded on to encompass the mass of self employed women from different occupations within their fold As new sets of occupational categories came into the organisations, new issues emerged and new unities were forged Another characteristic of these organisations was that they brought into focus the woman as a complete social being, taking into account not only her economic relations but also her social and political being
42. As these organisations grew, they began to see that the issues they were lacking were not localised but national in scale This led them to turn to the national scene They began to expand nationally, and to network with similar organisations across the country This expansion threw up a new set of issues The struggle began to acquire the characterises of a truly national political movement
43. The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a trade union of over 40,000 poor women workers in Gujarat, India. The union was established in 1972 when a group of headloaders, used garment dealers, junksmiths, and vegetable vendors came together to form a workers' association
44. The union organizes struggles for higher wages, improved working conditions and social security benefits against dismissals and mass unemployment Its members' struggle against harassment by police and exploitation by middlemen. In addition it struggles to get assets such as land for women These struggles are carried out through mass action such in the courts, through lobbying and policy interventions and above all by having an army of expanding membership
45. However, SEWA feels that for weak and vulnerable groups like the self employed women, struggle alone is not sufficient to address to structural constraints within the trades Thus SEWA also works on "developmental activities by promoting development of Co-operatives of Self-Employed Women.' To date, SEWA has promoted 17 cooperatives including production co-ops, such as garment making block printing, weaving, and milk production, trade co-ops of vegetable vendors and fish vendors, and service co-ops of cleaners, agricultural labourers, tree growers and child care providers Social security schemes of health care, maternity benefits and insurance are promoted to lend support to the working woman 46. Today the concept of SEWA has spread to other areas in the country and now there exist SEWA organisations , each independent and autonomous in Delhi, Bhopal, Patna, Bhagalpur, Mithila, Jamshedpur, Ambala, Imphaal and Modhyr, Indore, Jabalpur, each affiliated to SEWA" 16
47. Moreover, in recognition of the potentially divisive factors of caste, religion, and politics within Indian society, the Forum's founders adopted certain strong ideological positions, the Forum would be pro-women, anti-caste and pro-secularism, anti-politics, and anti-dowry and it tries to unite the women on issues that traditionally might like divided them (caste, religion party politics)"18
48. The organising and mobilizing of the local women's groups has also led to the formations of
a union called the National Union of Working Women.
49. WWF has now spread to other states such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh—
"Annapurna Mahila Mandal is a women's organisation with a membership of over 15,000 women. It started in 1973 with a programme of assisting women to get bank loans at a concessional rate of interest from the nationalised banks. This resulted in a grassroots organisation.
50. Annapurna Mahila Mandal is structured to have the active and continuous participation from the grassroots level. The local women's groups are the basic units from which all the organisational activities develop. These local women's groups consist of the women who have taken a bank loan or have participated in any other programmes of AMM In 1987, AMM had 20 local women's group in different area of central Bombay,
51. The women expressed a need for a multi purpose centre which began operating in 1983 with a Bank loan Programme, Catering, Health Programme. Creche. Legal Aid, Vocational Training (Catering and Tailoring), Shelter, Education, Research and Publication activities.
52. AMM members thought that since they had basic skills, after some training in catering they would be able to service different types of clientele. Thus by upgrading their skills they could have a bigger market and also enhance their earnings. Thus a training-cum-employment programme was started. Besides this centralised catering sectors, AMM has started another area in exploring a new field of women's employment by taking on canteens by a group of self-employed women trained at the centre."19
53. These are only a very few of the organisations which have emerged in the last fifteen years. Organisations working with self-employed, but with different approaches and ideologies have been multiplying all over the country. In this section we will be discussing some aspects of organising these women.
Men and Women: Organising together and separately
54. An issue that has emerged particularly after the women's movement took off in 1975, is. should men and women organise together as part of a larger movement or should they organise separately? This issue has been explored in many different ways theoretically, as well as in practice, by many different groups all over the country.
55. Earlier movements involving social change for the poor did not especially tackle the issues of women's oppression. Even where this oppression was recognised it was assumed that somehow when the revolution came, women's oppression would disappear along with other oppression.
56. As a social thinker, Gandhi was an exception in this regard. He realised that women's oppression had to be regarded as part of the nationalist movement, for him liberation of women from the forces that oppressed them, was as important as their participation in the social movement for justice.
57. "The Working Women's Forum was formed in 1978 by the initiative of an ex-political activist Jaya Arunachalam with the explicit objective of empowering poor women in both their productive and reproductive roles. The broad objectives of WWF were to create an association of women employed in the unorganised or informal sector, to identify and address the critical needs of working women, to mobilize working women for joint economic and social action by resorting to group pressure and to demand their social and supportive political rights, to improve their entrepreneurial skills through training, material inputs, credit and extension services necessary for working women and their families, such as child care. education, health and family planning."17
"Credit was the focal point around which the forum was founded, so far 40,000 women
have got access to institutional credit through WWF. Recognising the wider social and political forces that limit women's economic opportunities, WWF has started support services for these women
58. However, apart from the nationalist movement, women's liberation was never seen as a priority. Women participated actively in many 'workers' movements but their problems, their roles, their oppressions by the menfolk was never appreciated. They were seen merely as numbers to add to the movement
59. The mid-1970's saw a rise of feminist ideology The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, 1974, for the first time set out in detail the inequalities suffered by women as a sex. Women's groups began agitating on particularly women's question such as rape Women within groups working for social change, such as trade union and political parties began raising the question of women's oppression, within their groups In the beginning, almost uniformly, women reported resistance to their raising women's question within the context of the larger social movement The argument used to suppress them was that fighting for women's equality within the movement would internally divide the movement and weaken it. In addition many of the male activists within the movements had a low opinion of women However as the women's movement has gathered momentum the male activists have had to come to terms with women's issues.
60. In this context, the experience of Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini activists in Bihar during the Bodhgaya struggle is interesting. Vahini activists felt that they had to insist on women's participation when the Vahini began to organise landless labourers in Bodhgaya, they found that they had not taken into account the work of women and the exploitation of this work by men The struggle was focused on the right for land It was only as women began to participate in large numbers that the activists began to understand their mistake in ignoring women's specific exploitation. Subsequently, one of the issues. that was taken up was that of wife beating. At meetings on the subject, activists insisted that only women would be allowed to speak as otherwise the men would take over Even so, with men present though silent, the women did not open up too much Things improved with the next campaign in which women took the initiative, the anti-liquor campaign. Women's committees were formed which would go to the houses of bootleggers unearth all their bootlegging equipment and bring it away to the committee which would sit in a public meeting where the men were not allowed to speak, and this enabled the women to become more confident. Nirmala Sathe, speaking of the experience of the Shramik Sangathana in Dhulia District, pointed out that even within this struggle of landless labourers women were organising separately within the movement because in working with men it takes time for them to gain confidence
61. In some case the male activists would not absorb the concepts of women's equality and have either crushed, or removed the women activists The most dramatic of such examples is SEWA, which was thrown out of its parent trade union. Textile Labour Association, because it was too assertive regarding issues. of poor women of the unorganised sector Some other organisations have started as organisations of poor women and have remained as such, for example Working Women's Forum and Annapurna Mahila Mandal These organisations have realised that although they remained as organisations purely of poor women, yet they need to be associated with a larger movement and with other organisations doing similar work
62. Most organisations have recognised that to build a movement of poor self employed women, it is necessary to have a separate organisation of women Indian society often does not allow women to participate in mixed meetings In many cultures women have to observe purdah in front of the men of their families. The men also usually do not appreciate women
voicing their views. In such a restricted cultural climate, it is difficult for a women to learn to overcome her fears and speak up in a meeting. Women often have different priorities from men and in mixed organisations, the women's needs are not given importance In a mixed organisation, the men's needs tend to dominate and these needs are sometimes in direct contradiction to those of women In Garhwal for example during a reforestation programme the women wanted to plant fuel and fodder trees, while the men wanted cash trees.
63. Women's problems relating to their oppression by men such as wife beating and alcoholism are issues. that emerge during discussions in women's groups However, women find it very difficult to discuss these problems in a mixed group and the men too tend to get defensive.
64. Finally women find it easier to get support within their family if they are part of a women's organisation Their men-folk may not approve of their meeting other men in a mixed group and are more likely to support their efforts with a women's group.
65. On the other hand most organisations have also come to realise that a movement of self-employed women has to be part of a more general movement including men The basic economic issues. of the self-employed are the same and unless men and women are struggling side-by-side, these issues. cannot be addressed At the same time the problems or women's oppression cannot just be solved by women, but must be a joint effort of men and women.
66. Many organisations have tried to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory needs of having a separate women's organisation but at the same time being part of a more general movement.
67. Mixed organisations have tried to achieve this by having within their fold a separate women's wing, as many of the trade union federations—CITU, INTUC, AITUC, HMS, BMS and political parties have done Others, such as CMSS have formed a separate women's organisation, Mahila Mukti Morcha, within the fold of the trade union.
68. Women's organisations such as SEWA or WWF, have attempted to achieve integration by affiliating with larger federations and by keeping close links and networks with other mixed groups
69. The example of poor women organising, though impressive in themselves, are extremely few-and-far-between. All the organisations working with self employed women inspite of their efforts and time have covered not even a tiny fraction of the total number of poor women. During its field investigations the Commission found that most of the self-employed women had not even heard of an organisation which they could join Spontaneous organising was also practically non-existent. In effect, in spite of the efforts by many organisations, in spite of the stated policies of the government, in spite of the manifestoes of trade unions and political parties, in spite of the women's movement, labour movement, peasants' movement and other local movements, the mass of self-employed women remain unorganised
70. Given their socio-economic position, this is not surprising. The self-employed woman does not have the means to organise She has no resources to fall back upon, no support structure, she is the weakest and most vulnerable person in our society, crushed under intolerable burdens
71. Her economic existence is precarious as she earns her living from day to day She needs work desperately, but most compete with countless others like herself for the dwindling work opportunities Very often she has no work and so nothing to eat Even when she works she earns less than anyone else in the economy
72. Her work is hard and physically exhausting, often dangerous and her hours of work are long Her body is weak from ill health and unsafe child bearing.
73. In addition, there is the physical emotional drudgery in the home. She squeezes the most out of the meagre resources to feed her family, she gives emotional and physical care to the children, the old and sick. She is the last to sleep, the first to awaken, she keeps working inspite of illness, till she can no longer stand
74. Her social existence is oppressive. She is usually of a tow caste and so subject to the humiliations and indignities of an unjust caste system. She is a woman and so considered the lowest, rather unwanted within the family. She is a worker without assets and so dependent for her livelihood on the powerful who keep her subjugated
75. She is illiterate, she has no access to the resources of society, to education, to health care, to social security benefits. She is politically invisible, she cannot make her needs known to the politicians who take her vote.
76. Her life is controlled by decisions made by others. Within her family. her will is subject to the decision of her husband, father, son. In her work she is controlled by her employer, contractor, landlord
77. In her social life she is bound by the rules laid down by her caste, panchayat or community elders in which she has no say. She is treated as a non-entity, a non-person subject always to the needs of others
78. These socio-economic conditions reveal an extra-ordinary vulnerability. Economically she is vulnerable, afraid of losing her work in a labour surplus economy, if she asks for any more than she gets. Physically she is vulnerable to sexual attacks, to illness to overwork, socially she is vulnerable to caste and patriarchal oppression. And underlying all this is the hidden, but ever-present threat of violence.
79. She is able to survive under such crushing conditions, only because of her deep faith, her courage, her love for her family. and her indomitable will.
80. She is weak, but her weakness is due to the pressures of society She is weak as a social being, in her relations to others, as a political being, in her social status However as a person she is strong Her social weakness requires that she be strong internally In order to survive in a desperate struggle as the weakest in society, she must develop internal resources of courage and strength It is these strengths she draws on in the rare cases when she tries to fight back, to organise.
What happens when Self-Employed Women Organise
81. The act of organising gives rise to a large variety of experiences as the traditions, beliefs, relationships, structures begin to be challenged and shaken Some of these experiences may be positive and encouraging while others may be negative and demoralizing An experience of concrete gains fill the woman with confidence to go on
82. Daku Bai, a village level worker in Daijar, Rajasthan express this confidence when she says
"The contractor of the road construction gang was paying us only Rs 3 a day, we found out that the minimum wage we should have been getting is Rs 11 or 7 kg of grain. We decided to do "ekat" We said we would not accept the wages till he paid us Rs 11 a day He refused We held out for two months. Then saw the Collector and told him of our problem. Ten days later the mate can back and paid us the minimum wage and since then there has been no problem "20
83. Every victory gave them a sense of confidence about their ability to solve their own problems, and about the power of their "ekat" Similarly an experience of enhancement of
prestige gives a fillip to organising
"Karimabibi, Vice-President of SEWA says, "Since I have been active in SEWA, people look up to me Many women in the neighbourhood come to me for advice Previously, the traders in my area of Danapur used to mock at me and say "What can she do? She is poor and a widow" But I organised the Chindi (patchwork) workers into SEWA and together we asked the traders for a price-income. We complained to the Labour Commissioner and he called us for negotiations. In the negotiations, five of us workers' representatives sat across the table from the traders. After that the traders began to respect me. They thought that I can also influence the Labour Commissioner "21
84. On the other hand negative experiences such as loss of work has a demoralising and dampening effect
"Organising the tribals is not an easy job The Gram Vikas Sangh realised that the workers of the Amli Kheda talab must be organised if they were to get any justice. "We set about doing so and every contractor, his hired goon's, sarpanch. mukhiyas and government officials used every tactic and ploy to make sure we could not organise. the workers Endless rumours were spread by them, sections of the workers were bribed and told to attack us, the panchayat samiti pradhan was vociferous in his propaganda against us He stated the story that we were against any development taking place in this area and were trying to sabotage the talab by stopping work This was a good step and the contractor and officials hurriedly backed it up by cutting down on work and putting the blame on us Many tribal labourers turned against us and felt we were depriving them of a chance to work The contractor stopped work in the talab in April due to some differences with the Irrigation Department over the cost of carting earth to the work site The real reason for stopping work has never been revealed to the workers by the officials, instead they say it is because the workers dared to raise their heads and ask for better wages
85. What causes an organising experience to be positive or negative, successful or a failure. In general, failure results from the degree of opposition to the organising efforts whereas success reflects the support that society is willing to give the self-employed women
86. The opposition to an attempt to organise is a measure of the vulnerability and weakness of the self-employed woman The opposition to organising comes from different levels of society and exposes her oppression by those social forces. An attempt to organise is also an attempt to challenge oppression. and exploitation and the degree of that exploitation is reflected in the amount of opposition and the number of obstacles that the organising attempt faces Without alternative sources of support the opposition to organising will. result in a retreat to the status-quo
87. Here we will. examine the different types of opposition that an organising attempt meets and will. also look at the successes and possible systems of support
Opposition to Organising
88. It is not easy for a group of poor women to organise. Organising means challenging the status-quo in society, opposing vested interests, and at the same time confronting their own internal fears and weaknesses. Whenever women organise., the dominant class attempts to assert its supermacy and create obstacles and opposition to organising. Here we explore some of these obstacles and show how they dampen the organising. effort
Till today, 31st Dec.' 83 work has not been resumed and the blame is being put on us.
These rumours have had many negative results in our attempts to organise the poor. For instance, we got reports that tribals working on project of the Soil Conservation Department in the village of Partipura were being done out of their full wages and there were many other irregularities. Some workers approached us for help but the reaction of the majority of the workers was to beg us not to interfere as work may be stopped altogether and they would lose even the paltry Rs. 3 they were earning. 22
89. Similarly humilation and ridicule causes the sparks which help women to organise to die out, and other women hearing of the experience will be less willing to try to organise.
"On June 22, 1980 when I asked Gaura Devi, the famous leader of the movement (Chipko) about her experience, I was shocked to hear instead a story of continuous harassment. "At times we feel like leaving the village" she said, "But where to go?"
The harassment by the village menfolk began the day when Gaura Devi led 27 village women to prevent the contractor's employees and forest department personnel, about 60 men in all, from going to the Reni forest to fell 2,415 trees. While the women were blocking the narrow passage leading to the forest, the men used all sorts of threats and later, on the pretext of being drunk, even tried to misbehave with the women. But the women refused to budge and bravely resisted all misbehaviour. Finally, one of the men spat at Gaura Devi's face. The women remained cool but firm. However, they got frightened at the prospect of being arrested and put behind bars. To save their skin, they made their wives put all the blame on Gaura Devi.23
90. In both rural and urban areas, opposition from powerful vested groups is one of the most difficult obstacles that women workers encounter. Powerful groups like landlords, merchants, and contractors, use their might to prevent women from organising. They also disrupt any attempt to destroy any organising efforts and openly demonstrate their hostility. Even outsiders feel this hostility.
91. Gopa Joshi who has earlier described the humiliation faced by women leaders in organising here describes the opposition and hostility faced by them.
"In June, when I, with two friends of the trees (dalian Ka dagaria) visited the village to study the role of women, we were confronted by a hostile mob of the headman's henchmen. They asked why we had not sought the headman's permission to enter the villages."24
92. These same powerful men use the trump card of stopping employment to harass and intimidate, especially the leaders or trouble makers. Describing how active leader Hava Bibi was victimised during the organising of bidi workers in Patan Gujarat, Renana Jhabvala, the Secretary of SEWA, says:
We get a frantic letter from Hava Bibi, "My contractor has stopped giving me work. He says if you want work go to SEWA—"Anasuya (the organiser) takes the next bus to Patan. "Hava bibi is not getting work," Anasuya reports on her return the next day. "Her daughter is ill and her husband has TB. She has no food in her house. She does not even have anything to pawn. I went to see the contractor, Bhure Khan to persuade him to take Hava bibi back. But he only shouted at me, "Go back to Ahmedabad. You are spoiling our (Muslim) women with your loose ways."
Karma Bibi, who had accompained Anasuya, explains: "Everybody is afraid. The contractors are making an example of Hava Bibi."24
93. The tactic of singling out those who are "weak" or in a particularly disadvantaged situation is also commonly used. Widows, and other single women, as well as the poorest of workers are alwgys singled out and pressurised or even dismissed
"The Story of Yashoda of Yacharen village in AP of Vyavasay Coolie Sangam is a good example of this.
Yashoda's husband, Malla Reddy, was a bonded labourer. The burden of supporting the family of three daughters fell on Yashoda, who works as a labourer. One day, the landlord under whom Malla worked came to know that Malla was taking interest in a newly formed labourers' organisation, the Vyavasaya Collie Sangam, which was fighting to wipe out bondedness and to get a reasonable wage for labourers. As a punishment, the landlord confiscated Yashoda's cattle."2'
94. A woman is surrounded by restrictions and obstacles not only in her work and her community, but even in her family. If a woman wants to do something unusual like to go to a meeting, she usually has to seek the permission of the males in her household. And often this permission is not forthcoming. The man may feel his authority threatened if his wife goes out and he may resort to violence to stop her. He may also try to restrain his wife because of external pressures on him. When women challenge the status-quo, the powerful groups, instead of directly dealing with the women, may approach the menfolk and order them to put pressure on their wives or daughters. Men are sometimes more vulnerable to such pressures as their employment, benefits or safety may depend on these powerful groups. Men are also sometimes more in awe of the powerful.
95. A women of HP had organised a Padyatra to protest against opening of liquor shops.
96. SUTRA had predicted there would be about 500 women on the Padyatra, as at the meeting in September at least that many women had indicated their readiness to come. But only 200 turned up. As Simla said, "It's the women who most need our support, the women who suffer most, who are not here. Their husbands won't let them come—and they have no money because all the household money goes on liquor."
97. For many women, it was this pressure from their menfolk that prevented their coming. "The women wanted to come. There were a lot quarrels about it, but what could the women do?" Some of the resistance came from the men who were themselves drinkers. Some other men were unwilling to give the women any freedom. In other cases, heavy pressure was applied on the men by local politicians and village leaders who did not want to see the women's strength grow, particularly against liquor vending from which they gain much of their power.
98. In the interim period, the women were busy planning an annual mela at Jagjitnagar. But many men opposed their plans, spreading rumours against SUTRA and threatening to beat their wives if they attended the mela which was held on February 22. The turnout was much lower than earlier year."26
99. Similar experiences were noted with the Rural Women Organisation in Tamil Nadu.
"At first, men interfered with women's meetings, and scoffed, citing such proverbs as "The day breaks only when a cook crows, not when a hen squawks." Many members were forbidden by their husbands to attend the women's meetings and were beaten
when they went anywhere. These women kept coming. They got out of the house by saying they were going to the market. When we touch on issues concerning the role of woman in the family we face a lot of problems. Recently, the husband of a leader of a village women's movement threatened to divorce her if she continued to involve herself in the struggle."27
100. Alliances with other power groups and even government functionaries are used to squash organising efforts. Landlords, merchants and others themselves organise to oppose the workers' efforts at organising. Needless to say, these formidable alliances are very intimidating and threatening as far as poor women are concerned. Further, powerful groups seek the assistance of the police or even local bureaucrats. They do this by virtue of their status, social and political connections and even by bribery.
101. The activists of the Ibrahampatnam Taluka Agricultural Labourers' Union complained that:
"1200 acres of rich textile land has been occupied by a single landlord. The people of this village, pleaded with the Government to take over this benami land, and distribute it among the landless. Three months ago, when the people cleared the land of shurbs in a symbolic attempt to focus on the problem, the landlord called in the police and had persons arrested. When the people wanted to hold a public meeting, the police refused to give permission for public address. Even after the High Court gave permission, the mike was snatched away by the C.I. saying 'Go crying to your High Court'. The women of this village have been the most active, leading in all the protests, dharnas and meetings."28
102. Violence is also commonly used by the powerful to stop organising efforts by poor women. This violence takes the form of beatings, torture and even killings. This violence is either perperated by the dominant groups themselves or by their militias as in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and elsewhere.
103. In the struggle for land against the Bodh Gaya Math, in Bihar, the activists of Chhatra Sangharsh Vahini describe this violence:
"In November, 1978, the labourers, activists of Persa village decided to reap the crop but keep it for themselves instead of taking it to the Math. In the Bodh Gaya struggle, all programmes are usually publicly announced in advance. Therefore, the Math had time to prepare itself. Early in the morning, hired ruffians and musclemen of the Math surrounded the fields.
The Math spread police and goonda terror throughout the area. There were many incidents of ruffians waylaying and beating the villagers, abusing the women and threatening to rape them. Dozens of false cases were registered in local courts against the villagers. Individuals would be arrested from the marketplaces, so that no collective resistance was possible. Every effort was made to frighten the women and girls. It became dangerous for women to go out alone or even to go out at all at night.
In one incident, one of the Vahini activists, a tribal girl named Alice Kanchan, was going from one village to another, when she was caught hold of by some ruffian youths, beaten, abused, and insulted, her clothes were torn, Jankidas, who was with her, was also beaten up."29
104. Similar violence was experienced during the anti-liquor struggle in U.P.
"In Menagi Village last April. Vaishakhi Devi. a number of men were sitting together in a house and drinking. She immediately took a lantern and set out to stop them. The drunkerds grabbed the lantern threw it at Vaishakhi Devi and as her clothes caught fire, pushed her into a wheatfield. Vaishakhi Devi was badly burnt from her chest to her knees."30
105. In the struggle between the powerful and the weak the stronger groups make use of the forces of law and order, such as the police. In these cases the police, forest guards etc. use force to intimidate the struggling women or to break their movement.
"In Maheswaram village in Rangareddy district of AP the landless poor won a court injunction to get Govt. land for themselves. When they went to farm this land, the police arrested them and took them to the police station under the supervision of the Sub-Inspector of Maheshwaram-Police Station. The Police once again beat all the victims in the police station abusing them in the most filthy language. The Sl mocked at the victims and said, "even now do you want to have land"? he further criminally intimidated the victims saying " If you dream of land these are the consequences you have to meet" so saying he instructed the constables to beat the victims."31
106. Another very common method of trying to subdue women's organising efforts or questioning the existing exploitative system is sexual exploitation or harassment. The most violent form of this is rape.
Sexual innuendo is sometimes the first stage of brutal sexual attacks on women who insist on fighting for social justice. "My sister Maria always stood up to the Dadas", says Honorita, living in Bombay's Dharavi slum. "Near her house there was an illicit brewery where goondas used to congregate and there was a 'rada' every night. Maria organised all the women of the area, and they went to the municipal corporator, the police, the mayor and even the Chief Minister. Finally they managed to close down the brewery. The Dadas were very angry and spread rumours that Maria was a loose women. They began shouting crude remarks at her. But still Maria did not let them re-open their distillery. Then one evening as she was returning from her shopping three goondas pounced on her, dragged her behind a shed and beat and raped her. The police wouldn't even register her complaint."32
107. The external obstacles to organising are certainly formidable. They are further reinforced by the women's own internal weaknesses. Through their weak self-image and their inter-group divisions poor women themselves perpetrate their own oppression.
108. The biggest internal weakness is the division among women workers. Women perceive neither themselves, nor other women as workers. They do not see the need for unity with each other At the same time there are the strong divisions of caste and religion which keep them apart.
109. Many organisations have found that one of the major obstacles to unity are the caste divisions. Women of slightly higher castes are reluctant to sit with and meet with women of lower castes, although their economic conditions may be the same. WWF for example has found to be a major' problem and has taken up a special programme of caste integration in order to build unity among the workers.
110. In areas where communal tensions have dominated, it has become difficult to build unity among workers who are in the same occupations, but are of different religions SEWA, Singhbum and SEWA Gujarat, had to make special efforts for communal harmony to keep their members united, after communal riots broke out in their areas
111. Another internal obstacle is that poor women tend to see themselves as weak, powerless and ignorant They undervalue themselves and as a result are afraid to take positive action
112. Organisers report that when they first go into an area, women are often disparaging about their capacity for action Women come out with statements like "We are illiterate "We are ignorant", very often they feel that even if they are ready to organise., other women will. not support them. They tend to undervalue their own qualities and make remarks like "Hamari to takdeer hi phooti hai, hum kya kar Sakte hai7"
The Economic system promotes oppression:
113. However, the greatest obstacle to organising is neither the opposition from external groups, nor Women's own fears, but just the structure of our economic system, These women struggle for subsistence at the lowest categories of employment. All of their attention, skill, and life force goes into the mere struggle to stay alive Should they divert their attention even for a short while from the subsistence struggle they may very well go under If a woman misses her day's work to go to meeting she and her children may not eat that day If she gives up her chance that she will. lose whatever little place she has in the economic system
114. The economic system forces the women to cling to their sources of work, because it offers no alternative employment Instead of constantly expanding work opportunities to meet the needs of a growing population, our economy decreases even the existing work opportunities Mechanisation of industrial and artisanal production and agriculture, and destruction of natural resources through deforestation destroys the means of livelihood of the poor who then have to turn away from their traditional methods of production and enter into an intensely competitive, cat-and-dog struggle for the ever-decreasing work available to them.
115. In spite of the obstacles, in spite of the opposition, in spite of the struggle at subsistence level women do sometimes manage to organise. And when they do, it is an empowering, positive experience. Organising changes the world of the women, it changes their self perception, it changes their relations with others, it changes the society around them and often it causes larger political changes
116. The most obvious advantage of organising is that it gives the women tangible, concrete gains
— Women actually acquired and tilled land in the Bodh Gaya struggle As one of the women, Malan, said "Didi, we have got just an acre of land It isn't as if we have got a lot to eat but now can we say it has made no difference7 It has made a difference "
— In Nipani the tobacco workers' wages increased and with it their life style
— AMM succeeded in giving loans at 4% interest per annum instead of at 120% per annum from money lenders
— Alternative housing was created by SPARC for pavement dwellers in Bombay whose houses were destroyed
— landless labourers formed milk cooperatives, acquired cattle and began earning with the help of SEWA
— Some liquor shops were closed down in H.P. after struggle by SUTRA women.
— The iron ore mine workers who were employed on contract basis were successful in raising their daily wages from Rs. 4 to Rs. 19 after organising into CMSS.
117. In a society where the struggle is for mere survival, a little more may make a major difference to the well being of the woman and her family.
118. To a poor woman, who has so much to loose and is so weak and vulnerable, having gained a tangible benefit, means much more than can be measured in concrete terms. As Malan of Bodh Gaya says:
"Didi, earlier, we had tongues but could not speak, we had feet but could not walk. Now that we have got the land, we have got the strength to speak and to walk."33
119. Whenever an organising attempt is able to show some concrete gain. it generates confidence, spirit, and the desire to do more. It gives a major boost to the organising process.
120. However, a tangible gain is only possible when the organising attempt begins to break through many of the stereotypes and the opposition to the poor women. A successful organising attempt begins to change the perception of society at many different levels. Perhaps the first and most important perceptive change is that the problems of the poor women begin to be recognised as problems. They then become problems of society as a whole.
121. The Chipko struggle, for example, forced the state government to acknowledge the possibility that cutting down forests was creating landslides. It set up an expert committee which confirmed this view. Soon, environmentalist nationally and internationally aclaimed the Chipko movement as did Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. This led to intense debate within the country on the problem of deforestation and a massive reforestation programme by the goverment. Thus a problem of hill women in Garhwal was converted through the Chipko struggle into a national issue.
122. A society's preception of the problem changes, so also does its attitude towards the women who have organised to protect their rights. As we have described earlier often the attitude towards the women hardens and they are confronted with opposition from their communities and within their households. In successful organising attempts on the other hands, the opposite is perceived. The attitude of the community towards the women becomes more positive, as does the attitude of the state and the larger forces.
123. The Women's Development Programme in Rajasthan found that after organising the women into groups, the caste panchayats were much more responsive to the needs of the women and began to modify and alter their decision to make them more positive to women.
124. Government officials such as the BDO who previousty would refuse to even see the poor women, now treat them with respect, listen to their complaints and often try to solve their problems. Even an official as high as the Secretary, Social Welfare, began to take the women seriously.
125. As women begin to be honoured outside their house, so also the attitude of their men-folk changes. Talking about the change in the attitude of men in the villages of AP where women had been organised, Maria Mies says.
"Men did the cooking for the common meal for the women, and were supposed to look after the children. This active participation of the men was in itself a great achievement and can be seen as a sign that the women's sangams had grown in importance."34
126. The most decisive change that occurs in the organising. process, is the alteration in the personalities of the women taking part in the organisation The more active a women is in the organising., the more she empowers herself, the more both her perception towards herself and her life changes
"Laro Janko a women activist in the Bihar mines was afraid to speak in public "I kept thinking like this and began to get worried I thought why can't I speak? I will certainly speak I got a Khatpata in my heart, I became restless One day I was asked to speak in a meeting I did not speak very forcefully Baap re Baap, I felt so ashamed of the way I had spoken I felt like covering myself with a lid My body was trembling But they kept giving me opportunities to speak in meetings. After speaking a number of times I began to get a heat in my head
Then when the mines closed down, throwing us all out of employment, we struggled for reopening the mines The management attacked us with hired ruffians, police, military police, police women That time, I was really filled with heat and abused the management. Since that day the heat has gone up into my head "35
127. The release of internal energy, generates a creative power whereby she develops talents and skills she never had before Her dormant creative powers begin to awake
"In Rajasthan thousands of poor rural women have gathered, they sing and dance and some of them discover a vein of poetry in themselves and compose songs suitable to their issues and struggles "36
128. As her creative power is released, she begins to feel more in control of her life, of her body, of the events surrounding her As a woman's self-confidence increases, as she feels more empowered, she begins to break out of the cocoon of her everyday existence She begins to perceive the larger world, she herself begins to feel a part of the larger world and she understands the larger forces of exploitation and sees her role in the larger struggle for justice.
129. Until now she has been pursuing single mindedly the struggle for survival and everyday earning Now her view broadens and she thinks about her life beyond today Savings. preventive approaches to health, family. planning, become an important part of her life
The WDP programme in Rajasthan found that after organising in villages women insisted on going for sterilization even though earlier they had completely rejected the family planning campaign. Similarly, women asked for adult education, saying, "Ab to angootha lagane main sharam ave'"37
130. The process of organising. helps a woman to break out of her preconceived self image as only mother, wife, household rudge. She becomes a worker along with other workers Sometimes she becomes a leader of a Group
Shushila Naik. a tobacco processing worker in Nipani was elected a leader She was much younger than other workers She was illiterate, she was a devdasi and yet because of her strong personality, her determination and strength she became the leader Once, when she was asked "What would you have done if you had not joined the union7 How would you have found an outlet for your talents7" Her reply was illuminating "Probably, my talents would not have been discovered I would not have remained worker Since I have a good singing voice, I would have joined a group of singing devdasis "38
131. Organising is a process whereby the individual has to break out of her isolation and consider herself part of a larger group which acts cohesively. Organising is to create a united group of people acting together on issues of mutual concern. The creation of such a group breaks down the divisions between women. As women of different castes, different religions, and different communities sit together in meetings, protest together, eat together, think together, the social division begin to break down. This is the true meaning of communal integration.
132. Despite the numerous and complex impediments to organising, self-employed women workers do organize and struggle, with extraordinary courage and strength. Reports from all over the country are a testimony to their commitment to overcome the various crisis and barriers which appear, at first, insurmountable.
Issues around which self-employed women organise:
133. Regional, caste, community, religious and occupational differences notwithstanding, there is a commonality about the economic and social issues on which poor women organize. Women organize on several issues at a time and these generally overlap, reinforce and complement each other. A few of the major issues that women workers organize on are given below.
Organising for Land:
134. Land is the bulwark of the rural society. Wealth, employment capital, power all comes out of the land.
135. Poor women generally own no or meagre amounts of land. Recognizing that the key to control is through land, some women's groups have struggled to gain land for themselves. In this they are supported by progressive legislation like land reform, and ownership of the tiller. These struggles have to be carried out in the face of tremdendous opposition from powerful groups who do not want to let go of land they hold, illegally.
136. The Bihar struggle, of the landless, against the Bodhgaya Math, succeeded in pressurising government to seize 1,500 acres that were illegally held by the Math and to redistribute this land amongst the labourers.
However, the government administration officers refused to give the land in women's names. Their argument was that land must be given in the name of the head of the household who, according to them, could only be a man. In 1982, women of Sherghati gheraoed the district authorities and argued with them. The authorities said the land was to be given to landless labourers. The women pointed out that they too were landless labourers.
After this agitation about 150 acres of land were given in women's names in Kusa and Beeja villages of Sherghati. 39
137. In Maharashtra's Thane district, tribal women have struggled for years to obtain land ownership and regain lands owned by non-tribals. They have worked through organisations like Bhoomi Sena, Shramjivi and Kashtakari Sangathana. In Andhra Pradesh, women have organized for land as part of the Ibrahimatnam Taluk agricultural Labourers union and in Orissa women have organised into the Karandimal Sanghathana and have struggled to redeem mortgaged land.
138. Freeing bonded labour is another issue taken up by various groups. Women workers in Thirumalaipalam, Burgamap and Khammam, blocks of Andhra Pradesh for example.
organize to free themselves from bondage Woman in Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Maharashtra were also among those who struggled for freedom from this bondage
139. Minimum wages and better working conditions, including security of service, regulated hours of work, provident fund, bonus and paid leave are universal issues Both rural and urban women workers have organised on these Disha for example is an organisation fighting for the rights of women in the forest of Gujarat Many of the forest dwellers are employed directly by the Forest department or Forest Development Corporation as casual labourers and are paid well below the minimum wages of Rs 15-20 Disha has insisted that these workers be paid the minimum wage and through the labour department's intervention has obtained wage settlements
140. Even worse is the condition of forest produce collectors who are predominantly women and children The rates for collection are fixed by the forest department which pays about Rs 7 for 8 hours work Disha has filed a petition in the High Court and also organised an 8 days strike to press for a fair minimum wage 40
141. In Karnataka, thousands of tobacco workers have organised for minimum wages, provident fund, bonus, eight hour work—days and security for service The later is a particularly pressing issue because of the increasing mechanization in the tobacco industry and the displacement of women workers that result from this There are examples of sweepers and construction workers in Rajasthan, some fishermen in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu and a few Bihari papad-rollers, tasar spinners and leaf-plate makers who have made demands for minimum wages and other improvements in working conditions Part of their struggle is to obtain official notification of minimum wages and then demand these from their employers.
There are also instances of workers organising for better working conditions One such example is of an organising. attempt by domestic workers in Pune Meagre salaries and lack of paid leave were the main problems which spurred the maidservants into a spontanous strike action on February, 8, 1980 Two midservants from Karve Road, Pune had fallen sick and had to go on leave. A few maidservants had appealed to the employers not to cut the pay of those women. When their appeal was refused, they left the workplace and narrated the incident to various maids they met on the way, saying that they had gone on strike. Within an hour, about 150 servants from Karve Road spontaneously struck work.
142. The maid servants decided to launch the agitation though they were fully aware of the risk of losing their jobs In some localities, they did not report to work for as long as 20 days, till their demands were met They won their demands on their collective strength.41
Space for Vendors
143. All over the country vendors are considered illegal and denied a space to sell In Imphal, Manipur women vendors have organised for their right to occupy their traditional space in the market, and continue to resist the government's efforts to move them to make space for a modern market building There have been struggles by some vegetable vendors in Ahmedabad and Bombay to be allowed to sell their wares undistributed in their traditional spots in the main market, and for licenses
Developing alternative production system
144. Women workers in small groups all over the country have been exploring the possibility of developing units or systems where the entire mode of production—from
raw materials to actual production, pricing and marketing—remains under the workers control.
145. SEWA has sponsored over 17 co-operatives of poor women, including mill co-operatives, garment producers co-operatives, cleaners co-operatives, paper pickers co-operatives, agricultural labourers and tree growers co-operatives, fish, vegetable and kerosene vendors co-operatives to develop an alternative to the exploitative production system of the Middleman. In Jabalpur, SEWA has been struggling to form a bidi workers' co-operatives.
146. In Andhra Pradesh, Samakhya has been training poor rural women to form credit-co-operatives, farmers' co-operatives and milk co-operatives. Annapurana Mahila Mandal, an organisation of women who have been traditionally running small lunch houses, started a catering section where women get training and employment. This has upgraded their existing skills, given them security of regular employment & better social status. By working collectively they have also gained confidence and solidarity.
147. In Bankura district in West Bengal, forest workers (mainly tribals) have been organised by Nari Bikash Sangh. To increase their earning and avoid exploitation by contractors who pay them very low rates for the forest produce, the women have themselves started making leaf plates & rope making and have sought local as well as urban markets.
148. Obtaining Recognition as workers is very much linked to the issue of visibility in general for all self Employed women workers. Because they are not recognised as workers, many women remain invisible to planners, policy-makers and the public in general. This is particularly true of the thousands of home-based workers. The lace-makers of Narsarpur, Andhra Pradesh and bidi workers of Vellore from WWF are examples of women who have organised for recognition as workers and coverage by labour laws. Their sisters in Ahmedabad, involved in readymade garment sewing, agarbatti making and other home-based trades and in Chikan and Zari embriodery in UP are also struggling for recognition as workers.
Obtaining access to credit
149. Although there is a nationwide credit network of nationalised, co-operatives and private banks, the self-employed women even "today have little access to cheap credit. Women need credit for their trade, for buying assets such as land, for inputs into family or artisanal production, for social occasion such as marriages, for emergencies such as illness or for hard times such as drought. They have to borrow from private money lenders at interest rates as high as 120% and in doing this so often pawn away their jewellery.
150. Credit and with it savings, is perhaps the most successful issue around which women's organisations have been built. WWF is a pioneer in this field.
"Access to credit has made a big difference in the lives of the more than 40,000 women who, so far, have received loans from the forum. The loan programme has had a very tangible impact on the women's business and on the welfare of their families. An estimated 2 800 new jobs or businesses have resulted from the programme and earnings have increased an average of 50% in existing enterprises. It also has assisted many women to expand and diversify their economic activities. 42
151. In addition to linking with the nationalised banks, women's groups have formed
their own credit and savings co-ops or even their own bank Almost every ongoing group has a small savings and credit scheme
152. Obtaining access to raw-materials and assistance with marketing are particularly important issues for the thousands of women workers who spin, weave, make baskets, pots and other handicrafts They are also import ant issues for vendors, together with the question of space for vending
"Ghar, in dist. Saharanpur of U P is populated mainly by Harijans, banjaras and poor muslims. Here about 40,000 families are involved in traditional rural industry of cutting and producing bean rope
The working plan of the Shivalik Division for 1979-1988 recognises the traditional rights of the people over the raw materials, fuel and fodder provided by the forest But since 1962 the forest corporation, have through their continued association with vested interests, conspired to deprive the people of these rights
The local people are now struggling for access to the forest as their traditional rights, and formed the Ghar Kshetra Mazdoor Morcha They formulated 3 demands restoration of traditional rights of people to forest produce, removal of contractors from the forest and fixing of a retail price for bhabber grass based on actual cost and expenditure. 43
153. Not many women's groups have been able to successfully tackle the problem of suitable access to markets 'Dasatkar' which is registered as a voluntary organisation and is sponsored by the All Indian Handicrafts Board was established in response to the problems and needs of these producer groups
154. The major contribution of this organisation, is that it brings together the artisans and the consumers through organising. exhibitions in urban centres Through these exhibition, the producers not only get a fair price for their products and feedback about the consumers preference but also get [training and confidence in direct sales The design catalogue which they have developed also helps these groups in boosting their sales
155. This group carries out market surveys as well as surveys to identify the groups who would need their assistance, and provide consultations/inputs for product design and managerial guidance to these groups
156. Housing, water and sanitation are major concerns of poor women workers Both urban and rural women have been very actively organizing for housing and have participated in the national campaign for housing rights In cities like Bombay, and Calcutta for example women have organised to resist demolitions of their homes by the civic authorities In Rajasthan and Maharashtra, women have been active in obtaining water supply and sanitation for their neighbourhoods after protracted struggles In Maharashtra, women have even formed 'pani Panchayats' to ensure that water supply reaches all poor workers
"In Jaipur, to get water connections for the slums, the slum dwellers appealed to the authorities There is one tap for 250 families and it is simply not enough The authorities said they could not comply to the demand for more taps So the slum dwellers cut the main pipelines and the next day the authorities came in and reluctantly fitted taps But in a couple of days they turned up again to disconnect the taps Here, also the women in the slums took charge and patrolled the taps to see that no one came to tamper with them Even 75-years old women helped in the patrolling In protest, the women also went and broke waterpots by the thousands outside the Chief Minister's house The slum dwellers spread a whole network of taps in the slum and the authorities dare not to do anything They (the slum dwellers) are not willing to accept the discriminatory policies of the government for the rich and poor any longer The rich have water taps separately for baths, toilets, car garages, lawns etc and the poor have to suffer one tap for 250 families
The slum dwellers have been successful in clearing out unscrupulous speculators registering for housing for slum dwellers provided by the Housing Board. All those not living in the slum have been identified from the lists submitted to the Housing Board and have been exposed in the local newspapers. Centrally located slums have a premium land value and several agencies want to evict them and shift them to the outskirts of the city. Again, the slum dwellers have refused to move and have registered their slums as societies, to give them legal status.'44
157. Environmental issues centering on conservation of precious water supply, fuel and fodder resources have also been concerns on which women have organised. This has been particularly true of hillwomen, women who live in forested areas and those in dry and drought-affected regions. In Gujarat women workers of dairy cooperatives have organised for fodder and also for digging of wells. Tribals women in Orissa have also been organizing to preserve their heritage the forests, on which they depend not only for various products but also for fuel and fodder. Besides the Chipko movement discussed earlier, in Uttarakhand women have organised and protested against indiscriminate quarrying which is causing serious problems of landslides.
Obtaining access to health and child care services:
"Some village women have organised politically to fight for better health care. In village Paliyankuppam, Tamil Nadu families were affected by virus fever which was spreading rapidly. With the help of the village health workers the villagers reported this to the nearby primary health centre, but the doctor in charge refused to attend to the problem immediately. The villagers then sent telegram to the district health office and to authorities in the health department. The next day district medical team arrived and the negligent doctor was reprimanded in front of the villagers".45.
158. In Maharashtra, in Gadchiobli and Jamkhed districts hundreds of village women. trained as health workers, not only provide health service but also organize women on health issues such as insufficient and irregular drug supply at the government health centres. In West Bengal, Orissa and Gujarat a large number of women have organised for better health care. "Mobile Creches is an organised programme of day care for the children of poor working women, both on construction sites and in slums resettlement colonies. The organisation was also successful in creating to a limited extent, public awareness of the problems of migrant children through its publications seminars, volunteers and exhibitions. Even more significantly. Mobile Creches persuaded the government to institute a scheme of financial assistance to agencies running day care for the poor. so that more could be reached.46
159. Similarly, in Bihar some bidi workers and others have organised for creches and anganadies. Finally, women workers have organised around the issue of obtaining ration cards and subsidized foodgrains.
160. Removal of untouchability has been taken up by many women workers as part of their struggle for justice and equality.
"In Jaipur, Rajasthan, slum dwellers who are predominantly scheduled castes, have been organized to demand their rights for entry to temples restaurants and to other places where untouchability is practised. The slum dwellers themselves form a legal committee which brings to public notice alt the cases where such discrimination exists, and demands permission to enter.47
161. Also in Mithila. Bihar, women who make Madhubani paintings and lac bangles continue to struggle against the strict caste taboos of traditional Maithili Society.
162. In husbands and other men-folk is a problem universally faced by poor women, and they continue to organize actively against this In Himachal Pradesh's Solan district, thousands of hill women have struggled for the closing of liquor shops and cancellation of licence for distilling. Similary in Almoda, U P hill women have organized and women who work in mines in Madhya Pradesh's Chhatisgarh area have also done so Many women find that wife-beating is an issue closely related to alcoholism, because it is generally drunken husbands who abuse women the most in this way
Rape, violence. and Sexual harassment
163. Rape is one of the most explosive issues around which women have organised The rape case of 15 year old Mathura by policeman set off a wave of protest around the country and led to the enactment of a new, and stringent act against rape In Nipani tobacco workers have organised against sexual harrassment and rape as have mine workers in Chhatisgarh.
164. Fatima Bernard, organising. Mahila Sangarsh in Tamil Nadu describes such an incident.
"We have begun organising women by taking up cases of atrocities on women On December 24, 1981, an eleven year old girl named Suganya was attacked while she was playing with friends. She was raped and stabbed 21 times. She had to be hospitalised and put in intensive care. Although everyone knew who the rapist was, the police did not arrest him because he was an important person in the local branch of the ruling political party. The issue was discussed in a women's meeting and a protest rally was organised. We were refused police permission to hold a demonstration but we went ahead About 2000 women from neighbouring villages participated, taking the risk of arrest We were surprised by the spontaneous participation of so many women at such short notice "48
Organising around legal and policy changes
165. Groups of Self-employed women begin by raising and dealing with local problems, but gradually it becomes clear that many of these are in fact larger issues which have to be dealt with at the state or National level. Most problems cannot be solved by mere adjustments within the system, but need major legal or policy changes. In this case groups tend to net work with one another and approach the courts, the Parliament or legislative assemblies
166. When Parliament wanted to amend the Forest Act, for example, many groups of forest dwellers opposed it. Similarly the Bombay Hawkers, and later Ahmedabad Hawkers went to the Supreme Court for a re-interpretation of their constitutional rights. workers are asking for a new act for the homebased workers.
Methods used in Organizing
167. The methods used by workers are as diverse as the workers' groups themselves However, a few of the common and often-used methods will be discussed here Some of the methods listed are more frequently incorporated in one particular strategy, and others are used simultaneously in various strategies
168. Intensive contact with individuals and groups of workers is very important at all stages of organizing. With such contact, workers build up trust and faith in each other, and in organizers, who may not be workers. They need to feel supported and encouraged In addition, self-employed women workers must feel that the group is sensitive to their needs and problems. Rather than waiting for them to come to a centre or office with grievances, it is
important to reach out to them. Finally, self-employed women have to develop their self-esteem and self-concept as workers, and this is best done if, through intensive contact. groups of workers become close to each other and develop a spirit of camaraderie.
169. Surveys of neighbourhoods where self-employed workers live and of their living and working conditions, not only reveal women's problems and needs, but also can be a way of building strength and unity. This is because several individual women's experiences are collectivised in the survey process, resulting in a kind of "collective diagnosis' of worker's lives. Both the process and results of the "Collective diagnosis" can be powerful ways of consciousness-raising, and many groups have found it to be a useful "launching paid" for further organising activities. Finally these surveys are also ways to record and document worker's experiences for lobbying action. In addition, data generated, as well as the new awareness generated can be channelized for confrontation and also developmental activities.
170. Small group meetings are an ideal forum for developing strength, unity, support and confidence. In this non-threatening milieu, workers find that they can speak out, many for the first time ever, and express their ideas, needs and hopes. In addition, as the group feeling develops, a sense of solidarity and unit emerges, essential ingredients for organizing.
171. Training is an important way of developing individuals and groups of workers, and equipping them for the various tasks and skills that are required in the organizing, process, Leadership, consciousness-raising and public speaking sessions are among the training inputs essential for all organizing strategies.
172. Public meetings and rallies are important ways of building strength, confronting and even lobbying at various levels. First, these generate a tremendous feeling of solidarity and unity, of "strength in numbers". Important linkages between groups of self-employed women workers are made at such events. Also, just meeting their "sisters in struggle" leads to a sense of elation and a mood of optimism and energy. In addition, workers become visible, not just to each other, but to policy makers, planners and the public at large. Large rallies are often covered by the media and thus given some exposure which could contribute to a more sympathetic climate vis-a-vis workers' demands and needs. Finally, such rallies can be a way. of confronting powerful groups, revealing workers' strength, power and determination.
173. Collective bargaining or negotiation is used by some workers. They literally sit face-to-face with employers, landlords and others and negotiate a settlement acceptable to both. Workers involved in this process have to be confident and conversant with negotiating skills. They also have to be careful that they are not victimised later by employers. In addition, there have been many instances where landlords, merchants and others have not honoured the agreement reached even if it was a legal and binding one.
174. Alliances are made between groups of workers in different regions on common issues to help workers build strengthen and unity in the process of confrontation and even in lobbying because the pressure of the groups is increased by these alliances. Tobacco workers in Karnataka and Gujarat, for example, are working together to fight against the mechanization of the industry and consequently the imminent displacement of women workers.
175. Some self-employed women also ally with political parties or movements, as this increases their strength and clout. Several agricultural workers, for example, have joined the Shetkari Sanghathana in Maharashtra.
176. Gherao , Dharna , Satyagraha , Morchas , rallies, courting arrest and other methods of non-violent resistance are very commonly used for all over the country, as method? of confrontation. They also help in building strength and unity, and generating pressure which can be used in advocacy work. In Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, women who make nets by hand took out "morchas" or processions and held "dharnas" or "sit-ins" to stop the
government from licensing a nylon net factory in their areas In Rajasthan workers digging at an irrigation project surrounded their contractor for three days and two nights ('gherao") and refused to let him go till he paid their wages In Andhra Pradesh, landless agricultural labourers physically occupied land illegally taken over by landlords Finally, readymade garment workers in Ahmedabad took to the streets and marched to the labour Commissioner's office to demand immediate notification of minimum wages for their work These are but a few instances of how workers use different methods like processions, "Dharnas" (sit-ins), and "gheraoing" (surrounding' employers as a part of their strategies for organizing)
177. Strikes are also used in the process of confrontation As in the case of dharnas and other methods mentioned above strikes also create a sense of solidarity and strength It should be mentioned that strikes take a particularly heavy toll of self-employed women workers because they are so poor and vulnerable, with few reserves in terms of money or alternative income sources And yet, women do choose this methods In Andhra Pradesh, for example, agricultural labourers in Aswaraopet block struck for higher wages Similarly in Rajasthan, sweepers in Jaipur stopped work for better wages, cleaning equipment and overall working conditions
178. Media, the press, television, videos and documentary films have all been used in strengthening worker's unity, confronting powerful groups and advocacy efforts Using the media to disseminate information, creates a sympathetic atmosphere and even expose the exploitation of vested interests It is not easy to use the media to women's advantage Several sections of the press, television and other media are only used to viewing workers' struggles from a media-class perspective What is worse is that vested interests, either through their social connections or economic pressure are able to "buy off" the media workers have to struggle to get seen, heard or appear in print
179. However, several self-employed workers have managed to use the media to their advantage Chikan workers in Lucknow participated in a feature film, "Anjuman", alongside filmstars The film which centred on the exploitation and difficult lives of chikan workers was important because the public learned of their problems, and it created sympathy and support for worker's organizing efforts
180. Representation in Policy-making bodies at the regional, national and international levels has been mentioned already in connection with the strategy of lobbying In addition, representation at various levels also helps in the strategy of confrontation because of the sympathetic climate it can create It also strengthens unity and boost workers' morale to know that their voices are being heard at some of the top decision-making levels, both nationally and internationally This also applies to the organising strategy in which developmental activities are a part, because workers' representatives can use their position at policy-making levels to influence both the speed of implementation and ensuring that this actually takes place
181. At some point in the organizing process, self-employed women workers form organizations These may or may not have a legal structure Many cases have been documented where self-employed women form an organisation without making it a legal entity. Some are traditional women's organizations like the "Shinalong" of the Naga Tribes in the North-East, traditional collectives in Assam, Mahila Mandals and Sanghams in various part of the country are some examples. Workers in such groups have chosen not to register their organisation, because the group remains informal and flexible There is no external interference especially from government agencies Self-employed women feel more comfortable and in control when dealing with organisations where there are no formal procedures
182. However, it should be noted that through their experience, workers find that there. are also certain disadvantages to having such unregistered, informal groups
183. Sometimes when the immediate need for which workers organised is satisfied, or even when it fails to be satisfied, the groups disintegrate. There is no incentive or pressure for the group to remain cohesive or interest. A legal entity with its set procedures of periodic meetings and activities provides a mean for members to continually interact and come together.
The State and Organizing
184. The relationship between the State and groups of women who try to organise is incredibly complex. The State itself is not a monolith but contains within itself a variety of forces, often contradictory to one another.
185. The guiding document of the State, the Indian Constitution is remarkable for its leaning towards justice and equality for all. Women in particular, are recognised by the constitution as a weak and vulnerable section which must be given special protection. So going by the Constitution alone, the State should be totally sympathetic towards the aspirations of the self-employed women.
186. The constitution, however is a document at a high level of abstraction. The Principles of the Constitution are translated into the policies of the state. The Indian State has chosen a path of mixed economic development i.e. the economy is a combination of private and public enterprise. The performance of these economic policies often go against the interest of the self-employed women and causes the state to view their attempts to organise with disfavour.
187. The constitution directs the Indian State to follow the path of electoral democracy for its political system. This means that the polity has to be responsible to the needs and aspirations of its electorate. Here again the State is tugged in contradictory directions as the needs and desires of different sections of the population are often quite in contrast to each other. The self-employed women constitute a majority of the female population and in sheer numbers are an important section of the electorate. However the vested interests on the other hand are equally important. The political elite itself is part of the economic and social elites. Also, the financing of electoral politics and political parties comes from the economically powerful groups.
188. The state is responsible to groups which achieve a certain quality that Nirmala Banerjee calls it "Political visibility"
"This amorphous quality which can be called the political visibility of the group is not really a strict reflection of the number of votes of the workers involved. Rather it is the possibility of how far support to that group would reflect favourably on the image of the political party concerned. This political visibility has several dimensions. A group firstly has to be visible to itself to feel its distinct identity and appreciate its political importance. The visibility of a particular group to political parties is also a matter of social links between political leaders and members of the group.
For getting political support a group has also to develop means of getting public support for its cause. Political visibility is not only an additional attribute in determining workers' relative status but that it is also the process through which various other qualities of groups of workers get recognition in the form of better or worse working conditions. " 49
189. Self-employed women are in these terms, politically invisible. They have neither a distinct identity, nor political importance. They belong to social classes much inferior to those of the political leaders and have practically no means of getting public support for their cause. Without this political visibility they remain vulnerable to other more politically powerful interests.
190. Here we will describe the State's attitude towards self-employed women and their attempts to organise
191. The State recognises workers as an important section of the population which tends to be oppressed and exploited by commercial interests. The State recognises the needs to protect these workers and has passed a large number of labour laws There is extensive government machinery in the form of a Labour Ministry, at the national as well as the State levels, which is set up to enforce these laws. The labour officers and inspectors reaching right down to the Taluka level Although much of the labour machinery and the labour laws pertain to the formal sector there are a number of laws, which if strictly enforced, will provide simple protection to self-employed women. These include the Minimum Wages Act, the Inter-State-Migrant Labour (protection and welfare) Act, The Contract Labour (regulation & abolition) Act and the Equal Remuneration Act Not only does the state seek to enforce protection but it also tries to encourage the workers to organise. The Trade Union Act ensures the fundamental right to organise and provides a model for trade union building. The Industrial Disputes Act provides a model for trade union building. The Industrial Disputes Act provides (at least theoretically) protection against victimisation in organising
192. The State goes one step further and encourages workers to organise by giving them awareness training through the Central Board of Workers' Education. The CBWE with its branches in every state runs classes which informs workers of their rights, and encourages them to unite and to join trade unions. Similarly the National Labour Institute carries out camps of unorganised workers to encourage them to organise.
193. However, inspite of these efforts by the State, self employed workers are left largely unprotected and unorganised As the Commission has found in its tours, very few, if any, of the labour laws are enforced outside the formal sector, and there are practically no unions which include self-employed workers
194. One reason is that only very recently have self-employed women begun to be recognised as "workers" It is only in the last 5-6 years that the 'unorganised labour' and rural labour' has been recognised as part of the labour force to be protected by the labour machinery.
195. Another, and more dangerous reason is that when groups of workers organise to seek implementations of labour laws, other agencies of the state tend to side with exploiter, to prevent the organising. The police, for example, see a legitimate demand for minimum wages, or release of bonded labour as a 'law and order' problem and often treat the workers quite brutally, thereby suppressing all motivation to 'organise
In the month of April-May 1987, bonded labourers of two villages in Mahboobnagar distt. A P submitted petitions for release to the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) On submitting petitions , the harassment began - they were beaten, abused, their cattle seized, even the titles on the house of a bonded labourer were removed. 50
196. Implementation of the labour laws is often seen by certain vested groups as harmful to their economic interests, and they lobby with the government to prevent the implementation. Caught in a conflict of interests the government often backs away from implementation.
"SEWA had organised homebased garment workers in Gujarat" says Dhangaunben, Executive Committee member of SEWA "but we found that they were not included in the schedule and so there was no minimum wage for them. We applied to the State Labour Ministry to notify Minimum Wages Although the office of the Labour Commissioner prepared the Draft Notification it never came out Later on we found out that the All India Garment Manufacturers' Association had submitted a memorandum to the Labour Ministry as well as
Ministry of Industries Saying that if Minimum Wages was declared they would shift all garment work out of Gujarat State '
197. The State has created a special department to deal with the "Welfare" aspect of society The social Welfare and social Defence Ministries as well as the Central Social Welfare Board supply this service These government departments are meant to deal with the weakest, most vulnerable sections of society which include the self-employed women The original mandate of these departments was to dole out welfare, the idea being that these weak sections cannot help themselves and would always be weak, and so the welfare was a form of 'relief. However now that concept is changing There is a growing recognition that 'weak sections' are not by nature weak, but only so because of their position in society If these weak and vulnerable sections are made more aware, more organised and at the same time are given a helping hand from the government they too can become strong
196. The Rural Awareness Camps sponsored by the Central Social Welfare Board are an example of such an approach These camps try to arouse the poor especially the women, to organise and unite them to better their conditions Similarly the Ministry of Human Resource Development gives grants to help awareness generation This kind of support from the government does create an atomosphere for organising. That this approach may be successful it illustrated by SUTRA'S organising. attempts in HP. Ironically SUTRA'S example also shows how the organising. attempts of poor women supported by one section of the State, may run into opposition by vested interests supported by another section of the State
199. In 1985 SUTRA received a grant from the Ministry of Human Resource Development under the title of "Raising Public awareness against alcoholism " They ran a series of village camps at which women were able to discuss the problem that liquor creates in the lives and to learn more about the government's role in licensing and sanctioning the sale of liquor at the state level These awareness camps were instrumental in mobilising women and initiating anti-liquor campaign and build it into a movement. During their meeting, the women agreed that alcohol was their biggest problem They put forward the proposal that before any liqour shop is opened a vote should be taken to assess public opinion and that only if the resolution is backed by 2/3 of the population of a village, should a govt license a vend at the site.
200. Then in November 86 about 200 women went on a Padyatra from Village Samanu to Simla In a way, although all these activities were supported by the Central Government, however at the state level the government was trying its best to suppress the movement
201. The revenue department of the state government directly gains from the sale of liquor In a study conducted by SUTRA, it was discovered that in 1985 the State Government had earned a sum of Rs 68 crores from the sales of licences alone Therefore the sale of licences alone brings in an income equivalent to about Rs 1000 per person Thus it is a very lucrative business both for the government and for the businessmen It is no wonder that the Himachal Pradesh excise regulations are framed in such a way that they allow no provision for the closure of a liquor shop once it is licensed for the year, and although there is a paragraph which states that public opinion should be assessed before a licence is granted, there is nothing that makes it incumbent upon the licensing authorities either to assess opinion or to follow its dictate. On the contrary whenever the women have (supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development) tried to demonstrate their disapproval of the indiscriminate opening of liquor dens & licencing policy the State authorities have sided with the rich and powerful businessmen who earn high profits from liquor selling and have tried to crush the women's movement. 51
202. It has been the policy of the state to encourage the poor to develop economic
alternatives by organising themselves into production, consumer and service co-operatives. The cooperative is seen as a form of organising by which the weak and vulnerable can collectively protest against exploition. The State actively encourages co-operativisation by providing subsidies, soft loans, protected markets etc. The co-operative departments in each states, train co-operative members in the principles of co-operation as well as in the skills of running a co-op., such as management, accounting etc. Recently many states have introduced special incentives for poor women to form co-operatives.
203. Co-operativisation is also encouraged for landless or poor rural people. However, as in the case of the labour laws, the impact of such government support to organise co-operatives, has been negligible. Cooperatives have not been able to serve as the vehicle to organise the weak and vulnerable, especially self-employed women. One reason for this is that although the state started with the good intention of promoting genuine cooperatives, it has smothered these co-operatives to death by over-regulating and over controlling them. The state has attempted to control the co-operatives hereby leaving little room within the co-operatives for the growth and awarenes of the poor themselves. Samakhya, a voluntary organisation in Andhra Pradesh which has studied co-operatives in detail concludes :
"Cooperative laws which were of an enabling nature, soon enough changed to those of a controlling nature and in more recent times, when even control was not found to be enough, amendments were made to let cooperatives be managed by government, accountable to government, to be used by government for its schemes. Cooperatives which wish to maintain their autonomy; their sense of accountability to their members do so at considerable risk and often go through the most traumatic experiences, as we in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal (to name a few states where cooperatives have been denied elections) will know."52
204. It has also been found that when the State encourages organisations of poor women by positive policies, there is an immediate response of organising. A notable example is the G.R. of the Gujarat government reserving all government markets for women's co-operatives. The Govt. of Gujarat has notified that all its purchases will be made only from women's cooperatives. The price for these purchases fixed by a tripartite committee This policy has encouraged self-employed were to unite and attempt to set up co-operatives and the result has been a growth of small women's co-operatives, numbering more than....all over Gujarat. In addition old co-operatives, got a new lease on life and defunct ones were revived.
205. There are two opposite streams of thought within the government itself as to how development should reach the people. One is the 'beneficiary approach'. The government is perceived as the benefactor, the giver and the people are passive and receiver. The government controls, the people are controlled. The approach sees the process as one of ruler and the ruled.
206. The second is the 'involvement approach'. People are perceived of as involved in the process of development. Their needs, their aspirations are reflected in government programmes and their energies, their commitments are involved in the implementation.
207. The last 40 years of development have shown that for the weaker sections such as self-employed women the purely beneficiary approach will not work, that unless the vulnerable sections are organised, the fruits of-development will not reach them but will be appropriated by the more powerful groups. This recognition has prompted the government at State and National level to promote all kinds of women's organisations—Mahila Mandals, Mahila Samajams, Mahila Sangams etc. However, even within the promotion of women's organisations the different beneficiary or involvement approaches can be observed.
208. A good example of the beneficiary approach to promoting women's organisations is
the UP Governments sponsorship of the women's organisation 'Akanksha'. Akanksha was formed, not by an impulse from any self-employed women, but by a Notification issued by the State Government on 1.12.86. As can be seen, this woman's organisation is purely an arm of the Government itself.
209. In contrast is the Women's Development Programme again of the Government of Rajasthan which is based completely on the involvement approach.
The WDP is one of the most significant programmes of the Govt. spread over six districts of Rajasthan covering 300 gram panchayats. It is unique in many ways. For a start, it has brought together the Government voluntary agencies and research groups, a programme in which "the policy makers have adopted a vote of humility"
The Govt. and the voluntary agencies have been working well and with understanding. Officials understand that there are certain aspects, like training, better handled by voluntary workers. And the activists appear to have shed their usual bias to anything to do with the Government. 'Yeh to Sarkari Hai'.
The WDP has three components. There are 'Sathins' at the level of the gram panchayat, with 10 villages looked after by a 'pracheta,' who have a project director, at the district level, all coming under a director of the programme under the Ministry of Social Welfare It is linked to the Voluntary Component of the Programme IDARA (Information, Development and Research Agency).
Besides the power of their 'Ekat' (Solidarity/Organizing), what helps them in fighting issues like minimum wages in famine relief work is the realization by the local power groups that these women have clout of govt. behind them. A Sathin in a village is not just any body, she is a govt. functionary. This has also enhanced her self-esteem and status in the family and community.
Normally the government approach is to dump information and benefits on the villagers. In the WDP the idea is to create an urge in these women to seek information about their rights and then to exercise them. While in this programme, planning is not cut and dried but incomplete. Experience gained while operationalizing the programme is being constantly incorporated into the planning process.
These women's interventions have made the government's delivery system more effective, be it functioning of a school, a handpump, a primary health centre or a ration shop. They are providing check on the corruption. The result is not only their own development as women, they are also beginning to act as agents of change and could increasingly become, given continued support, a catalyst for effecting a change in social relations.50
210. A consistent pattern that emerges is that when the state is sympathetic to the issues of the poor women and supportive to their organising efforts, the women certainly do organise and succeed in their struggles. Government help creates a support structure where none existed before. In a seminar organised by the Ministry of Labour on Organising Unorganised Rural Labour, sponsored by Ministry of Labour, one of the participants, Rajesh Tandon. reports:
"When the participants (from a rural training camp) described their achievements two factors were almost invariably present in each of them. These two factors were the level of organised action and the degree of support from local officials. The data suggested that the higher the level of organised action and the greater the degree of official support, the better were the chances of success.51
211. If we accept that women's problems are not going to be solved in the course of the current type of development, then we are looking for a political solution—a method of giving
additional priority in State Policies to measures for helping these women. As past experience has shown, there is little chance of even existing facilities like education, primary health services or access to capital ever reaching these women at sufficient and sustainable levels unless they build up an organised pressure.
212. Left to voluntary agencies and the poor women's own organised pressure, it is unlikely that these kinds of organisations will come up quickly enough in sufficiently large numbers to make a singnificant impression on the situation of these women.
213. It is rather ironic to ask the state to support a machinery. which is to promote action for change in state policies. However, it is recommended that to create an atmosphere for women's organising, the State should initiate and help in maintaining a network of grassroot level" organising efforts, on something like the WDP Rajasthan model.
Role of the State
214. The above examples make it clear that if the organising process is to be encouraged among this weakest section of the people it must be supported by the state. When the state, or any agency of the state opposes this process, it almost certainly leads to a breakdown of organising. If the state is to support organisation of self-employed the following suggestions can be followed:
1. Not to convert a legal demand into a law and order problem
215. The most damaging role that a state agency can play is to accuse a group of agitating women of creating a 'law and order' problem and then arresting them or using violence on them. As we have seen this crushes all signs of awareness and strength among the workers. We strongly recommend that when a group of workers agitate non-violently to demand a legal right such as minimum wages, abolition of bonded labour or legal access to land, then the state agencies such as police should abstain from any action against them If violence is committed on the groups the police should protect and defend them.
2. Support for organising efforts
216. Whenever self-employed women organize, including on the issue of implementation of government programmes, the State should unequivocaliy support and side with them. By doing so, government programmes will also actually reach the poor. It will also be easier for the state to inter-act with workers and ensure that they remain the focus of all development activities.
3. Orientation of government functionaries to support organizing
217. Apart from support to the poor at the policy-making level, the state should set up mechanisms whereby, government functionaries at all levels of the bureaucracy are oriented towards poor women. This orientation would include an understanding of the need to support worker's organizing efforts and ways in which government functionaries could actively support and work with workers.
4. Developing support centres
218. Centres where self-employed women can obtain information on their legal rights, existing government policies and programmes, and the implementation agencies for these should be established by the state. This would assist the organizing efforts of workers by providing access to information. These centres could also be a mechanism for obtaining feedback with regard to women's problems in and needs for organizing.
5. Representation at the Policy-making and planning levels
219. Self-employed women should have proper representation in all policy making and
planning of the nation's development This will ensure that the concerns and priorities of the poorest of workers will determine the national plans, policies and programmes It will also mean that plans and policies which encourage consciousness raising and organizing in general will be developed
6 Creation of legislation
220. Progressive legislation can both initiate and further encourage organizing, as we have discussed earlier Thus such legislation should be developed in consultation with women workers
7 Developing legislation for forms of organisation
221. Existing legislation pertaining to forms of organization should be reviewed, and changes which will encourage organizing should be made These changes should include simplification of procedures and regulations In addition, legislation for alternative forms of organization, more suited to the organizing of poor women, should be developed
8 Support for training
222. The state should provide resources for training which would assist and encourage the organizing process Where such resources exist (for example Worker's Education Board and Social Welfare Boards at the Central and State levels) they should be made available to women workers Workers should determine the kinds of training programmes developed, so that they would be suitable and oriented to their organizing efforts
9 Support formation of regional or Central Association of workers
223. The State should encourage and support the formation of networks and associations of self-employed women workers at regional and national levels In This way, workers' collective strength for organising will be enhanced and they will also have an opportunity to inter-act and share their experiences with each other
10 The Government should reserve raw material and markets for co-operatives of self employed women This could be done on the line of the Gujarat GR
224. It is often seen that the government acts or reacts according to political pressures exerted over it, from time to time In that case that vast majority of the poor self-employed women, looking to their present vulnerability and total lack of bargaining power, will never be able to build up neither own political visibility nor the organised strength to pressurise the government for policies in their favour
225. Therefore, the government should on its own take action to create a positive atmosphere in the country for these women to organise themselves to know, demand and enjoy their rights, given by the government itself, to defend their rightful place in the economy against forces that erode their means of livelihood, to play an active role in decision making and thus participate in the various development processes It is clear that unless the capabilities of these women are increased, the country will not be able to progress as desired by all of us