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Women move forward one step at a time – a stellar initiative produces results in Bihar

Women in rural India are always at an added disadvantage, mainly due to low literacy levels and socio-cultural norms, resulting in reduced self-esteem and low levels of confidence. A lack of self-understanding and limited agency further worsens their situation. In January 2021, Crossing Borders collaborated with S M Sehgal Foundation for an initiative on Empowering Women in Local Development. The Women Leadership School model by SMSF works to empower rural women for local participation and action by becoming advocates of development in their villages. Arti Manchanda Grover and Ellora Mubashir tell us the story

Women’s rights are not a privilege but a fundamental aspect of human rights —Savitribai Phule

Women in rural India are always at an added disadvantage due to low literacy levels and socio-cultural norms that are characterised by inequitable access to resources. This results in reduced self-esteem and low levels of confidence. A lack of self-understanding and limited agency further worsens the situation for women. Together, these factors deter women’s participation in village-level institutions.

Fostering the capacities of women community leaders so that they are empowered at individual and collective levels to participate effectively in matters of village development happens in stages: development of individual agency and structural and relational changes. In January 2021, Crossing Borders collaborated with S M Sehgal Foundation (SMSF) for an initiative on Empowering Women in Local Development. The Women Leadership School (WLS) model by SMSF works to empower rural women for local participation and action by becoming advocates of development in their villages. WLS is a capacity-building and collective action platform for women leaders at the grassroots: active community members, women elected representatives of local institutions, members of self-help groups, and frontline health workers such as anganwadi (nursery) and ASHA.

Abha Kumari runs a local grocery shop with husband Ashok Kumar in Village Narayanpur, Muzaffarpur District.

A ‘learn by doing’ methodology in a year-long training programme equips women leaders with information and skills to participate in the functioning of local institutions and government programmes. Women leaders learn about themselves, gender equity, confidence building, participation in local institutions such as gram sabha, gram panchayat, and school management committees, and community monitoring. The engagement of 25-30 women leaders once in month on this platform is an empowering process as they realise the importance of a collective voice and action for having a decisive influence on village development. Participatory games such as snakes and ladders and ludo communicate the messages. The tools are designed to empower individuals and groups to participate actively and make their own choices. The WLS initiative has become a cornerstone that ensures the engagement of women in various areas of development. WLS holds immense promise in places such as Muzaffarpur in Bihar, with low literacy and development indices.

Abha Kumari belongs to village Narayanpur, Muzaffarpur District in Bihar. She runs a local grocery shop along with her husband, Ashok Kumar. Abha has been part of the WLS since 2021 and has become a change agent in her community. Select women leaders from the WLS training who have the passion to work with other women in their community became change agents in the second phase of the project and further mobilised and worked together with other women in the WLS. Abha’s guidance and motivation have encouraged other women to voice their opinions on development-related issues in panchayat and gram sabha meetings.

Women in rural India are often at a disadvantage due to low literacy levels and socio-cultural norms.

Abha says, “Earlier, women never came out of their houses to participate. The discussions and conversations were limited to small gatherings in the neighborhood. Our husbands’ views echoed the limitations society placed on women, which held us back. Now we have started to take charge of our families, work, and identities. Things are changing, and the men have begun coming forward to support us. Earlier, I used to be addressed as the ‘wife of Ashok’, but now I am called ‘Abha, who runs the grocery shop’. Being acknowledged by society and in the family as individuals encourages and inspires us to improve the environment and circumstances surrounding us.”

The WLS platform has not only accelerated women’s empowerment but also equipped women community leaders to collectively participate in village development processes and challenge the notions of gender inequality. Change agents like Abha and women trainees in WLS are charting a new path to empowerment each day, moving forward one step at a time.

(Courtesy: Sehgal Foundation. This article reflects the Foundation’s ongoing Local Participation and Sustainability Programme in Bihar. Arti Manchanda Grover is senior manager, Public Relations, and Ellora Mubashir project documentation specialist.)

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