“People are more powerful than governments,” said Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Turning anxiously to her translator, the Nobel laureate added: “Please explain this to them.”
These were Ms. Suu Kyi’s words to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme with whom she interacted at Govindapuram village, standing on the bund of a deep hole they were digging.
Indeed, if there was one running theme in her whirlwind visit to various developmental works in Madakasira mandal in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, it was her deep concern for people’s empowerment, with women’s emancipation in particular being a constant highlight.
Speaking to the press later, she said: “I would like to see more women on the forefront of the empowerment of the people of India.” She said “economic power by itself cannot necessarily get rid of gender discrimination, but certainly it is a step in the right direction.”
Be it when she heard officials making a PowerPoint presentation on the MGNREGS’ success or interacting with members of a self-help group (SHG) at Papasanipalli, Ms. Suu Kyi was all ears. She constantly interjected to raise questions and clear her doubts.
Her questions ranged from whether whistleblowers who help with the social audit process get enough protection to whether the MGNREGS workers were happy with 100 days of assured work or if they wanted more.
The questions grew sharper when issues related to women came up. At her meeting with Muddamma, an SHG member, she turned to the three sons of the family and asked: “Do you want to marry women who go out and work?” When the embarrassed young boys nodded in affirmation, she said: “You must remember that women are equal to men.”
At an interaction with 10 members of an SHG, she wanted to know if men treated women differently after they became part of the SHG. When they replied that they had gained financial independence, she persisted: “But has the attitude of men changed?” She wanted to know from the women if their expectations of their sons and daughters were different.
In the course of her interactions through her two-hour stay in the village, she gently but firmly dealt with any attempt at silencing women or prompting them to give tutored answers. When one of the photographers at the SHG meeting tried to straighten a mike in the hands of a woman to get a better angle, she stopped him and said: “You should be gentle with women… You should take her permission before you do that.”