“We've now grown wings...” sing SHG women of Dindori who are facing challenges head-on

Largely tribal and extremely poor, Dindori district is perched almost on the Madhya Pradesh - Chhattisgarh border and is remote by any standards. So when a group of women located in Dindori names their federation after the famous local woman icon, Rani Durgavati, who is said to have courageously defended her kingdom of Gadha – one of the old independent Gond states – against the Mughal emperor Akbar, the symbolism is certainly striking.

Today, like their famous ancestor, the members of the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh are courageously taking on patriarchal forces in their region that have long denied them their rights.

Recently, around 1,500 women came together for the annual general body meeting of the ‘sangh' – which they term a mahaadiveshan or mass meeting – and shared many joyous moments of dancing and singing together for an entire day and night. It is a rare sight in India to see rural women spending recreational time with friends, but what was rarer was the camaraderie between the women. Running through the fun times, however, was a serious theme: Giving Dindori's women greater social and economic autonomy and providing them with the tools with which to gain equality.

Today, the Rani Durgavati Mahila Sangh, set up six years ago, is a federation of 536 Self-Help Groups (SHGs) organised into 31 clusters, with total membership of 6,432 women from 119 villages in the blocks of Karanjia (not to be confused with a block in Odisha with the same name), Samnapur, Shahpura and Amarpur. Most of the members are Gond tribals, but there are many from the Other Backward Classes, besides a sprinkling of Scheduled Caste (SC) women as well.

These SHGs, which at last count had earned an interest of Rs 6.14 lakh, were set up by Pradan, an organisation working with the rural poor, in order to make cheap credit available to local women and liberate them from the clutches of local money lenders and landlords. Pradan has also introduced new farming methods here, which have helped to buttress household incomes. As Sebanti Bai of Markum village in Karanjia block, puts it, “Now we have also started growing tomatoes, okra and chillies during the monsoon season. This has brought us additional income for household expenses.”

Although Pradan's initial emphasis was on the economic empowerment of women from socially excluded communities, the women of these SHGs have evolved as community representatives demanding their entitlements, including their right to a life of dignity, violence against women, their exclusion in political decision making and the rising tide of communalism. Partnering this process is the Delhi-based women's resource group, Jagori, under a special gender empowerment project initiated in 2011 and supported by the UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality.

What women have gained the most by coming together is the capacity to collectively articulate their everyday needs and look for solutions. Drupti Bai, 34, explains how such discussions helped address the problem of drinking water in her area, “The issue of hardships related to collecting water was discussed at a cluster meeting. We women then decided to take action on it and with the help of Pradan we met local Forest Department officials. We were able to convince them of the crisis of water shortage and they allowed us access to water sources within the forest provided we did not disturb the surrounding environment.”

Interestingly, while most of the members of the sangh are largely illiterate and had never seen a computer, these days the federation's work is expedited by a computer system run by hired experts, whom the women refer to as “computer munshis”. The “computer munshis” key in the data provided by the women during meetings.

What is also notable is the fact that the women take all decisions involving the running of the federation autonomously. According to Aziza Haleem, an intern with Pradan who was deputed to help organise this year's mahaadiveshan, the event is entirely the work of the members of the federation. As I left this mass meeting at Dindori, I was struck by how women, who had so little going for them in terms of development, have now learnt to wield the tools of equality to make better lives for themselves. The words of the song they had sung during the ‘mahaadhiveshan' then came back to me: “Par laga liye hain humne, ke pinjare mein ab kaun bethega (we have now grown wings, who will keep us in a cage).” (Women's Feature Service)