Opinion » Lead

Updated: November 14, 2012 00:25 IST

Women, work and a winning combination

Sarada Muraleedharan
Comment (12)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Kerala’s Kudumbashree network and the rural employment guarantee scheme have converged to provide a unique model of empowerment

An incredible story of empowerment has been unfolding in the wake of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) programme in the State of Kerala. This is the story of how a socially engineered convergence of the scheme with panchayati raj institutions and the State sponsored community network of poor women is transforming the lives and capabilities of the poor across the State.

Kerala is unique in the country for the extent of women’s participation in the MGNREGS. The proportion of women person days is 93 per cent, which is the highest rate of participation of women in the programme in the country. The highest difference in the average casual wage labour rate for men and women is also to be found in Kerala (Rs.107.3). This difference along with a low female work participation rate of 15.3, speaks volumes about both the socio-economic status and the marginalisation of the woman labourer in the workforce.

Kudumbashree is a vast community network of women sponsored by the State government and located within local self governments of the State. It has over two lakh neighbourhood groups of women federated into ward level Area Development Societies (ADS) and panchayat/municipal level Community Development Societies (CDS). Unlike federated structures of self-help groups (SHG) in the other States, in Kerala, the CDS was embedded in the grama panchayat and expected to work in unison with it in furthering the agenda for development and empowerment. An executive decision was taken by the State government to have all “mates” for the programme from among the ADS of Kudumbashree. Over one lakh women mates were trained, who then proceeded to identify work opportunities, mobilise groups for work, prepare estimates in consultation with the overseer or engineer, supervise work and provide amenities at the worksite, prepare and submit muster rolls, and handle emergencies at work.

Most are housewives

A good proportion of the women who sought work under MGNREGS in Kerala were not agricultural or casual labourers but housewives who were not in the labour market to begin with. What prompted these women to come out and undertake work that they did not know, which involved a level of physical exertion that they were unfamiliar with and which ran the risk of disapprobation from their families? A commonly heard refrain was that this was work “for the government,” which gave it an aura of respectability that private manual work did not carry. Second was the power of the collective i.e., the involvement of the network in nearly every activity of MGNREGS, from awareness on its rights dimensions to the conduct of social audit, and the presence of a mate who was identified with as “one of us.”

Profiling done in one grama panchayat, Aryanad, showed that all the male workers were either senior citizens who had been pushed out of the job market on account of age, or were physically or mentally disabled persons, who were unable to enter the regular job market. An interesting dynamic of intergenerational skill transfer and social security was to be found at the worksite. The workers confided that many of the senior members of the group were unable to complete the eight hours of arduous manual work, and their shortfall was being compensated by the more able-bodied persons in the group. But the elders had knowledge and skills that were lacking in the younger generation, and were able to guide its members about techniques and traditions. Numerous cases have been documented where earnings were donated to help a fellow worker tide over a health emergency or domestic crisis.

Much of the work taken up under MGNREGS had to do with land and water conservation and watershed management. The works brought the women recognition and visibility. The women learnt how to dig foundations, set up bio-fences, deweed rivers and lakes, and do gully plugging and bunding for soil conservation. They learnt how to build bunds and trenches, work with geo-textiles, dig/construct drinking water wells and rainwater harvesting structures; they also learnt the basics of garden and plantation work. The mates were especially proud of their ability to size projects up, gauge the number of person days required and prepare estimates for the work. All these were new skills, and soon they found themselves being sought after by landowners to work on their properties and being offered wages to the tune of Rs.250 to Rs.350 for private work. This interest in the skilled woman labourer has led to the creation of another instrument — the women’s labour collective. Across the State in various panchayats, the workers of MGNREGS have been coming together to form labour groups that take on agricultural work and work on homesteads and plantations. The inexperienced housewife has been transmuting into skilled labour of high value in the market.

Women and agriculture

One of the most outstanding contributions of MGNREGS is the role the programme has played in bringing women into agriculture in the State. The Kudumbashree mission had just begun to aggressively promote collective farming by women when the MGNREGS programme took off in the State. Panchayats had to take the lead in identifying fallow land and convince landowners to allow women groups to take up cultivation on their lands. The sheer effort of convergence made this intervention get off the block very slowly, until one panchayat in Kozhikode, Perambra, took it upon itself to clear a clogged public canal running through the heart of a lifeless padasekharam that had not seen cultivation in over 25 years, and organised Kudumbashree workers to undertake land development of the adjoining fields that were later leased out to the women for paddy cultivation. In one stroke, fallow land —146 acres — in the panchayat was brought under paddy cultivation. All the cultivators were first-timers; all women. Today the State boasts of collective farming groups in nearly all the panchayats. With control over means of production and support from the krishi bhavan and the panchayat, for these women, the transition from MGNREGS labourer to farmer cultivator has been a natural evolution.

An impact that has implications for SHG federations under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) everywhere, has been the consequences of the structural integration of the community organisation with the MGNREGS programme. Providing the ADS with a seminal role in the implementation of MGNREGS has led to a strengthening of the intermediate tier of the three-tier federation, which has in turn increased the reach and access of poor women to the community leadership. By locating the mate within the ADS, the MGNREGS programme immediately infused energy into the system, and the community leadership quotient went up overnight from a few thousands to a few lakhs. Repeated drumming of the programme’s rights perspective has sensitised the CDS leadership to questions of citizenship and women’s agency. It has empowered them to negotiate local power spaces. The new peoples’ and technical skills have served the women well in their quest for political significance, as their showing in the recent panchayat polls indicate.

This is not to say that challenges do not exist. Questions raised over the nature of assets generated, and over the underutilisation of labour, continue to be valid. Incidents of wrongdoing by the mate have been noticed, and many a time mates have had to be replaced. Inclusion of the most marginalised sections in many places remains unresolved. Very often an inquiry into causes of corruption points to extraneous influences forcing the hand of the mate and the worker. There have been quite a few cases where the CDS itself took suo moto cognisance of malpractice on the part of the mate and forced her to repay money that had been wrongfully obtained.

Where would Kudumbashree be without MGNREGS? It is difficult to say, but that the present social visibility and self confidence of the network owe a great deal to the programme is irrefutable. There are lessons to be learnt about the opportunities for panchayati raj institutions to bring strategic convergences into the programme, and the opportunities for community organisations to strive for organisational empowerment through participation in governance — lessons that could have far-reaching implications for improving the quality of life of the poor, transforming agriculture and the labour market, and ushering in a new dialogue of women’s empowerment that quickens the movement of women from second class citizens to full citizenship.

(Sarada Muraleedharan is former Executive Director, Kudumbashree, and based in New Delhi. E-mail:

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I felt so good about your work when I was reading this article. I especially loved the part about the trained women being sought out for work by the private sector and the consequent evolution of women's labor collectives. Very important work. I am doing some work on rural women's labor collectives in the global context and this article is most timely. Thanks for sending me the link. Much love, Gayatri.

from:  Gayatri Devi
Posted on: Nov 16, 2012 at 23:56 IST

Kudumbshree in Kerala under the supervision of the State government
initiated an entrepreneurship within MGNREGA work, is not only a good
example of empowerment of rural women but also a visionary approach to
establish some innovative ideas and work different from conventional
practices under MGNREGA....!!!

from:  Piyush Tripathi
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 23:07 IST

I really can't understand this glorification of manual labor by
observers in New Delhi! Artificially confining women to manual low
skilled labor when they can be much more productive with use of machines
and a bit of training? Just that they turn out in large numbers may not
mean they love the work or that they find sense in the utility of the

from:  Sridhar
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 19:21 IST

The main reason for vulnerable condition of women is that the idea of modernization and individuality excluded women because male is considered as the bread winner of family.The immediate requirement is to provide them economic and property rights.

from:  shivam
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 19:11 IST

Saratchandran's comment and article widens thought process of any reader. This can be
a wakeup call for those who go for female foeticide. Kudambashree
model is a microcosm of Kerala's achievement on Human development
Women's participation reflects the matured form of democracy in
general and grass-root democracy in particular. Collective farming can
enhance the agriculture production by converting fallow land to
cultivable land. spin-off benefit can be a food security problem can
be addressed better. It also brings about change in the lives of poor
especially women.

from:  Manoharsinghnaik
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 18:40 IST

Kudumbashri and the un registered co-operative venture by hard pressed women struggling to keep both ends meet have been appreciated by every one and even these movements have been commented by World bodies.The spirite and hard working women have
many times outsmarted the men in their dedication and the will to
tackle many issues.
HOWEVER,as it happens in ALL Good Things.The Politicians have as of
late started trying to "hijack"these programmes.There lies a Terrific Danger.The Politicians see in everything an opportunity to make a Fast Buck and to HAVE THEIR SAY.A parallel organisation
is in the planning and this may lead to a very difficult future

from:  ajith kumar
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 17:49 IST

The exemplary work done by the Kudumbashree movement in the field of
women and community empowerment has been praised before also.This
successful SHG programme provides a worth emulating example for other so
called 'No.1'states like Haryana known for growing state GDP but a
dismal sex ratio and crime against women.

from:  myra dhull
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 14:13 IST

One good thing is that the way society is thinking is changing, atleast in some class of people. Fathers are allowing their daughters to pursue higher education and husbands encouraging their wives to do job.

from:  Manoj
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 12:52 IST

good article!
Every other state can take kerala as model for women empower ment and women man power utilisation.

from:  Abdul Nizar
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 11:35 IST

Women have been graduating from high school more than men. During the recession, more men lost jobs than women. More women are entering the work force than men.
I think it is important to un-burden men, at the same time empower women.
Far too long, men have been beasts of burden for the society. Men are valued for their pay-cheques and not their handsomeness. Its acceptable in the society that, a woman's father asks the future son=in-law how much he earns. A Govt. Minister recently said, that a man can only marry if he can provide a toilet.
All these point to a societal pressure on men to be bread-winners and women to be house-wives. This has to stop. Not only we are wasting 50% of our society by depriving them from the work-force we are also putting huge amounts of stress on men. As a result, men are committing twice the number suicides than women (NCRB 2011)

from:  A Singh
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 10:59 IST

Back to the future! Human society evolved from this arrangement of men going out hunting
and gathering,and fighting the wars,while women at home grew crops and fed the family.
The nurturing quality is dormant in the women's DNA and given a chance they will express
itself nicely. Another important faculty of women Is, ablity for multitasking and parallel
processing - their brain is built with this exceptional ability. It won't be long that human
societies will be led by women leaders with such exceptional capabilities. Tell that to the
people in some parts of India who are willfully aborting female embryos that they are
removing the best people from the community of the future!

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 08:41 IST

Good Article...!

from:  Sudheesh
Posted on: Nov 14, 2012 at 00:47 IST
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