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Development with dignity

The Working Women's Forum has unleashed an empowerment process at the grassroots, liberating poor women from different forms of exploitation. As the organisation completes 25 years, U. KALPAGAM profiles a success story.

A quiet revolution in women's empowerment.

Completing 25 years of sustained grassroots development efforts, the Working Women's Forum (India) is today a pioneer in building leadership skills among women. Giving greater importance to field based activities; the WWF (I) is now a model of decentralised development movement with numerous autonomous field offices spread over Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Jaya Arunachalam, the founder, does not see the WWF (I) as an organisation but as a social movement, providing a social platform to poor women workers.

Twenty-five years ago, Arunachalam, then an active Congress party worker, gave up party work to pursue the challenge of providing an alternate development model with human dignity as its main focus. The need then for an alternate development model that was pro-poor, pro-women and anti-caste was urgent as caste and feudal values inhibited the process of development.

Using micro-credit assistance as a tool for mobilisation of poor women workers, the WWF (I) has innovatively experimented with success its model of women's empowerment. As on March 31, 2003, WWF (I) has over 700,000 members spread over 3,000 villages and 1,600 slums.

Today the WWF serves as a model for other such efforts and is frequented by teams of civil society organisations from all over the country who come to learn from them. Its various developmental and social action initiatives encompass such activities as informal banking and micro loans for rural and urban women workers, insurance and social security for women in the informal sector, reproductive and child care services, and a trade union for unorganised sector women workers.

Emphasising a strong field-based organisational structure, the forum encourages group structures, transcending barriers of caste, gender, and religion. Besides, the major chunk of organisational business takes place in the slums, markets, village courtyards and places of worships. The forum's greatest success lies in its innovative approach to integrate the poor at all levels in its institutional framework as well as towards better delivery systems to reach large numbers of poor. It therefore, entrusts key responsibilities of the organisation and its administration to poor women themselves, by selecting and training internal cadres from neighbourhood communities.

The forum enables poor women emerge as leaders in their own right to influence public policy through collective action thus improving their social standing.

Strengthening of their productive role is complemented through reproductive and child health care programmes that focus on poor women's health and wellbeing. Children's homes in the urban and rural areas have given child workers and school dropouts a new lease of life. The service programmes like night classes for child workers and vocational training centres for adolescent school dropouts provide alternate life options and integrate them into mainstream society.

The self-development by the women in one socio-economic context encouraged them to form spearhead groups to mobilise women in different socio-cultural scenarios.

Enabling poor women emerge as leaders in their own right.

It was in Dindigul in 1979 that WWF (I) for the first time moved into rural areas. Its micro-credit efforts enabled poor women to sell local produce like banana, tamarind, chillies as head loaders to carry them around the villages or to carry them to village markets and the town nearby. This was a great relief for poor women there since there was no scope for agricultural employment in this drought prone district.

In Adiramapattinam, the fisher women who played a crucial role in the fishing economy there established an informal banking centre to meet their credit requirements and also fought for and secured their rights to repair fishing canals, fish auctions and transportation rights.

In Narasapur, a region of agricultural prosperity WWF (I) work exposed the exploitative and oppressive conditions of women lace artisans numbering nearly 80,000 in the East and West Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh. WWF (I) replicated the Chennai experiment to facilitate lace makers with a cooperative and a marketing outlet along with access to credit. Later on WWF (I) brought into its fold rope-makers and weavers in the adjacent districts who were equally exploited and lived in intense poverty.

As their awareness increased, the leadership of the Forum became more aware of the presence of oppressive structures wherever they went.

They identified one such group, the beedi rollers of Vellore in 1983, where child labour was widely prevalent. Beedi workers and matchstick makers were organised and unionised resulting in a revision of their wages and amelioration of their oppressive working conditions. Access to credit relieved their children from bonded labour and enabled the payment of minimum wages by the employers as well as the initiation of pension schemes for these workers.

Today, with the worldwide stigma associated with cigarette smoking, WWF (I) has initiated an alternate livelihood programme for the beedi rollers in Vellore to train them in other occupational skills.

WWF (I) started a branch in Bangalore to provide relief to agarbati workers. In the slums where these workers lived, ethnic tensions created an oppressive situation. Most workers were migrants from border areas of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The cooperative society was started there after the ethnic differences were resolved and the agarbati workers united under the banner of WWF (I) to work for better working and living conditions. Access to credit and training enhanced their living standards.

In Bellary where large-scale oppression was inflicted on girls, by dedicating them to a female deity to become `Devadasis' resulting later in child and adult prostitution, WWF (I) provided training and alternative gainful employment and thus rehabilitated the women there, giving them a new lease of life.

In Kanchipuram, a centre of silk weaving, male weavers alone were recognised by the government cooperatives. This monopoly in getting raw materials led to men pledging the raw materials to spend on liquor.

As a result, women and children were shackled by poverty. In 1990, WWF (I) began a branch for women weavers. This relieved them from their indebtedness, and their children from bonded labour. It also facilitated women weavers' occupational mobility.

Today, the spread of micro-credit through formation of Self Help Groups (SHGs) as a poverty alleviation strategy is well known with each state vying with the others to show that its progress is remarkable.

What is indeed unique with the WWF(I) movement is that it has simultaneously led a quiet revolution in women's empowerment.

Although poverty eradication remains the central agenda of WWF(I), it seeks to achieve it through a dual process of empowering poor women and promoting grassroots leadership.

Ranganayaki first joined the forum in 1978 and took a loan under the micro credit programme. Now she is a trainer and freely debates and discusses issues relating to maternal and child health, nutrition, immunisation and family welfare.

Her own understanding of how she has become empowered is noted when she observes that now her husband tells her "you take care of the Sangam work, I will take care of the home."

The experiment of the WWF (I) with provision of micro credit for poor women has resulted in the transformation of poor women into entrepreneurs, changed situations of invisibility to visibility and promoted upward mobility of poor women.

The peer group by providing a sense of social security has promoted collective action for social change and enhancement in the standards of living, giving poor women their rightful place in society.

Most women are now heads of households, and are crucial decision-makers at home. Many members who had earlier experienced domestic violence are now free of it due to personal empowerment by way of increased economic autonomy and having a say in decision-making.

It has also enhanced their understanding of the need for gender equity in the family as they now share their assets equally between the daughters and sons. As grassroots leaders they now take up civic action on their own initiative for the pressing problems in their neighbourhoods.

The prevalence among poor women of widespread illiteracy, maternal morbidity, high maternal and child mortality aggravated further by time-honoured cultural values that promote gender bias is reflected in the poor health status of working women.

The need to enhance the economic, social and health status of poor women was therefore of priority focus. WWF(I) has adopted a holistic approach of a reproductive health care system to take care of women both as mothers and as workers, by attending to the health needs of the mother and the child. It has also attempted to improve their working conditions in their work place through occupational safety measures.

Health care advocacy through Reproductive and Child Health Programme at the grassroots has given poor women informed choice of services on contraception and voluntary acceptance of safe health care practices impacting about one million poor families.

An innovative health insurance programme provides maternity benefits, reimbursement of hospitalisation expenses, cataract operation, treatment of anaemia and organises preventive health check-up camps.

The key women in this programme are the well-trained and highly motivated cadres of women, the Community Health Workers (CHWs). Trained in communication skills and being a member of the same community, the grassroots health workers are highly sensitive to the problems of the poor.

WWF (I) has legally registered itself as a trade union for unorganised sector workers, National Union of Working Women (NUWW) in 1982. It successfully brought poor women on a socio-political platform to undertake a series of advocacy measures. These have ranged from land rights, housing rights, Equal/Minimum wages rights, access to credit, technology, trading devices, and issues of human rights such as dowry, female, feticide, child labour and child prostitution as well.

The NUWW efforts focused on an entitlement approach and provided women access to basic services such as better housing, drinking water, health, education, sanitation, public distribution system, consumer services thereby improving their living conditions.

But the moment of pride for the forum members was when the "International Activist Award of 2003" given by the Gleitsman Foundation, California to their President, Jaya Arunachalam.

The writer is a professor with G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Ahmedabad.

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