'Empowerment' begins by giving the women an opportunity to chart their own destinies, an opportunity they are almost universally denied otherwise
No one likes a government programme that does not spend much. Most likely, you would not have even heard of the Mahila Samakhya (MS) programme. It is a 26-year-old low-investment programme that is slanted towards the socially disadvantaged, including its nearly 15 lakh female participants, of whom more than 55% are from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, in some of the most disadvantaged blocks of 11 states. And it has made a positive difference—confirmed by a government-commissioned national evaluation conducted by us last year. Hence, it is surprising to learn that there is now a proposal to merge it with the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). NRLM is a worthy programme, with well-defined objectives that are complementary to, but no substitute for, those of MS. The proposed merger risks losing sight of MS’s objectives, which go beyond the realm of livelihoods and have been pursued with reasonable success. Imparting skills and nurturing livelihoods is essential, but grossly insufficient in overcoming the structural exclusions that MS has tried to address.
Administered through societies set up by the state governments, and placed in the departments of education, the programme has created collectives (sanghas) of the most marginalized women in villages. In trying to empower these women, the programme has tried to address marginalization arising out of the intersection of disadvantages of gender, class and social status, determined by caste or tribe affiliation. A distinguishing feature of the programme has been the absence of externally defined targets or outcomes.
“Empowerment" begins by giving the women an opportunity to chart their own destinies, an opportunity they are almost universally denied otherwise. The “education" process emerges from empowering these women at the level of the sangha to choose activities and targets they would like to pursue. Achievements in formal literacy and education have emerged in response to needs felt by the women as they have tried to negotiate public spaces and government institutions. As we write in our report (available at http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_document/Report-MSP.pdf), “the signs of success are not necessarily evident in the resolution or elimination of problems that have particularly impacted marginalized women—although several such examples were also identified—but in the contestation of spaces from which these women have been historically excluded and in the challenges to discriminatory practices".
Attempts to quantify the impact of such a process-oriented programme seeking transformative changes among its participants and the structures around them will always be insufficient. However, so would the absence of movement on indicators that can be measured. We have conducted one such evaluation; details are available in the report. As examples, we share a few measures here. We find a strong intergenerational shift in formal education. Even among women who themselves have had no formal education—more than 60% of our sample—77% had all the girls in their families in the age group of six to 16 enrolled in school; 75% of the participants had a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card. As a source of comparison, studies indicate that typically 27% of the overall population and 38% among the “poor" are estimated to have a BPL card. Similarly, more than 72% of the surveyed women had their own bank accounts, far exceeding the target of 59% the programme itself had hoped for, and the national average of 26% among all women. Likewise, more than 77% had been able to access the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the largest social protection scheme in India targeted at the rural sector; 57% belonged to households with Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana cards, and 66% had a family member who had benefited from one of India’s affirmative action programmes targeting historically disadvantaged groups.
From a government perspective, the remarkable features of the programme have been both its success and its very limited burden on the exchequer. Unlike other government programmes, the programme design of MS has a well-defined withdrawal process, in which sanghas stop receiving even the small amounts of funding they receive in the first three years. As a result, the MS programme has been a facilitative one, with an XIth plan outlay of a little over ₹ 200 crore. To place this amount in perspective, we estimate that the women annually contribute more than ₹ 160 crore worth of their time to provide collective and public goods that should have been the state’s responsibility in the first place.
We are perplexed why a government that not only understands and recognizes the relationships between social and educational issues but also advocates gender justice in its beti bachao, beti padhao slogan would want to do anything other than encourage such a programme. The programme’s significant strength, its capacity to address social injustice, should be leveraged. Simultaneously, weaknesses related to the women’s inability to negotiate formal institutional structures and networks for economic empowerment should be addressed.
The sanghas remain the core of the programme, but these can be supported by state-level resource groups in three areas: institution building (especially focusing on the federations); entrepreneurship and gender awareness; education and health. Further, we suggest the establishment of spearhead teams drawn from sangha/federation leadership for new sangha mobilization. The voices of the most excluded must be heard and the least the dominant institutions can do is to ensure that they have spaces from which to do so.
Ankur Sarin is a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad’s Public Systems Group. His work focuses on the consequences of social inequalities and the evaluation of efforts to counter them.
Vijaya Sherry Chand is professor and chairperson, Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at IIMA.