Vanita Meshram examines the moisture content in her newly harvested vermi-compost.
By Probir Bose
October 2005 - “Six months back you wouldn’t even want to come to our village. The approach road was used for defecation by a large number of people, both young and old” says Siddharth Deshpande, Sarpanch (chief of the village council) of Kanjara, a small village in Darvha block of Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. “It is to the credit of the women of the village who initiated and led the cleanliness campaign.”
Although there still isn’t a proper motorable road to Kanjara, the three kilometre mud track from the main road leading to the village is clean, thanks to the community’s resolve to ensure that every house has its own latrine.
Women from the four SHGs in the village do remember the time when they would refuse even to attend meetings, let alone forming their own group. “We never imagined that such a change would be possible. We could never dream that we would be playing a major role.”
Vanita Meshram, a 60-year-old widow and leader of the Ramabai self-help group (SHG) doesn’t agree though. “We didn’t construct latrines just so the roads look good. We are very much aware of the benefits.” She goes on to explain how their effort has had a direct impact on incidence of diarrhoea in the village, especially among children.
“Saving isn’t just a habit to put your money in the bank. It means that you cut down on unnecessary expenditure”, adds Vanita Motghare. “It also means you ensure that the drinking water in the village is clean… aware that ORS packets are available at the Anganwadi…” The gathering of around 50 women for their fortnightly meeting soon becomes animated.
Five years ago when the NGO Nari Shiksha Samuha Bahuudeshiya Sanstha intervened, there was lot of resistance from the community. Women from the four SHGs in the village do remember the time when they would refuse even to attend meetings, let alone forming their own group. “We never imagined that such a change would be possible. We could never dream that we would be playing a major role.”
Semi-literate women share responsibilities of maintaining their SHG records – memberships, attendance, savings, loans and repayments.
The UNICEF supported SHG: CCA (Convergent Community Action) intervention did just that – enabling women to dream, to lead, to act. Sadhana Dubey, a government functionary at the district level and District Coordinator of CCA, says “the thrust was on reaching out to the poorest-of-the-poor – in the case of Kanjara village, largely scheduled caste women. Could we visualize the development of a village without such women playing an active role?”
Today, the SHG process covers 465 villages of Dharva, Jhari Jamni, Pandharkavda and Arni blocks of Yavatmal district. There are over 1,200 SHGs with a collective savings of 16.5 million rupees.
“We need to do away with chemical-based fertilizers. Once I am able to demonstrate the advantages of vermi-compost in my field, others in the village will willingly accept it”
The CCA intervention sought to empower women by creating a platform to come together and provide opportunities for them to demand and negotiate for their rights. The women also realized the importance of working with the village youth and other community-based organizations (CBOs).
As a result, the women in Kanjara now negotiate with the gram panchayat (village council) to participate in decision-making in issues that concern them; be it construction of drains, digging soak pits; banning washing and cleaning activities near the source of drinking water. And with that comes responsibility too – like carrying out regular visits to the Anganwadi to monitor the weight of children, or ensuring that all pregnant women in the village get themselves checked during the visit of the female health worker.
For the women though, the struggle continues at different levels.
Vanita Meshram spends a lot of time in her field, experimenting with her vermiculture pit. “We need to do away with chemical-based fertilizers. Once I am able to demonstrate the advantages of vermi-compost in my field, others in the village will willingly accept it” says she with a confident smile.