I sit cross-legged on the floor of the village hall awed by the women I am with. It is in the Rangapur Manchala Mandal, a few hours’ drive from Hyderabad. There are scores of women all in brightly coloured saris, older women whose faces are etched with the hardships of poverty, younger women beginning motherhood. All are intent and focussed.
A decade ago none would have ventured out of the kitchen or the fields where they toiled. Women then were subordinate and submissive. The men ruled home and community. They had no money or assets. Today they are confident and assertive.
What is the most important thing that has changed in your life, I ask?
“We have our identity. We have our organisation that we run. We are able for the first time to borrow money from banks. We can decide what our priorities are. We have assets.” This is something that has never happened in any past generation.
Do the men resent you for this?
“At first they were angry. Some of us were beaten. Why are you always going to meetings? You are not playing your role as woman to prepare the food and take care of the children. Then they saw that the bank was lending money to us in amounts that they had never seen before. We were the ones investing in the borehole that would ensure a steady supply of water for irrigation. We were the ones who would rebuild the house and make sure that the children had books and uniforms for school. Then they started to support us.”
Every word is recorded in a notebook. This was part of a movement. Although inspired by government funding through its Society for the Elimination of Poverty, it is run by the women themselves. They would never need a hand up in the future.
It reminded me of organising workers in the early 80s. It started in the hostel barracks because here migrant workers, illiterate, disempowered and ruled with an iron fist by mine and factory managements, were just commodities torn from their families across southern Africa. They had nothing to lose, but it took time to build trust and learn that we were not leaders but catalysts of change. We had to learn the humility of listening and learning from the coalface of exploitation and the workers fight for day-to-day survival. Only the workers themselves united, organised, mobilised and armed with the tools for negotiation and the few legal loopholes had the ability to do this.
This was the same. Supported by a programme introduced by one of the legendary leaders in Andra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, who understood that women’s empowerment and mobilisation into self-help groups was crucial in unlocking development. I met him for the first time in 1996, a visionary who saw himself as the ‘CEO’ and not just chief minister.
“I want to bring modernisation and investment to this state,” he said. “I want to make sure our young people are educated to be global citizens and build the infrastructure to attract the world’s largest IT companies. Our emphasis must be entrepreneurialism and motivating our people to be self-reliant.”
I was sceptical, but today there are hundreds of IT firms and tens of thousands of high-quality jobs. This state is one of the most developed in India and one of the key drivers of the Indian economy.
As I listen to the women in the village, I can see how vision, strategy, implementation and understanding the roles of government, civil society and entrepreneurialism are key to unlocking development. I wish we could compel the bureaucrats and supercharged egos of the global development industry and our own government to come and listen with humility how women, often seen as the wretched of the Earth, are able to solve their own problems.
I ask how this organisation has changed their lives in terms of health and malnutrition knowing that there are 60-million stunted children. A recent Hungama Report released by Naandi, an innovative public-private partnership delivering a nutritious hot midday meal to more than 1-million children, states nearly half of the children in India are malnourished and underweight and their mothers anaemic and nearly 60% are stunted.
I am intrigued to understand how this particular village has handled this challenge. India has no problem with resources and billions of dollars are pumped into the public delivery channels to address these problems.
We march through the streets, flooded by the women that have emerged from their homes, and reach a small building. In it are pregnant mothers, lactating mothers and mothers with children younger than two. The community health worker takes us through the education and support they give. They monitor the entire life cycle of pregnancy and motherhood, the nutrition support, the measurement and data collection of birth weight, height against age. The breastfeeding rates in this village are a 100% compared to the national average of 43%. The majority of babies born weigh more than 3kg. They make their own complementary high nutrient based weaning foods.
The mothers talk about why diet is important for their haemoglobin levels. They explain to me why breastfeeding and nutritious complementary foods are important for children from six-24 months. They have a better understanding of the importance of the first 1,000 days from conception than most of the nutritional experts I listen to in the endless conferences I attend. We need to take these mothers to those platforms to talk about why women’s empowerment as the key to solving our development challenges.
Twelve years ago they realised they had to build the demand-side by mobilising women into self-help groups of 10. These groups had to build from grassroots upward. They transfer a once-off capital amount to each group, and support it with capacity building for up to two years. These groups are all independent of government and especially political parties. These monies give them collateral to raise funds from the commercial banks. As the women’s groups build up their track records, they are able to raise more capital. All loans are repaid.
As I sit down to share a delicious meal with these women leaders I am convinced to throw away a lot of what I think I know about organising rural development programmes. I am humbled by the depth of leadership and the extraordinary depth of indigenous knowledge. They talk boldly about how they are developing a pesticide-free agriculture, how returning to traditional methods has increased agricultural yields and building household food security. Most important is that they have taken their lives into their own hands.
As I leave, I ask what lessons I should take away. “Help women to organise themselves. Once women are organised, everything else works – nutrition, health, education, family cohesion and sustainable development. Talk to the women in Africa of what we have done.” I realise this is the solution – we should have women in villages in India talk to women in villages in Africa and across the world. We must take these voices to the global forums. These are the real voices of development – 11-million in Andra Pradesh alone.
Originally posted on the Daily Maverick.