The idea of “empowerment” can be empowering only with cognizance of the difference in agency it brings about or is supposed to bring about. For rural women of the Purulia district of West Bengal, this cognizance has been complete, their self-confident narratives and beaming faces are testimony as they speak of their realised self-sufficiency. The exemplary story of these tribal women- who with forming Self-Help Groups supported by NGO’s like Pradan, and more importantly by believing in the concept of self-help, have risen from being mere secondary help to efficient livelihood makers- is a story not just of skill and determination but also of the tremendous dynamism that accompanies a belief in oneself.
The women in some tribal communities (for instance, the Jhalda and Burrabazaar blocks of Purulia) are more self-aware and in charge of themselves, since they hold decision-making power and other privileges in the social life of the community. This has come about by the (re)handling of agricultural practices (water-harvesting, horticulture,etc.) by the women of these communities. The double responsibility of productive as well as reproductive labour on them has made revolutionary change-makers of them, and they have successfully generated, as in the case of this traditional production economy, self-sustained livelihoods, changing possibly for ever the drought hit face of Maoist-inflected Purulia.
What I find more encouraging and endearing than the logical methods applied to water-harvesting techniques by these ever so ordinary and by-far unvalued workers resulting in the double-crop productivity of their lands, is the role the success of these SHG’s create for women in such communities. Those that had no voice in a patriarchal society now find themselves powerfully responsible for productive work. The agency that comes with such a role has implications for the social status of women in a larger context.
While it is true, observed statistically, that the households with their women working with SHG’s see more domestic violence, it is also a significant pointer towards the unsettling power-equation such involvement of the women has generated. The mere confidence brought about from being able to change a whole district’s economy, is enough to make these women question other social ills plaguing that society.
Like the federation leader Sadmoni Hembram, pleasantly assured of her new status, says “These days men take the cattle for grazing while we attend a meeting.”
It is time for this all-female initiative to change the overall status of these tribal women, just as they have changed their economic status. It is clear that breaking this economic/ecological binary that is usually associated with the men/ women divide, will also necessarily mean shaking the public/ private divide, as women go out in society independently, confidently and not to mention, purposefully. The constraints on their social presence can be seen lifting as the three strands of nature, culture and economy are merged and used for developmental work, much in the strain of eco-feminism. In addition to the usual role of SHG’s as micro-creditors, Sadmoni’s self-help group ‘Petre Madwa’, for instance, instils women not just with useful skill and knowledge but also with the basic conceptual idea of self-help groups, that each (poor) villager can do something and is enough to help her community.
Even if empowerment holds a different meaning for each community and even if it would be wrong to say that these women are totally “empowered”, what brings efficacy to their effort is the hope that they have the power to do something, to be able to bring to pass dignified conditions of living for themselves and for their tribe. With this awareness, the major part of the empowerment, I believe, has already happened.