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Cartographies of Empowerment (The Mahila Samakhya story)

Cartographies of Empowerment (The Mahila Samakhya story)
Item Code: NAG208
Author: Vimala Ramachandran Kameshwari Jandhyala
Publisher: Zubaan Publications
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9789381017210
Pages: 522
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 562 gms

About the Book


Mahila Samakhya is as much a story of a government programme for women's education and empowerment, as it is of the celebration of the struggles of poor women for their rights. Spread across eight states and more than 150 districts in India, the Mahila Samakhya programme grew out of a unique partnership between the women's movement and the government. In this collection of essays, concerned scholars from different parts of India chart Mahila Samakhya's fascinating journey of setting up poor women's collectives and women's agency in establishing an equal space and voice in the public domain a radical departure from the more common approaches of organizing women around economic concerns.

The writers explore broad gender issues grounded within the field experience of Mahila Samakhya, providing insights into the workings of the programme at different levels, its conceptual challenges, strategic choices, the opportunities and pitfalls of partnership with government and above all the willingness of poor women to come together voluntarily to address and overcome gender barriers.


About the Author


Vimala Ramachandran is currently National Fellow at the National University for Educational planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. She has been working on girls' and women's education, elementary education and gender issues for several years. She was the first National project Director of Mahila Samakhya (1989-93) and the founder Director of ERU Consultants Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi. She has written extensively on education and development issues. Her publications include Getting Children Back to School. Case Studies in Primary Education (2003); Hierarchies of Access: Gender and Equity in primary Education (2004); Ground Realities: Abortion in India (2007, with Leela Visaria) and The Elementary Education System in India: Exploring Institutional Structures and Dyanamics (2008, with Rashmi Sharma).


Kameshwari Jandhyala, Director with ERU Consultants Pvt Ltd., has had a long association with Mahila Samakhya as Director in Andhra Pradesh, member of the national team and subsequently as member of the National Resource Group. She is currently engaged in qualitative research on gender and equity issues in education and is a member of the Standing Committee on the Women's Studies programme of the University Grants Commission.




Mahila Samakhya (MS) never fails to become the centre of discussions whenever issues of women's empowerment, the women's movement and the state, and government and civil society partnerships come up. For those of us who were associated with the programme in its earlier phases, so much in this partnership was taken for granted that even today it remains assumed rather than explicitly stated. The context that threw up this programme gave several of us our first experiences of working in civil society movements and organizations in partnership with the government. For younger colleagues who did not have a similar background the programme, its roots and its rationale were issues they became familiar with in orientation workshops and trainings. When, as authors of this essay we began to discuss how we would write it, younger colleagues in our team asked us to explain the mid 1980s context that led to the government playing a significant role in the empowerment of women. This is what we attempt to do here to capture the long story and biography of a programme and a movement.

The decades of the 1970s and 1980s were turbulent and heady times for social movements in India and the Mahila Samakhya (MS) story has to be seen against this context. The churning that was so evident at the time was not, interestingly, limited to civil society but could also be seen inside government programmes and in government thinking. The declaration of s State of Emergency in 1975 shook people's faith in the abiding strength of the Indian democracy. Two years later, when Indira Gandhi's Congress party was voted out of power, some of this faith was restored. Change, people felt, was possible. The 1977 elections brought in a new coalition government as an anti Congress wave swept the country. But the euphoria was short lived, by 1979, the cobbled together coalition had fallen apart, and Indira Gandhi and the Congress party were voted back to power with a renewed majority. The scars and wounds of the Emergency, however, continued to fester, leading to widespread unrest in the country. As well, politics saw the rise of regional ide3ntities, and in many areas the assertion of caste and community identities led to a period of discontent and protests. This was also the time when many peoples' movements sprung up across the country against alcoholism, against the felling of trees (the nascent environment movement), against domestic violence and sexual harassment to name only a few. The widespread unrest on the ground was further exacerbated by the poli8tical and social fallout of the tragic events of 1984 when the assassination of Indira Gandhi led to riots and mass killing in Delhi and some neighboring areas. The Congress party acquired a new face with the entry of Rajiv Gandhi, began the process of the opening up of the economy and development discourse, policy and programmes cast in terms of meeting global standards. One of the interesting consequences of the turbulence and upheaval in Indian politics was that people began to see and acknowledge that the government was not a monolith, that it could have many faces and many internal contradictions. At some level there was also a sense that the government was answerable to the people who elected it, and that they could have a say in how it works. This renewed peoples' faith in the belief that the ability to influence the government was not limited to social activists alone. Within the government, civil servants with a 'progressive' outlook came to believe that they could also make a difference. Several worked closely with social activists and support for many of these activities came from an unexpected quarter the media, with both print and broadcast media, particularly alternative cinema, playing an important part. It was a period that inspired and radicalized an entire generation of women, in their homes, at the workplace, in government offices, in colleges and universities and in the media.


It was at this moment, when various aspects of governance, as well as various policies and programmes were being revisited that the Ministry of Education brought out a document called Challenge of Education: A policy perspective (Government of India 1985) that came to be debated across the country and that resulted, eventually, in the New Education policy of 1986. The rethinking that led to the framing of the Nep, as it came to be called, was reflective of the newfound confidence among political leaders and administrators who brought in bold new programmes in different areas rural development, women and child development, labour, and of course education. An equally exciting process was afoot in the country as the women's movement which had influenced the above process, policies and programmed, continued to gain momentum.


The Contemporary Women's Movement


Much of the excitement, rethinking and turbulence of the time was reflected in the Indian women's movement that gained considerable momentum at this time. Variously located and therefore somewhat fragmented and complex, the movement drew in urban and rural women, social activists across class and caste, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and autonomous women's group, party affiliated women's organizations, government run initiatives, research and documentation centers, students and university faculty. Across the country, women led campaigns and vigorously debated issues as diverse as violence, social discrimination, economic self dependence, environmental protection, political representation, and globalization. Many debates were contentious and also took in questions of ideology, organizational structure, and modes of action.


There has always been a two way relationship between the women's movement and the state in India. Formal policies and programmes have attempted to project the postcolonial Indian state as the primary agent of development and change (Gupta and Sharma 2006; Ray and Katzenstein 2005), and as the protector and promoter of the well being of the marginalized, including women. Some women's organizations, for example social movement organizations that work with marginalized sections of society, have demanded affirmative action from the state and have sought protection of the interests of the marginalized. They have done so with the expectation that the state may and ought to possess the resources and the opportunities required for bringing about change that they themselves are not in a position to (Agnihotri and Palriwala 1993; Purushothaman 1998).


But the conditions under which these expectations that the state has raised, and that many women's organizations continue to have from it can be met are no longer what they once were. The outlook of the Indian state, initially socialist in a very general sense has changed. Governments, especially since the second half of the 1980s and more so in the 1990s, increasingly believe that they have no choice but to liberalize finance and to privatize the economy. There has also been a growing interface between micro initiatives and macro policy measures. Governments have tried to promote NGOs to do specific tasks that they are no longer able to do, and on the whole, probably, no longer want to do. Further, the political landscape of the country has significantly changed with the constitutional amendments reviving institutions of local self government and promoting women's participation, all in the name of decentralization and enabling people's ownership of local governance and development processes.


The state movement relationship and its shifting contours form the backdrop to the Mahila Samakhya programme. The state movement relationship and the changing political scenario can help us to better understand the specifics of the historical moment to which the MS programme belongs.








Cartographies of Empowerment: An Introduction



The Making of Mahila Samakhya 1987-199



Scenes from an Expanding Universe: Personal Journeys



From Sanghas to Federations: Empowering Processes and Institutions



Songs of Change in a minor Key?



Between Questions and Clarity: Education in Mahila Samakhya



Addressing Girls' Education



Mapping the Multiple Worlds of Women's Literacy: Experiences from Mahila Samakhya



Responding to Violence and Exploring Justice through Women centered Mechanisms



Engendering Mainstream Institutions: The Mahila Samakhya Experience with Panchayats



Mahila Samakhya Approaches to women's Health



Embedding Economic Empowerment within an Education process: The Mahila Samakhya Experience



Revisiting an Ideal called Empowerment: S Reconnaissance of the Mahila Samakhya Experience



Ambiguities and Silences









Notes on Contributors



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