Closing down the women’s empowerment programme Mahila Samakhya will directly affect lakhs of women.

Academics, women’s activists and others have expressed disquiet at the impending closure of the innovative and globally acknowledged women’s empowerment programme, Mahila Samakhya. Yet, is it realistic to expect a government so hostile to non-governmental efforts to continue a partnership of the kind that this programme pioneered? When conceived in 1988 as a pilot project in 10 districts spread over three states, Mahila Samakhya attempted to imbue a government-funded programme for women’s empowerment and literacy with a non-governmental sensibility that encouraged women to set its course. From a top-down effort, the programme actively sought to make it the complete opposite. The fact that it worked and has been around for more than 25 years suggests that something of this kind is possible.

Yet, the central government appears to have decided to stop funding the programme by March 2016. Without these funds, although some parts of the programme could still survive, it would be scaled down drastically, ultimately leading to its closure. The decision is not based on any kind of adverse evaluation of the programme. On the contrary, the latest national evaluation by the Ravi J Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in November 2014, done at the behest of the central government, is largely positive with a few suggestions on how it could be improved. Therefore the decision to stop funding it is as inexplicable as it is opaque.

When Mahila Samakhya began as a pilot project in 1989 with funding from the Government of the Netherlands, it stood out for its different approach. Bringing both central and respective state governments to the table, it also included and consulted women’s groups and voluntary organisations. Its aim was to work in areas where female literacy was low, and to innovate in bridging the gender gap in literacy. Rather than just focusing on literacy, it took a cue from the National Policy on Education 1986 that had stated that “education will be used as an agent for basic change in the status of women.” To do this, sanghas or collectives of the poorest and most marginalised women were formed with the help of local voluntary organisations. Through these sanghas, the women received not just basic literacy skills but also learned how to get information about their rights and entitlements, what to do about employment, legal literacy and health (including reproductive health). The sangha members were viewed as “active agents in their empowerment” rather than passive recipients of welfare or charity.

The 2014 evaluation records the very real changes that had come into the lives of sangha women both in the public arena and in their private spaces. A long-term objective of ultimately being autonomous of government funding was also built into the programme with the sanghas forming federations that aimed to generate funds to sustain their work.

At the time of last year’s review, the programme had grown from the initial pilot in 1989 to one spread over 130 districts in 11 states, 679 blocks/mandals and with a presence in 44,446 villages. There were 55,402 sanghas with over half the members from the lowest castes. Altogether there were well over 14 lakh women members of sanghas organised into 325 federations. Of these, around five lakh women were in savings and credit groups (21,825) and the programme also innovated through its Mahila Shikshan Kendras and Nari Adalats (women’s courts). The programme is also credited with preparing women to participate
in panchayati raj institutions. Over the years, 30,390 sangha members had contested panchayati raj elections and 12,905 were elected. The evaluation concluded that, “[the] approach to empowerment, which begins by addressing multiple modes of discrimination first has heldMS [Mahila Samakhya] in good stead.” Nowhere in this evaluation was it recommended that the programme be wound up or its central funding curtailed.

When programmes like Mahila Samakhya, conceived in a way that run counter to most government programmes, are scaled up, there is often a danger that while the framework remains, the spirit disappears. Yet what one must remember is that the very fact of women coming together to understand their rights and entitlements, and to be allowed into spaces from which they had always been excluded, is something that is worth nurturing and supporting. It is these processes that give substance to programmes that would otherwise be shells of good intent leaving behind little that is sustainable over time. Unfortunately, given the proclivities of the current government at the centre and its open hostility to NGOs, it is unlikely that the positive aspects of Mahila Samakhya will be appreciated. Possibly, as with other programmes initiated by the previous regime, this government prefers to set it aside rather than build on its positive outcomes. In effect, even as it mouths slogans of women’s empowerment, it will disempower the thousands of sangha women across India who have demonstrated the real meaning of an inclusive and gender-sensitive developmental policy.