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Reviewing the 'practice' of empowerment: thinking of possibilities in contemporary times

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This paper is a writing of a work on critically understanding women empowerment amidst the prevalence of MDG's and SDG's. It points to the gaps in the implementation and thinking of empowerment goals in lives of rural women and proposes for a rethinking in our methodologies of working with women, to strive for gender equality at a 'sustainable' level. It is a work then on a critical understanding of the narrative of success, of progress, of empowerment in lives of rural women. It is a close observation of lives of women who work through a discourse of empowerment and what becomes of them in their making as successful, empowered women. It is then to understand empowerment in its successes but also in its struggles. The work then is not necessarily an attempt to 'define' empowerment, as there are enough definitions of it. The attempt perhaps is to continuously find meaning in the everyday rendering of it in lives of women, whether through success, struggles or labor. It is to understand the process through which women make sense of their empowered lives embedded in their struggles and how can this work help us in continuing to understand this process at the level of implementation and action. This paper thus at one level, presents a critical description and review of the 'forms' of gender 'training' that seemingly enables women to move with 'agency' and 'power' in the neo-liberal world today. The focus is to examine the nature, content and associations of such training modules and what they entail for the 'empowerment' of women. The idea is not to endorse a doing away with the culture of education and training, but to look at the current models of training critically, and philosophically redefine the ideas of education, training and transformation. The attempt is to study the beginnings of 'gender-training' modules and their
Reviewing the ‘practice’ of empowerment: thinking of possibilities in contemporary times
Gurpreet Kaur
Ambedkar University Delhi, +91-9811167019
Declaration- (1) the author of the article is in the order in which listed; and (2) the article is
original, has not been published and has not been submitted for publication elsewhere.
This paper is a writing of a work on critically understanding women empowerment amidst the
prevalence of MDG’s and SDG’s. It points to the gaps in the implementation and thinking of
empowerment goals in lives of rural women and proposes for a rethinking in our methodologies
of working with women, to strive for gender equality at a ‘sustainable’ level. It is a work then on
a critical understanding of the narrative of success, of progress, of empowerment in lives of rural
women. It is a close observation of lives of women who work through a discourse of
empowerment and what becomes of them in their making as successful, empowered women. It is
then to understand empowerment in its successes but also in its struggles. The work then is not
necessarily an attempt to ‘define’ empowerment, as there are enough definitions of it. The
attempt perhaps is to continuously find meaning in the everyday rendering of it in lives of
women, whether through success, struggles or labor. It is to understand the process through
which women make sense of their empowered lives embedded in their struggles and how can
this work help us in continuing to understand this process at the level of implementation and
This paper thus at one level, presents a critical description and review of the ‘forms’ of
gender ‘training’ that seemingly enables women to move with ‘agency’ and ‘power’ in the neo-
liberal world today. The focus is to examine the nature, content and associations of such training
modules and what they entail for the ‘empowerment’ of women. The idea is not to endorse a
doing away with the culture of education and training, but to look at the current models of
training critically, and philosophically redefine the ideas of education, training and
transformation. The attempt is to study the beginnings of ‘gender-training’ modules and their
linkages with NGO’s, feminist activists/practitioners and actors at state policy and funding
agencies. At another level, the paper works to critically connect how these actors come together
to create ‘gender training’ (modules) in making the woman, from a ‘victim’ to a ‘hero’. And also
what is their own judgment and analysis of such trainings in the application of these modules.
The paper will also document my own observations from the intensive field work in
Kesla, Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh, of the Self help group federation (and its
activities) called the Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS). I will try to document the structure and
functioning of NMS and how its existence is informed by the ‘norms’ of gender-trainings. The
idea is to find where the model of NMS draws its structural and functional beginnings from. In
that sense, one will be attempting to look at the empirical models in the past that have been
talked about and inform a great deal of workings of NMS. The primary two models that I want to
refer here are Mahila Samakhya (MS) and Women’s Development Programme (WDP), both of
which were partially supported by governments and partially by NGO based and feminist-
activist interventions.
I will first attend to the beginnings of gender training, from a ‘feminist’ consciousness-
raising to a development, interventionist training modules. In that sense, a loss of a dream of the
feminist vision, due to the neo-liberal corporatization of the agenda of empowerment, is perhaps
the tussle that goes on between the feminist and managerial- interventionist agenda of ‘gender
training’. The attempt will be to critically engage with the clash between the feminist (political)
and the (depoliticized) gender training modules. The point is to at some level critically look at
both even though they seem to stand in opposition with each other. How and when do gender
trainers remain close to a feminist vision of transformation and at the same time become close to
the interventionist models of ‘doing’ gender training. The attempt is also to raise the question of
class privilege, which often gets missed out. There have been endeavors to understand the
privileges that patriarchy affords to women, but how does class elitism affect the politics of
gender training/consciousness needs to be understood too.
Then, I would draw similarities and difference between the models of empowerment in the past
and today’s SHG federation structure (NMS), reminiscing a time when Mahila Samkhya and
WDP were huge inspirations for the women’s movement and feminist (gender)
Gender training and feminist consciousness raising
During the 1970-80’s, the women’s movement was at its height and many women’s groups were
taking shape (for instance Saheli, Jagori in Delhi) as resource and training centers as well as
crisis intervention spaces to stand against rape, dowry casesi. The resolve at the time in the
women’s movement was to create a feminist consciousness among women through training and
awareness building about a sense of violence and discrimination that they face. It was an
association of women who were still surviving the Emergency and were engaging with a corrupt,
paternalistic state. The idea was to create a feminist vision of the world, derived from Socialist-
feminist ideas. There was an awareness of one’s colonial past and caste ridden context, within
which the women’s movement placed itself.
At the same time, things were brewing up globally in the UN, and with the discourse of
WAD and GAD, there was a pressure on the governments to mount empowerment strategies for
improving the ‘status’ of women. It was also then, around the 1990’s (and remembering Beijing
is important here as a historical moment), that the terminology of ‘gender’ experts, consultants,
specialists became prevalent as ‘gender training’ became the demand of the bureaucratization of
‘gender’. Men needed to be ‘gender trained’ in development organizations and to be made
gender sensitive towards issues of women’s subordination. At the same time, ‘women’ needed to
be trained in the biases that patriarchy makes towards men.
This was clearly seen as a problem of the South (Third world), more so as the modules of
gender training were doled out from the North (First world). Due to this third world-first world
gap, there was an increasing discomfort among the movement activists with the ‘buzzwords’ of
empowerment and gender training that had taken over a ‘feminist’ understanding of women
struggles and subordination. The emphasis was on how ‘gender roles’ are different and normative
as opposed to how these gender roles are hierarchically located in relations of power. The
feminist ideal of “personal is political” was completely misplaced in the depoliticized context of
gender training. There was also a problem with the term ‘feminism’ that was conveyed by the
gender training experts. Anything that is ‘political’ was clearly not well-received. Anything that
was safe, technical and maintained the status-quo was becoming the gender training module. The
point became to report on mechanisms of gender mainstreaming, and the whole political struggle
by feminists for equality became a part of the professionalized culture of doing gender work.
This was the shift from ‘equity’ to ‘efficiency’, the raison de tore for the move from the vision of
transformation of gender relations of ‘power’ to making the gender ‘roles’ more efficient and
productive for the economy and development.
Naila Kabeer (1994)ii marks the difference between the three gender training frameworks
created by the World Bank and how they mostly cater to development professionals. The
Harvard method or the gender roles framework is “safe, technocratic and project oriented” and
“adds” women to the planning frameworks. The Moser method or triple roles framework, works
towards a separate, differentiated planning framework based on gender roles and needs. It
incorporates “gender planning” in the planning framework, with three important elements:
women’s triple role, practical and strategic gender needs, and policy approach categories.
However, according to Kabeer, it still offers a bureaucratized version of ‘gender politics’.
Finally, the social-relations framework, atleast according to Kabeer, examines ‘gender’ relations
as power relations within the household, community, market and state. And the framework tries
to re-think policy and institutional structures through a gender lens framework and analysis of
power relations. “Janet Seed suggests that these frameworks had the appeal of being simple, but
were also attractive to some organizations because “they appeared to be value-free and not
feminist. These methods could be used to present gender analysis as a technical solution, without
necessarily engaging with personal or political issues, and without challenging male power”
(Seed 1999: 312)” (In Gilbertson & Sen, 2017:9). Murthy (1998) also insists that such gender
frameworks are also a way of making gender training a managerial exercise, so that it can be
incorporated in the planning process of organizations (perhaps fulfilling a tokenism in the name
of ‘gender’ work).
According to Murthy (1998), there are four approaches to gender training; gender-blind,
gender-neutral, gender-ameliorative and gender-transformative. She claims that only a gender-
transformative training understands ‘gender’ as analytic of the “socially constructed” power
relations between men and women, with emphasis on unequal distribution of resources,
responsibility and power. Murthy argues that this training has its ultimate goal in the
‘empowerment’ of women and ‘humanization’ of men; with the objectives being sensitization,
mainstreaming gender in policy and planning and strengthening women’s movement
(Mukhopadhyay & Appel, 1998).
Bhasin (1997)iii classifies two types of gender training; one that is transformative, which
challenges patriarchal hierarchies and other relations of domination between caste and class. The
other is development and project oriented that aims at achieving ‘efficiency’ by the inclusion of
women in development projects, so that women are ‘not left out’ by development. Bhasin says
that even these types are distinguished, but they often work as a continuum, flowing into each
other at timesiv.
The basic course on ‘gender’ that Jagoriv conducts, includes the schedule as creating an
understanding of patriarchy, its implications in relation to caste, class, gender and the
‘intersectionality’ of these factors. It also incorporates understanding ‘violence against women’
and different ‘kinds’ of oppression. The attempt also is to understand ‘laws’ and its implications
on issues of women. The course also finally strives to incorporate the role and the significance of
the women’s movement in becoming an important moment of withstanding against challenges by
the state, law, family for women’s issues.
It is also important to remember how gender is defined by either development/feminist
practitioners and feminists or project-targeted development organizations. For the former, it is a
category of analysis to understand the social construction of relations of power between men and
women. It is how patriarchal, hierarchical relations dominate the everyday living struggles in
women’s lives. And this is how a ‘feminist consciousness’ envisions its aims, to generate a
consciousness of the patriarchal domination and the gendered relationships in the everyday and
in relation to the state, family, community and market. For project oriented work, gender is about
‘adding’ women to development projects so as to create efficiency and an apparent validation of
the presence of women in the process of development. It is based on creating and producing
In a recent study done by PLD (Partners in Law and Development), the authors
(Gilbertson & Sen, 2017) tried to understand the nuances and meanings of ‘gender training’ by
engaging with a wide range of feminist activists and development/independent ‘gender trainers’.
The study shows a sense of conflict between the two notions of gender training, between gender
relations of power and creating efficient gender roles. Many seasoned activists also do not agree
with the terminology of ‘gender training’, which was earlier referred to as ‘feminist
consciousness.’ They prefer to be called ‘facilitators’ rather than ‘trainers’. Many feminist
activists who have been part of such trainings, pushing for a feminist awareness and perspective,
talk about the role of women’s movement and how that is completely side-lined in the current
format of trainings. They prefer to always talk about the significance of the women’s movement
in their engagements with trainees. Their angst also carries an anxiety with the proliferation of
training programmes that are now so short lived, like a ‘capsule’, a crash course, that it loses its
purpose of generating a consciousness of a feminist vision. It loses a feminist perspective of
creating knowledge from every day struggles and experiences.
However, at the same time, there are others who believe in the efficiency of capsule
based programmes in order to reach out to a ‘maximum’ number of men and women and create
awareness around gender and address the need to create ‘productive’ strategies of engaging with
the problem of gender discrimination. There is also a distance between the activists coming from
a generation of an active women’s movement struggle and feminist practitioners who are part of
the gender training work, who believe that not everyone belongs to the women’s movement. The
observation remains that the movement also excludes and is not inclusive of all kinds and
categories of people, more so in terms of class, caste and sexuality. Thus some of them believe
that protest will ‘not’ achieve everything, especially in terms of taking the gender perspective to
a larger population. This is why for them ‘gender training’ is useful and efficient because it talks
to the ‘unconverted’ as well (Gilbertson & Sen, 2017:30).
In that sense ‘gender work’, according to the above understanding, is about the unpacking
of power relations which are socially constructed and reviving a ‘feminist consciousness’ and the
‘gender-transformative’ approach to gender training can take us a longer way. However the work
and this paper, not just critiques this idea of ‘gender’ itself which believes in adding women to
development to increase ‘efficiency’ but also critically looks at the privileged vanguardism that
builds on the theory of ‘consciousness-raising’ and awareness building. The work is then a move
to a complex theory of the subject of gender and the gendered subject, through a deep, psycho-
analytic relationship with an inter-weave of the knotted reality. It is to question both ‘gender and
‘training’ in thinking about transformative processes of gender work and education in the field.
In that sense, it is a work about re-thinking the process of transformation philosophically in an
undoing of the vanguardism that plays significance in most of the gender training modules,
whether or not informed by a feminist consciousness.
Because if we begin to understand how oppression or ‘exploitation’ has been understood,
we go back to the Marxian understanding of the working class. This class is the
‘disempowered’/oppressed group and a Revolution is needed to end the oppression. But how is
the revolution going to come and who is going to bring the revolution. It was the ‘oppressed’
who were supposed to end ‘oppression’, but the oppressed had internalized the ‘oppression’ as a
‘false consciousness’. And this brought the idea of the ‘vanguard’ and the party. The vanguard
will ‘help’ the oppressed class to move out of the ‘false consciousness’ and lead the way to the
‘revolution’ to escape oppression. However, the focus always remained on the oppressed class
and its ‘false consciousness’ which needed to be transformed and had to be relinquished. It
opened the idea that the oppressed was both the repository of revolutionary consciousness as
well as false consciousness. It was never the ‘vanguard’ who was questioned for the privilege of
remaining the vanguard, if not the direct ‘oppressor’.
In that sense, who is the vanguard in ‘gender-transformative’ trainings or feminist
consciousness-raising? It is perhaps this understanding of ‘privilege’ of class that is never
addressed (even if a patriarchal privilege to women is spoken about), that one wants to attend to
and problematize. It is therefore fundamental to move to an understanding of the ‘subject’ in a
hegemonic relationship with the world, to move beyond understanding power as just a ‘power
over’ or ‘power to’. And begin understanding ‘power’ in a secretive, hegemonized relation with
the ‘vanguard’ which allows them to have an uncritical relationship with themselves. Also to
understand the hegemony of the vanguard over the oppressed that takes the form of benevolence.
The focus is to conceptualize ‘gender through this theorization of the subject as being in
a hegemonic relationship with the (feminist) vanguard. This opens up the meaning of ‘gender’ as
fragmented and complicates the simple relation between the gender trainer and the rural woman.
The relation which is actually materialized as that between the teacher and student (trainer and
trainee), but is embedded with a hierarchy of the knowing trainer and un-knowing rural woman
Borrowing from Joan Scott’s rendition of ‘gender as the social organization of meaning, the knowledge that
establishes meanings for bodily difference’ we would like to look at the processes of gendering that take
place in a web of numerous overdetermined and contradictory forces that enmesh and retract in complex
ways in the formation of subjectivities. Thus the stress on looking at subjectivities, at subject positions.
This rendition of gender would give us an idea of the polymorphous positionings of woman, her location
sometimes as a sufferer and sometimes as a collaborator. It would urge us to think of processes of violence
where woman could be the oppressor – oppressor either of another woman or even of man. It would look at
instances of violence between women and men, between men and men, and between women and women.
Such an analysis of subject positions of the accused/victim might reveal empirically that most women are
oppressed at most moments. But then, even if such a fact is an empirical reality, one cannot presume it to be
natural, omnipresent or eternal, rather arrives at it a posteriorivi.
The problem perhaps, is also about the divide between theory and practice, academics
and activism, intellect and experience. The study mentioned above also quotes activists talking
about the problems that academics create with their ‘theory’. Things don’t work like academics
think, in the ‘real’ world; one has to get their hands ‘dirty’ in the fieldvii. And this is why the
creation of models, frameworks, and tools becomes so important in gender training manuals and
schedules, models that can be ‘replicated’ in other contexts, conditions. We need to re-think
models that can be thought through theory, but are a reflection of the experiences from the field.
Can we create training modules that are singular to contexts and creative in its becoming?
Observations with NMS
Here I will briefly delve into some of my conversations and engagements with the development
organization, on whose field site Kesla (Madhya Pradesh) remained the primary location of my
field work for this project. This organization has been engaged in creating SHGs since 1987 and
was primarily involved in income generation and livelihood activities; mushroom cultivation,
poultry, small industries etc. prior to this. The Self-help groups of women were a group of 10-12
women in each village (with an emphasis on BPL households), who would meet regularly and
save a fixed amount of money as decided by the group. These groups maintained an account
book for registering savings, loans, and credit-debit notations. Slowly the groups also got linked
with bank systems, where a bank account would be created for the SHG and the transactions of
loan and return would then be carried out through the bankviii. Apparently the point was to create
a space for women (to include women in development) to come outix, ‘transact’ and save. The
attempt was to decrease the burden from the money lender, and SHGs were envisioned to rescue
women by providing for money at the time of emergency.
However a study conducted by Nirantar (Sharma et al, 2007) on evaluating the SHG schemes
shows how there has actually been very marginal change in this burden that has been projected
as the financial ‘savior’ and economic utopia. At the same time, there has been no or marginal
change in the socio-economic inequalities within the household and among men and women.
This was evident in one of my early conversations with a team member of the organization,
where he says that change has to be first brought outside the household and only when the
woman is more confident and successful outside her house can she bring change in the
inequalities within her household too. This is a classic understanding of the ‘trickle’ down effect.
This paper shows that it is a misplaced understanding of women’s struggles and labor, who
continue to be a part of NMS but also continue to engage with their husbands as superior beings.
Elaborating on the SHG and federation structure within this organization’s structure and
work, a village would have, on an average, 2-3 SHG’s and sometimes 8-10 also, depending on
the size, population and success of SHG in the village. All the SHG members in a village would
meet once a month (apart from their weekly meetings) to discuss village level issues and
concerns in a meeting called Village level council meeting. A cluster of villages at the Panchayat
level would come together and meet again once a month for a cluster meeting, where the SHG’s
of all these villages would come together and meet. A cluster’s main functions are to foster
solidarity and mutual learning, resolve conflicts on inter-SHG issues, and provide support to
resolve an SHG’s internal issues. There would be a ‘Village representative’ for the village SHGs
and a ‘cluster representative’ for the cluster SHGs to represent their matters and concerns in the
federation meetings. This was done to give ‘responsibility’ of SHGs to women (a kind of ‘self-
governance’ in a very problematic way), to enable decision making and to apparently increase
participation of more women. However the reality was that these meetings would usually be
attended by a limited number of women or not held at all unless a Community resource person
(CRP-Sanghsaathi) or a team member from the organization was present.
Further the SHGs are organized together into a ‘federation’, which is a collaboration of
all SHGs at the block level. This federation is called ‘Narmada Mahila Sangh’ (NMS) and is
further divided into 5 chapters (meaning of and in 5 blocks and two districts- Hoshangabad and
Betul), with Kesla being the first one to be established and registered under the State government
body in 2009. It is a linear ‘institutionalized’ structure which was created after the SHG model
began to take shape and took control of the numbers of the women. SHGs got further quantified
and the federation became an ‘institutional’ space for women to become the medium of
‘instruction’ of empowerment. The total membership of NMS across 5 locations is close to
10,000 women with 2500-3000 women in each location as NMS members, associated through
their SHG’s. Because NMS is a registered body under the State, their annual women’s fair
(Mahadiveshan) records the presence of political dignitaries and in the one I was present, the
Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh had participated.
Even though the NMS has five chapters under the same name in five different blocks,
they all function separately as separate organizations and often are in conflict with each other. In
the federation, the active and older members also hold ‘posts’ in the governing body council,
apart from the presence of the village and cluster representatives and ‘sangh-sathis’ (or
Community Resource Persons/ CRP’s). The purpose of a governing body is to make decisions
for the regular functioning of NMS and maintaining a ‘public’ face of the federation. Women
hold the positions of the ‘president’, ‘vice-president’ (which form the governing board of NMS)
and the community mobilizers (or CRP/ ‘sangh-sathis’). The collective meeting with village
representatives, governing board members, CRP’s is held on the 15th of every month and a
general body meeting along with CRP’s is held on 23rd of each month. The absence of
representatives is often a huge concern for the women present (the older members are usually
present, concerned about the future of NMS).
The CRP’s are like voluntary workers, who ‘work’ in villages to promote the making of
SHGs, look into the functioning of the existing SHGs, and to keep a check on their regular
functioning, their saving-credit writing into the notebook, and if SHGs go debunk, how to revive
them etc. The CRPsx get reimbursed financially for this work by the development organizationxi.
However they have to show the work they did in writing (present a document proof) and each
task has its own “piece rate”. The women keep a record of the list of activities that they
participate in for the month. By the end of the month they submit this record of activities (in the
meeting on 23rd of each month) stating that the kind of activities they participated in and get
reimbursed. So, for instance if they were a part of a meeting or part of other organizations
‘exposure’ visits, they would be paid 150-200/-; if it is an overnight meeting, then the rate might
250-300/-; if they had gathered for an SHG meeting in their own or nearby their village, there
would be minimal or no reimbursement for that. The system of reimbursements/payments is
‘piece-rated’, judged on the ‘quantity’ of time invested, judged on the ‘ability of empowerment’
‘displayed’. And this financial reimbursement (called ‘mandhey’; honorarium) is primarily travel
reimbursement and sometimes a little more, depending on the time and quantity of work these
women engage in. I will come to this again and articulate how it is drawn from the models of MS
and WDP.
NMS and its women SHG members would often be made to participate in ‘leadership’
camps, which were basically camps of gender training. They would be five days camps where
around close to 100 or more women would participate. The primary purpose was to create an
awareness and knowledge of women’s oppression, unequal distribution of labor and to
emphasize the strength of collectivity of their federation. Jagori had devised various ‘gender
tools’ that would become a part of these camps, in consultation with other women organizations.
The purpose of engagement through such tools was to make the process not just participatory but
also create an experience of the knowledge as intrinsic to women’s everyday lives. One such
gender toolxii in which women are made to understand the amount of physical labor they put in as
compared to men, is done through a weighing scale and the use of stones. Women record the
number of physical labor activities that they are a part of during the whole day as compared to
men. Then they keep small and heavy stones according to the ‘intensity’ of labor done. For
instance a woman sweeping is given a smaller stone as compared to men ploughing which is
given a heavier stone. By the end of the activity, the weighing scale is heavier on the side of the
women because of the ongoing amount of physical labor they put in. And then a discussion is
initiated about the need of recognizing women’s labor. The fact that there is a quantifying of
woman’s labor in comparison to the labor of men assumes that the labor of women is always to
be thought in relation to men, as if otherwise there’s no relation of women to their laboring
bodies. The psychic reality of laboring women gets ignored in this exercise. Women are, most of
the times (if not always), already aware of the fact that they work more than men, but how does
one understand the psychic struggle that women experience when they labor with their bodies
throughout their lives. Is it not possible to see women’s labor through their body?
Another exercise is that of creating a ‘tree of strength’ within their collectives of
SHGs. It is actually a checklist of things that women as part of SHG collectives and NMS should
be doing to become a stronger federation. The roots of the tree implying what inputs should be
made, the trunk implying what are the institutions where engagement is required and the leaves
signify the ambitions for the future. So the women get divided into different groups even though
aligning together with their federation members, but in smaller groups. These groups sit together
and have a discussion in terms of creating a list of things that they need to do, the need for
changes in their current federations, and their aspirations for the federation. In another exercise,
the women are presented with a ‘mobility map’ of institutions that they need to engage with, in
order to become a confident, empowered leader. She is asked to walk on this map depicting
institutional structures and a discussion around her engagements with these structures ensues. A
‘good’ empowered woman is the one who follows these ‘norms’ of making effective institutional
engagement, to be aware of one’s rights and benefits from these institutions, to mobilize more
women in this collective struggle.
In an-other training and collective meeting that I was able to witness, there were
repetitive connotations of what a ‘good’ (who is also happy) empowered (‘Mazboot’ nari)
woman would do. She would be someone who regularly comes for the SHG and federation
meetings, engages with institutions to understand one’s rights (primarily as a poor, state
beneficiary) to demand one’s right in one’s household, to live with health and hygienexiii, to
become fearless in every aspect of her life and to become a respectful member of the community
and family.
A local newspaper reported the Chief Minister (in relation to the NMS) saying
“10,000 Mahila ghar aur duniya sambhal rahi hain” (10,000 women are taking care of their
homes and the world)xiv. This was after he marked his presence in NMS annual fair (the
Mahadiveshan) in 2016. In that sense, the ‘good woman’ syndrome is attached to her household
and family and never really escapes her. And the norms of being the empowered woman are
fulfilled if she passes the ‘good woman’ testxv, where she functions only within the domain of
family, marriage and household. Anyone outside these institutions of patriarchy was ‘excluded’.
Mahila Samkhya (MS) and Women’s Development Programme (WDP) were close to
NMS in its strategy and functioning. MS and WDP were initiated in the 1980’s with the partial
support of governments and partially through women’s groups. In 1984 WDP (Rajasthan) was set
up by the collaboration of state and central governments, local voluntary organizations, and the
women’s studies wing of the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. “It mobilized rural women
to perform leadership roles in the community, especially as volunteer sathins (helpers) in
development projects, and engaged in various consciousness raising activities around
employment and wages, political participation, the challenge of child marriage customs, and
promotion of education (Ramachandran, Jandhyala, and Govinda 2014)” (as quoted in
Gilbertson & Sen, 2017:8). This was followed by the Mahila Samkhya (MS) in 1989. It was
initiated by the Department of Education, Government of India with joint funding from the
Dutch government. It had a hybrid government-organized NGO form (called GONGO), and
women’s movement activists and organizations (including Jagori) as well as civil servants were
involved from the inception (Sharma, 2006). Mahila Samakhya was a programme for the
education and empowerment of rural poor and marginalised women. It was launched in the states
of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka and has since spread to nine states. “The design of the
program was informed by the redefinition of education for women “as an enabling and
empowering tool that goes beyond basic literacy and numeracy” (Jandhyala 2012: 213). Central
to the programme was the establishment of collectives of women called mahila sanghas that
would initiate and sustain social change processes (Ramachandran, Jandhyala, and Govinda
2014, Murthy 1994: 24-25)” (as quoted in Gilbertson & Sen, 2017:9).
Sharma (2006) describes in detail the ambiguous structure of MS that works through
support of the government and NGO’s (GONGO). MS is a registered body at the level of central
government and is registered as (voluntary) ‘society’ in state governments. It is interesting to
note why this structure was adopted in the first place. Sharma argues that it is in the nature of the
neo-liberal ‘governmentality’ that produces such a structure, that promotes ‘self-governance’ in
shedding off any responsibility of the state for the welfare of citizens. She notes how the MS
officials and state staff interchangeably labeled themselves as coming from the ‘sarkar’
(government) or as being a NGO. This was done either to create pressure and mobilize the
community through the label of ‘sarkar’, or used as the NGO label when they had to gather
support from other voluntary organizations, or to say to the community that they have nothing to
‘offer’ monetarily. There was also a tiff between a feminist, political consciousnessxvi that the
women’s groups were pushing for, in the trainings they gave to MS staff at the grassroots level
and between apolitical, bureaucratized imagination of the state, which wanted to rid its hands off
from women’s concerns. Sharma also shares how the MS staff was at the receiving end of this
tiff. Because when they wanted to stand for the rights of the community against bureaucratic
mechanisms of the state and higher castes local goons supported by local administration, they
were charged for being anti-state. But at the same time they were being trained and made aware
of their rights and were equipped to stand against discrimination. This conflict was the route of
the failure of a programme that reached out to many women in raising political concerns for
women. Also MS staff was not treated as ‘employees’ of the government, they were considered
‘volunteers’ of the MS programme and were paid through a ‘mandhey’ (honorarium) in
accordance with the work that they initiated (where NMS also draws from this structure of
reimbursing the CRP’s). When the staff wanted to protest against as a ‘unionized’ body, this too
wasn’t allowed, because then they would be anti-state.
WDP (also called the sathin programme) also suffered a similar tragedy. During this
programme, mass sterilizations were going on to control population and it was a drought year in
Rajasthan. There was a lot of pressure on ‘Sathins’ to meet the targets of sterilization. It was
called ‘food-for-work’ to pressurize sathins to meet the targets. It was an exploitation of bodily
autonomy, which sathins realized. Sathins too were considered volunteers and were not given a
regular salary but honorarium. When sathins got together to protest against the pressure put on
them for sterilization targets and irregular payments, the state charged them of being anti-state.
The WDP also showed the limited nature of ‘development’ that was envisioned by the state for
women. The sathin programme was “slow poisoned” by the state (in the words of a sathin),
which had great potential to achieve empowerment of women (Chakravarti, 2008:12).
NMS seems to have derived a lot of its structure from the sathin programme, from its
governing structure linking the village-cluster-block to the work that CRP’s (sangh-sathis)
perform (like the sathin) and how they are ‘reimbursed’ in forms of honorarium. However,
because it is a structure created by the efforts of a NGO, it doesn’t create a sense of political
resistance but rather a dependence on the NGO. The organization or any NGO for that matter
prides itself in the number of women it mobilizes through SHG and federation activities. It also
generates some sense of withstanding for one’s rights even if that requires the danger of resisting
against some administrative institutions or community. This reflects in women’s work as
‘kanooni sakhis’, who help women in the cases of conflict with family, husband, rape, sexual
assault, through providing legal assistance. For this, CRP’s get trainings in laws and preliminary
procedures of filing FIR’s, and assisting the survivor till the court (and sometimes helping in
testimony with very young survivors). In doing this, they find the wrath of the community and
the accused against them and often feel scared. They sometimes find this kind of work so
dangerous that they feel they can be killed anytime. They often struggle with this on their own,
either with a feeling of protecting another woman in pain or to get some money at the end of
such proceedings.
In that sense I attempt to open up ‘narratologies’xvii (as Derrida would call it) of
empowerment, to address this simple inclusion and exclusion of women, within the prevailing
status-quo of privileged positionalities.
Dhar (2015) poses this problem through invoking the category of “outside”; “Let us call
this the problem of ‘being inside yet outside’ (Agamben, 1998, 2004) or the problem of
‘exclusion through inclusion’… What if, the critical question is not, as Freud (1918) shows in
“Mourning and Meloncholia”, who is included, but what is included?”(ibid.) The author invokes
here the Dalit experience and the what of the Dalit experience, as Ambedkar emphasizes. Have
we thought of the what of the experience of woman? The entry into the ‘what’ of the experience
may then involve the ‘lived experience’, which then complicates the understanding of ‘mere’
simple inclusion? Does what then means, the ‘inclusion’ of identities, populations, that resides in
the ‘experience’, experiences of ‘hurt’, ‘humiliation’, (sexual/intimate) ‘violence’?
Achuthan (2009) further situates the critique of the problematic nature of ‘inclusion’ of women
in every development policy, that seemingly make women visible everywhere, to fill in their
otherwise excluded ‘absence’. She calls this ‘inclusion’ of women as a ‘space of invisibility’
granted by discourses based on ‘systemic exclusions’, to which they must participate only in
‘silence’. Women, then, have not been left behind. They have been re-produced in development
as woman repository of the patriarchal feminine and lost to women. Needless to say,
‘women’ here stands in for poor women in what we could still unfashionably call the third
world” (italics original, Achuthan, 2009: 21-22).
Then we must be wary of, what Spivak (2003) calls, the “euphoria” of the political
activist, to bring ‘empowerment’ in women’s lives and the cost of what is ‘lost’ in this “euphoria”
of empowerment. The ‘euphoria’ that is more about the ‘event’ and the ‘universal’ declarations
that are made, rather than the people who are spoken about. And that’s why she finds this
‘enthusiasm’ quite wasteful and unenforceable, because it doesn’t mean anything to the subaltern
population. Spivak’s basic critique of the sphere of gender trainings and declarations is that,
there’s no attempt to make sense of the “structure of feeling” of the groups who are supposedly
being helped (p.614). In that sense, she argues for a work, that works ‘with’ the rural subaltern
rather than ‘for’ (on) them. “There is a difference between the two things: between woman-
centered philanthropy and democratic pedagogic involvement. That’s what I’m talking about”
(italics mine, ibid.,615). Spivak’s suggestion to us is to move towards thinking of ‘education’ as
a “sustained, uncoercive rearrangement of desires with no guarantees” (ibid.). In envisioning
(political) imagination as a “material practice”, she asks us that our engagement with the world’s
“disenfranchised women has to be as thick as our students” (ibid.). Can we then imagine models
of gender training as a ‘practice’ of education that works through the desires of the
‘disenfranchised’ women and creates a political imagination which is a continuous process of
learning and undoing?
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Short Profile of Author
Title of the Paper- Reviewing the ‘practice’ of empowerment: thinking of possibilities in
contemporary times
Author(s) Name- Gurpreet Kaur
Designation- Research Scholar
Institutional Address- Ambedkar University Delhi, Lothian Road, Kashmere Gate, Delhi-6
Address for Correspondence- A-50 Mahendru Enclave, Near Gujranwala Town, G.T.Karnal
Road, Delhi-110009
Mobile No.- +91-9811167019
Whatsapp No.(If any)- do-
Teaching Experience- N.A.
Number of Publication- 1
Member of any Society(If, Mention)- N.A.
i See Gilbertson & Sen (2017).
ii In Gilbertson & Sen (2017).
iii In Gilbertson & Sen (2017).
iv It is important to remember ‘this’ bleeding into each other, and how transformative and project oriented goals of ‘gender
training’ collapse into each other.
v Report on ‘Gender Basic Course’, Jagori, 2013.
vi Unpublished Project report: The experience of gendered violence: Developing pyschobiographies; Centre for the Study
of Culture and Society (CSCS); 2014
vii This is not a direct quote from the study, but an interpretative reference from conversations that I have had with
viii In the contemporary context the state is appropriating these SHGs into the scheme of National Rural Livelihoods
Mission (NRLM). It aims to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities to the ‘poor’ by the “institutions of poor”; meaning
by banking upon SHGs, federations and livelihood collectives created by NGOs. It is envisioned as a “programme for the
poor, by the poor. NRLM works on three pillars enhancing and expanding existing livelihoods options of the poor;
building skills for the job market outside; and nurturing self-employed and entrepreneurs” (NRLM, Mission Document).
ix It was based on an assumption that coming out would change things for women inside the household.
x Often the women, who would be active, vocal, were called out to be a part of ‘exposure’ visits, or to interact with a
dignitary, representatives of other NGO’s (funding or otherwise) visiting PRADAN. The women were more or less
exploited for their ability to speak up and talk about their experiences always, and mostly there was very little
reimbursement for their time or labor.
xi The Kesla federation worked out of a small rented place in Sukhtwa (where I often met most women in their meetings).
There was also a Manager and a Computer person (who digitized the SHG saving/credit records of all village SHG’s under
the block Kesla).
xii See, ‘Auratein Insaaf ki dagar par: A report on the ‘Women’s leadership camp and training for women leaders from
Hoshangabad, Dindori, Balaghat and Betul’; Jagori, 2011.
xiii In a travel encounter with women from SHGs, some of whom hold Panchayat office positions (as Sarpanch and Panch),
they complained about this another woman (also an SHG member) with us who was travelling with her two young children.
Instead of helping this woman in taking care of her children, the women kept on disparaging her about how she is not a
‘good woman’ (mother) as she doesn’t know how to take care of her children. They were disappointed and argued why she
couldn’t be wise enough to take some gap in the birth of her second child. ‘What was the hurry?’ they said. She was clearly
out-casted and excluded by being labeled the irresponsible and the unhygienic one, as she couldn’t take care of her children
in a healthy and ‘hygienic’ way. This much was the extent of the discursive penetration of being the ‘good’ empowered
woman, that its very premise of existence was exclusion of the ‘bad’ woman.
xiv Another local newspaper reported “Anpadh mahilayo ne kiya badha mahadiveshan” (Illiterate women organized a huge
event-Mahadiveshan). But this has largely been the conception of ‘women’, whether empowered or not, she is
‘remembered’ as illiterate and a care taker of the family and now also the world.
xv Whenever I would question this understanding of the ‘empowered’ woman in my conversations with the team members,
I would either be faced by silence or non-engagement, which meant that ‘we don’t understand what you are saying’. Or it
would be countered by saying that ‘this work is not revolution (kranti), this is not our work, we are only trying to ‘help’ in
our own small ways’. This reflected the professionalism and the ‘altruism’, in which the discourse of empowerment was
embedded. And in order to prove this altruistic nature in the relationship with women, they would often tell me how they
have developed a great relationship with women, that they will never be let off a ‘didi’s’ house without having had food.
This approach was about maintaining a ‘status-quo’ that wanted to resist any thinking around a critical reflection of their
strategies of empowerment.
xvi This was the time when feminist trainings and awareness building was taking shape in India. Women’s groups and
activists primarily took lead in such trainings. These were informal spaces of creating awareness at the grassroots level,
about women’s oppression, discrimination, rights etc. It pushed for a political consciousness (even with the problems of
consciousness-raising) among women, unlike the gender trainings today, which are specific, precise and project-driven.
xvii In the next chapter I open up the narratives of women I engaged with, at a deeper level. But taking a reference from
Derrida, it is the ‘narratologies’, the logic behind the narratives which will take us to deeper, cryptic meanings of
empowerment than a simplistic understanding of exclusion and inclusion.
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