From Rhetoric to Reality of Women's Development

Author(s): Kiran Dube
Date Published: July 16, 2006

Rajasthan is one of the relatively backward states of India, but a wave of excitement swept through the women's movement, when it was chosen for initiating the Women's Development Programme for the first time ever in the country. The stated purpose of this programme was to organize women so that they could get their fair share of the fruits of development from government programmes and work towards improving their status in the society. With UNICEF support this programme was initiated in 1984.

This programme tried out an innovative structure trying to get the best out of sharing responsibility between the government, NGOs and the women's movement. The key functionary of the programme is a Saathin working at the level of village Panchayat. She is supposed to be a voluntary worker. A Pracheta coordinates the work of ten Saathins. At the district level the management of the programme is done by the District Women's Development Authority. Training of Saathins is the responsibility of district IDARA. Development Study Institute at the state level looks after the monitoring and evaluation function.

The programme started well and the initial exposure of the Saathins to new ideas led to some empowerment and they started taking initiatives in a variety of matters ranging from securing minimum wages for women in relief works organized by the government to solving family disputes. They fought petty corruption and managed to get women's priorities translated into action at village level. Their active organization drew the attention of various departments towards them and the government saw many possibilities of using Saathins in furthering its own programmes, ranging from agricultural extension work, where Saathins would help in taking knowledge of newfangled farming techniques to people; to family planning where they could be additional motivators for making women opt for sterilization. With the imposition of this extra burden, some relating to development efforts of the government but some of which like sterilization were out right coercive in character, the workload of Saathins went up tremendously. Saathins were paid a small honorarium (US $8.00 pm) initially because they were only expected to devote some of their time to this work. Increasing workload, however, restricted their own opportunities to work outside.

Attending various training programmes, which focused on women's empowerment and their own experience of successful organization, made Saathins acutely aware of the injustices they were themselves subjected to and the duality of their own role. While on one hand, they were called voluntary workers and paid a pittance, on the other, the government expected them to fulfill their sterilization quota like any other employee. While they were called voluntary workers and leaders of village women, in reality they were treated as the lowest functionary in a chain of command. While they were expected to organize village women into groups because 'unity was power', their own attempts to form an organization in order to ally with the women's movement met with extreme repression. In 1990, for the first time an organization akin to a trade union came up spontaneously and at a gathering of Saathins organized by the officials, for the first time, Saathins struck work to demand an increase in their honorarium, given the increasing workload and the cost of living.

The rhetoric of organizing and demanding and achieving which was all very well with the government when it led to furthering of its own development efforts, was not tolerated at all when it came to an awareness of the Saathins about their own rights and the need of an organization. By 1992, Saathins were clearer that they needed to unionize in order to get their demands fulfilled. At a district level meeting in Ajmer, Saathins put some money together to start a union. Officials were really upset and coerced Saathins into making a written promise not to unionize before letting them return to their villages. This did not deter these brave women and in 1993 they got their union registered. By July 1993, they managed to have a state level convention and made a first charter of demands which included getting the status of a worker for Saathins, due wages, giving priority to issues raised by villagers as compared to those imposed by the government, putting an end to the arbitrariness of government functionaries, and to ensure safe working conditions for Saathins. The struggle continues. Needless to stay that the government refused to respond to any of these demands.

Attitude of the Government

What is clear is that the Women's Development Programme of the government led, on one hand, to women's empowerment at the village level and their getting better integrated in governmental programmes, but on the other, it also led to the key functionaries becoming more aware of their rights and initiation of a struggle to have their own demands met. The government not only wanted to contain the strength of the Saathins; but also that of village women, to a level where its own objectives are met but not too many waves are created. Many tactics, used in the distant past by employers to prevent trade union formation, were deployed freely to suppress Saathins. These included intimidating the leadership, enticing it with promises of jobs and promotion, terminating the services of union leaders, reducing the frequency of official meetings so that Saathins working in different villages do not get to meet.

In fact, the government went so far as to put a ban on fresh recruitment of Saathins after they formed a union. There is a provision of appointing hundred Saathins in a district, but today, there is not a single district which has this number. In two of the districts the number of Saathins has come down to as low as 5-6. Today, the programme is implemented in fourteen districts and should have 1400 Saathins but the number of Saathins is down 600.

When Saathins were appointed, the idea was, that in order that they fulfill their responsibilities towards villagers, their performance should be evaluated by the villagers, but today villagers are completely out of the picture. Now their performance is measured through achievement of quantifiable targets. With dwindling numbers this target cannot be met and it is made to appear like a failure of Saathins.

In its attempts to contain the struggle, the government has not deterred in misusing the slogans of the women's movement. In the newer districts and in fresh appointments, the government has replaced Saathins by a women's group. These groups are either not paid any honorarium or different members receive the same pittance that the Saathins have been protesting against. This is indeed strange - a structure which has proved successful, i.e., of one Saathin for each village, has given way to an untried and untested structure. The excuse being given is that the Saathin is an individual- whereas the group is a collective. The shameful incident of mass rape of a Saathin three years back, where the police stepped in to provide untimely help to her, to prevent a child marriage, is being used as an excuse to say that a group will be more secure than an individual. But this excuse ignores the fact that the Saathin already functions in the context of a village level group. Nevertheless, this new form of organisation has been adopted in 3000 villages and 7000 groups are targeted for the next five years. The government is dithering in making clear strategies about function of these groups, nor are they being trained for empowerment. Obviously these formations will be reduced to passive receptions of government services, as compared to active agents of change that Saathins have proved to be.

Arbitrary imposition of standards and high handedness have resulted in atrocities which are unimaginable in this day and age. One and a half years back, a Saathin was so tortured for being illiterate and unable to draw the map of her village that she had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. A high level government committee has now decided that Saathin will be rewarded for their hard work, by making a policy of attrition. A brazen official told the union delegation that their demands will not be acceded and the government has patience enough to wait for Saathins to die.


Despite its limitations and problems in implementation, there is no doubt, that the Women's Development Programme has succeeded in empowering the rural women of Rajasthan. In a state better known for Sati (immolation of women at the funeral pyre of their husbands) and marriages of infants, women have indeed actively participated in the development process. Men have come to terms with women's leadership. Women's point of view is considered by the family, caste and the society. Women are taking active part in the political processes.

Simultaneously, the attitude of the government is also clear. It is trying to contain this rising strength of women. It is attacking the base of this programme by retrenching the Saathins. The government is only interested in the empowerment of women, to the extent that they break prison of the family, to participate in development as defined by the government. It wants Saathins to be only as powerful as is needed, to organize women for this purpose. But any questioning which takes women beyond implementing population control, saving schemes, literacy programmes, is to be crushed in no uncertain terms. The government is keen to appear progressive and is ready to adopt the slogan of collective functioning of women's groups, but is equally anxious to exploit women's labour by enforcing labour of love and not paying them wages. -

Support Saathin Union, for more information contact:
Saathin Union Support Group
C/o Saheli, Women's Resource Centre
Under Defence Colony Flyover (south side)
New Delhi - 110 024

Kiran Dube was working as a Pracheta in WDP, but faced disciplinary action for helping a group of Saathins to go for the National Conference of Women's Liberation Movement. She now works for the Saathin Union.

Removing the Veil: Women's Development Programme
[Saheli Souvenir, 1995]

The Indian State entered the business of women's development in a big way in the early '80s, since the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85). "Empowerment" became the buzz word, and equality for women the agenda of the Government of India. Rajasthan was the first state to initiate a government sponsored Women's Development Programme (WDP) in 1984, later followed by Mahila Samakhya in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Orissa and now Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Some of these programmes received funding from foreign donor agencies, such as UNICEF in the case of WDP, NOVIB in the case of Mahila Samakhya. Each State has evolved a slightly modified version of the WDP, but the components are basically similar, with 'grass-roots' workers, supervisors, co-ordinators, trainers, consultants and bureaucrats, with wide gaps in status, power and salaries between each level.

In contrast to development plans for other sections of the population, government emphasis with respect to women is not on policy measures, resource allocation or redefining development, but on "awareness raising" and "mobilization" or, in other words, on struggle as opposed to development. With such a definition of development, a bizarre situation has been created where the fight is no longer against the establishment, but is State-sponsored struggle. This taking over of women's organising potential is a clear attempt to depoliticise militancy. The State has consciously used progressive jargon to blur the contradictions between its own interests and those of the people. The class question thus gets subsumed under gender concerns, and it is attempted to direct energies away from major structural contradictions in society. When village level workers begin raising their voice against forcible tubectomies, or protesting against construction of a big dam which would displace several villages, they are silenced by their higher-ups.

Officials of the WDP in Rajasthan were jolted out of their complacency when rumblings began among the Saathins, the village level functionaries of the programme. The union is taking up issues of these women workers who no longer are willing to be fooled by the mask of progressiveness donned by the State. Sahyoginis in Karnataka have also recently unionised, effectively revealing the waves of unrest among the lower rungs of workers in such programmes.

The government has conveniently adopted an organisational form containing all the weaknesses of NGO structures: arbitrariness in the name of flexibility, exploitation of workers in the name of 'working for the people', and paltry salaries in the name of voluntarism. Many activists from the women's movement have joined these programmes because of the seeming potential of reaching out to large numbers of women. However, the women's movement needs to be more wary of co-option, and a sophisticated State response to women's issues, which has tended to take the wind out of our sails. It is time to systematically question the government and its policies for women, and stand firm against attempts of compromise and take over.