A hundred years ago, on the 19th of March 1911, thousands of women gathered in Germany. Their main concern then was the plight of working women. What started off as a movement in Eastern Europe and Russia slowly gathered momentum and the United Nations started celebrating this event as Women’s Day on the 8th of March every year on a worldwide basis from 1975 onwards. Today Governments and NGOs around the world including those in India celebrate this event and the day is marked by meetings, seminars, discussions and press articles. What does this day mean to the millions of Indian women? Does it hold any significance that will go beyond mere symbolism and indicate the changing condition of women in society?
More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda had spoken strongly of women having an equal place in Indian society and said that the country would not progress if it had no equal place for its women. With the changing social, political and economic landscape of India today, are our women leading better lives? Is women’s empowerment mere sloganeering or does it still remain a favour bestowed on them by the menfolk? Do rural micro-credit programs that have come to stay impact the lives of these women?
I decided to understand all this and more by traveling around and meeting and interacting with some of these women in Heggadadevanakote Taluk. Rathnamma living in Basavanagiri was till recently dependant on her husband for the little money that he brought home as an agricultural labourer. For years she and her family were subject to the vagaries of nature and life was indeed unpredictable. Now she is a confident mother who is not only contributing to her family kitty, but also more decisive and articulate. The last one-year has seen her gradually evolve into a business-woman making snacks and other eatables at home by herself and going around the nearby town marketing the same to petty shops. A gradual economic change without any fanfare or drama but significant nonetheless! If Rathnamma saw economic opportunity in making and selling snacks and other goodies, her nearby friend Chikkamani found business sense in buying and selling garments and cloth. She travels on her own to Mysore and other places and returns home to sell the cloth and garments she has procured from there. She has slowly but surely learnt that trade and commerce need not be a male bastion. She now claims to be earning more than her husband and jokingly says that she needs her husband more to carry the heavy luggage that she brings home after each visit.
Shivamma of Manchegowdanahalli was completely different. She was more of a social activist who was keen on setting right the Fair Price Shop in her village. She was concerned that poor and destitute women from her community were not getting their rightful entitlements. She had to wage a relentless battle against powerful forces both within and outside her village and ensure that all the Antyodaya cardholders got their rightful share of 29 kg of rice every month. She did not stop there. She goes around meeting other members of the Women’s SHG Federation and urges them to join her in the crusade in setting right the Public Distribution System.
Machamma of Kebbapura tribal colony was tired of running around to the local politicians, asking for civic amenities for her colony on the outskirts of the Bandipur National Park. After not receiving any response to her repeated pleas from the powers that be, she decided to take things into her own hands. She contested and won the Gram Panchayath elections. Today she is one of the most vocal members in the Panchayath and has taken her role in the Social Justice Committee very seriously. While she chose to express herself politically by joining the electoral process, Putti and Madi of Jaganakote haadi decided to make participatory democracy in their small tribal hamlet a reality. They are active campaigners for Gram Sabhas and are making sure that these are held periodically and are becoming the true voices of the people.
Kavya is another special young woman who decided to fight all odds stacked against her and resolutely refused to accept that poverty and gender could come in the way of her academic achievements. With assistance from Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, she not only completed her SSLC and PUC but is now studying to become an engineer. She also wants to dedicate some portion of her life and time for the academic upliftment of other rural girls like her.
The success of these women is not anecdotal or distant, but reflect the emergence of a silent change in society. Women are no longer content with the status quo and are unwilling to wait till the men dish out ‘empowerment’ as a special privilege or favour. They are now active participants in processes that concern their lives and welfare and are willing to engage with society and the State in negotiating their entitlements. What makes it all the more special and heartening is that these women are mostly tribals and dalits who are no longer willing to be mere ‘beneficiaries’ of Government doles but are asserting themselves to become partners in progress. Women’s Day may be seen as just another reason to celebrate, but I am sure it does mean a lot for women like Rathnamma, Chikkamani and others to come together and share their successes and failures and learn from each other. Women like them do need a day to call it their own and celebrate the change that all of us wish to see.