By Richa Sharma
Seema Saroj, a resident of Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh, was denied payment under the rural jobs scheme for months. She then joined Nari Sangh, a women’s group working for the rights of people, and took on the authorities to get her pending dues.
Saroj is one among over 80,000 women from 666 gram panchayats in nine districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh who have, under the umbrella of the Nari Sangh, been successfully fighting corruption in schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
Launched in 2007 by the NGO People’s Action for National Integration (PANI) with the support of Mumbai-based Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the Nari Sangh is a project for empowering rural women. It focusses on developing leadership qualities among women and spreading awareness about their entitlements like the right to work, right to food and right to health.
As many as 522 women from the group have been elected to gram panchayats.
Saroj told IANS: “Most of us did not know how much ration we were entitled to and used to take whatever the PDS shop-owner gave us. Similarly we were told that under NREGA, work will only be given to men and even they were not paid.
“I attended some of the meetings of Nari Sangh and came to know what I was entitled to. I then went to the block development officer in my area and asked why work was not given to women under NREGA. He then asked the officer concerned to provide us work,” said the frail woman, draped in a cotton sari.
It was not easy for these veil-clad women to come out of their traditional set-ups. Most of them had to convince their husbands and in-laws before they could become a Nari Sangh member.
“My husband was against my going out and participating in such meetings. Even my neighbours said bad things about me to my in-laws. Initially, I came out of the house on the pretext of getting fodder for cattle. We then used to hold small meetings and talk about problems with other members of the group and how it should be sorted out,” Badka Devi of Azamgarh district told IANS.
Fighting all odds, these women have now earned the respect of other village residents and are approached by villagers for all kinds of help.
“Every official from development officer to tehsildar and health officer to collector of the district knows about Nari Sangh and we are given a patient hearing if we approach them with a problem. This project has made us self-confident and we are now aware of our rights,” Chaviraji Devi, a member of the Nari Sangh from Mau district, told IANS.
Shashi Bhushan, programme director of PANI, said these women have been doing a tremendous job and the project will soon be extended to other districts in the state.
“It was a pilot project and we trained women in villages to fight for their rights. Now these women have taken control of all things in their villages and are aware of their rights. They are confident enough to take on the authorities if their rights are being violated,” said Bhushan.
Nayana Chowdhury, senior programme officer, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, says the project is very cost- efficient as the annual spending per family is Rs.240.
“The best part of the project is that it is very cost-effective and we don’t have to spend a lot of money on training women. It has gone beyond our expectation and we are trying to study if the model can be replicated in other areas too,” said Chowdhury.