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Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan (MSA)
Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan is a state wide informal network of Non-government Organisation (NGOs) working on women’s issues in 13 districts of Gujarat. MSA is coordinating, providing direction and support to a state wide movement for, building a collective identity and strengthening women’s participation in political processes. More than forty organisations from thirteen districts of Gujarat state are collectively active in talking forward this objective in their respective areas. The group, at the moment an informal network initially called itself the Working Group For Women’s Issues-Gujarat and has recently renamed itself the "Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan".
By nurturing value-based and gender - sensitive local leadership and governance, the Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan hopes to address the broader concerns of the women’s movement in Gujarat.
The Working Group for Women’s Issues Gujarat, (now called Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan) began as an informal group of grassroots organisation in 1994-95, as part of the preparatory processes for the Forth UN World Women’s Conference in Beijing. Subsequently, the group of 8-10 organisations comprising WGWI-G, participated in the Conference in Beijing.
In the post Beijing phase, MSA widened its membership to include many more organisations working with women and women’s issues in the state, and resolved to work towards strengthening the women’s movement in Gujarat.
After a series of deliberations all MSA organisations decided that strengthening women in politics would be a strategic move towards improving the quality of life of women and communities as a whole that the 73rd Amendment presented both a challenge and an opportunity. And issues concerning women representatives in Panchayats and political participation of women in local governance should be prioritised and addressed by the network. As a consequence, in 1996 member organisations came together under an informal but federated structure to initiate a year long program to mobilize, train, and motivate elected women representatives to access information, and share their experiences with each other. This campaign / program culminated in a three day meeting cum educational fair (Panchayat Behenon nu Milan) in Ahemedabad, with 1200 participants from across 16 districts. The Panchayati Baheno no Milan was to date the largest gathering of elected rural women representatives in Gujarat.
The event and entire process leading up to it gave a critical insight:
Elected women articulated a strong need for a permanent forum for them to meet on a regular basis to exchange ideas and support each other. WGWI_G has developed an 18-month plan to achieve this goal of setting up a Manch, a network of elected women’s forums at the block, district and state levels, which would nurture value based governance that is gender sensitive.
As a strategy to activate these forums, member organisations of WGWI_G have undertaken campaigns and activities on the two issues that concern rural women - drinking water and social security. The activities generated by this campaign have helped forge a collective identity for elected women and lead to the consolidation of several block level forums of elected women representatives, which meet regularly to address elected Panchayat women’s issues of information support and advocacy.
The impact of the Milan and the follow up work being done by member organisations with this constituency of Panchayat women has led to the realization that a little support can make a critical difference. It has been quite heartening to see the transformation of some elected women, from being silent and inactive to becoming effective and confident leaders and members of their village Panchayats. One of the catalyzing factors in this process has been regular training support in the form of relevant information and ideological inputs. It has been the experience of MSA member NGOs that along with dealing with a host of social and cultural barriers, what these first time women leaders also required very badly was basic information on schemes and procedures to be followed to get work done.
The Present Programme:
Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan is now poised at the end of the first term of the Mahila Sarpanches elected under the 73rd Amendment. Once again in the next year over 6000 new women will take charge as Sarpanchs in village Talukas and district level Panchayat bodies.
It is being realized at this stage that when a new set of Sarpanchs come in they will need the ideological, information, training and advocacy support required by the first phase Sarpanchs. The Mahila Swaraj Abhiyan and it’s member NGOs with their experience of the last three years is better equipped to strategise for this than ever before. And more so because we already now have a ready made constituency of support in the existing Panchayat women’s manches as well as a large number of present capable Sarpanch women who are active role models and are ready to join hands as resource persons in the MSA endeavour of influencing the next phase of elections such as to get active and able women into Panchayat bodies. And then further supporting them into playing an active role in the development of the women in their villages.
Thus the key highlights of MSAs present strategy for the next phase elections to the Gram Panchayats are:
Campaign For Selecting Capable Women Candidates:
The campaign is to be taken up prior to the elections to the gram Panchayats in the state and aims at
Through rallies, plays, films and promoting interaction with successful and active mahila Sarpanchs, people’s perception of women’s capabilities will be changed. Similarly voter education on importance of selecting able women candidates will be undertaken through posters, voter education material and village level discussion meetings.
Training Programme For Newly Elected Sarpanch Women
This is an ongoing activity and an important component of women’s capability building. The MSA would be organizing training programmes at the state and regional levels to build capabilities of it’s member NGOs to support the process of women’s capability building in their respective areas. Along with the NGO workers, able and active ex women Sarpanchs are also being linked to the process of building newly elected women’s capabilities. Over the next eighteen months four such training programmes with NGOs and ex women Sarpanchs will be conducted. The training programmes would cover topics to meet the information, Panchayat procedures, leadership skill gender sensitisation and value based ideological inputs to the newly elected women Sarpanchs and members.
Panchayat Mahiti Manch (Panchayat Information Centers)
A major need of the elected Panchayat women would be of pure information that would help them get along in their day work at the village Panchayat level. This could be information regarding government schemes, Panchayat procedures ,her role and power, problems faced vis village level officials, harassment by high caste men, or a vote of no confidence being initiated etc. The Taluka level Panchayat Behno nu Manch which is envisaged as a forum of past and present elected women can play a definite role in fulfilling this need through a sub programme called the (PMM).
The information desk would be ‘womaned’ by two experienced Sarpanch women and an NGO worker, Pamphlets regarding schemes, forms that Sarpanch women have to fill in will be available at the desk. The PMMs will operate on a fortnightly basis. Every second and fourth Monday.
PMM’s Linkage with the Taluka Munch
The PMM will become the point where the nitty gritties of the problems faced by the Sarpanch women are understood and dealt with. Out of the analysis of experiences would emerge the issues that have to be addressed collectively, e.g. corruption at the ration shop, irregularity of the Talati, officials not willing to deal with women leaders etc. These then become the issues that get shared and addressed at the Taluka munch meetings that are held monthly or bi- monthly. The PMM would also be able to feed in positive experiences and get those Sarpanch women to share their success stories at the Taluka munch.
MSA aims to produce a monthly newsletter that reports news, information, song, events, successes and failures of the campaign and forum formation process from different parts of the state. This would carry critical and inspirational stories and news from other states ( such as Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra) concerning women’s participation in local governance. The first of such newsletters planned for October 2000.
The newsletter would be disseminated to a wide audience consisting of elected women participating in the campaign ,other elected Panchayat women members not directly involved in the campaign, sangthan women affiliated to member NGOs, Government bodies and member NGOs. The news would help connect the Taluka forums with each other, and give Panchayat women a sense of belonging to a larger campaign / Collective.
Four Regional mini melas to cover all districts in the campaign will be conducted. Planned as three days educational events, the melas have been planned along the lines of 97th Fair “Panchayat Ni Behno Nu Milan”. Through simulations, game source, role plays, skits, debates, panel exhibitions, quizzes, panel discussions, songs the melas would be made in to an interactive, educatory and informational event for the women. At least 1500 women in Panchayat Bodies (Sarpanch and Members) would participate in these educational melas.
The objective of the entire programme including the fair is to highlight the issues concerning women in local governance, show case, positive trends and emerging role models and counter main stream patriarchal stereotypes of dysfunctional women representatives. Above all it is an effort to provide a platform where information, experiences and perspectives for the elected representatives combine to give them an enhanced understanding of their mandate.
The MSA believes that the media both print and audio-visuals has a crucial role to play in: