With increasing recognition of the importance of women’s empowerment in villages, several efforts are being made in this direction. There are often selective efforts with limited objectives, yet these have impacts beyond their limited aims. This happens because once women emerge in a decision-making role, the village dynamics can change in many ways, particularly in the development sector.

It is useful to explore this issue in areas where such efforts have been made over a relatively longer period of time with continuity. Mangrol block of Junagadh district (Gujarat) is one such area where activists of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) have mobilised women to form self-help groups for over two decades.

The immediate context of the groups is that they pool and collect savings of members. Today these savings amount on average to Rs 3 to 4 lakh per group, reaching up to Rs. 15 lakh in some cases. To these are added revolving funds contributed by AKRSP, Tata Trust and banks.

Members borrow at a much lower rate than the market and in conditions that allow much better comfort. What is more the lower interest payments benefit their own group. The borrowings are used to meet household and educational expenses, as also to start new small enterprises or to expand traditional trades. To give an example, self-help groups could use their savings to change the traditional work of making brooms from coconut tree leaf sticks in such a way that they could get cheaper raw material while also getting a higher market price.

This is the immediate context, and a good one too. It has brought many benefits to women members and their families. Given the overall limited opportunities for micro and small enterprises and additional constraints faced by women-led enterprises in particular, this programme is expected at present to be remain certain limits.

However, the overall development and social impact may be much wider. Once women start coming out of their narrow household constraints to meet regularly as a collective and discuss wider village issues, then avenues for their wider role in village development also open up and a much broader impact can be possible.

Manjula, a social activist says that if women have a more effective say in village affairs, issues of water and sanitation get more attention in village. This is reflected at the village level in various rural communities where members of self-help groups live. In Kotda village, Vijaya took the lead in making a toilet as well as a rainwater harvesting structure in her household. “As women we had to suffer the most due to not having a toilet and were forced to bring water from a long distance. While men did not prioritise this, we did and played an important part in the mobilisation efforts.”

Vijaya did not wait for any government help or subsidy (which was not so easily available in those days). She instead took a loan from her selfhelp group to construct the first toilet in her village. She also paid it back in time by working very hard. This made a strong impact on several of her village friends.

If Kotda has today emerged as a model village for water and sanitation, women like Vijaya have played the main mobilisation role in this. In Zariyawada, women’s self-help groups have been active and multiple improvements, including in water and sanitation, can be seen in this predominantly Muslim village.

In Karamdi-Chingryia village, 15 out of 20 Nigrani or sanitation committee members are women. In this and other villages women not only played an important part in the Open Defecation Free campaign, but they are also coming forward to take up other responsibilities such as better liquid and waste management. Such programmes include creating soak pits and taking better care of village garbage which increasingly has a higher plastic and polythene content as well.

Secondly when women come forward to make their presence felt in village affairs, issues relating to child welfare and education start getting more attention. This is seen and reflected in several improvements in schools.

Yet another special concern of women relates to curbing liquor consumption. Although Gujarat already has prohibition in place, in village level discussions women pointed out that this has not prevented many men from still consuming alcohol which is sold illegally. Thus, women want a more active role in curbing liquor consumption, particularly in villages that are close to Diu. At the same time some women expressed concern that the consumption of gutka or chewable tobacco, known to be harmful for health, has increased to an alarming extent. The habit has become a big menace among men but now it is also increasing among women, they said. This is a serious concern as the ability of women to fight various intoxicants will be compromised if this habit spreads among them and so this needs to be checked. Some women leaders said this work should also be taken up by self help groups.

An important positive influence women point to is that they are more committed to maintaining peace and harmony in society at various levels. If this ability of women becomes stronger with their increasing involvement in village affairs, it will help to create a better, more harmonious society that can progress faster. While several limited interventions are being made for women’s empowerment, the potential of wider social changes linked to this should be carefully explored and tapped for wider benefits to society.

(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives)