Democratization and Women s Grassroots Movements
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Close up looks at women's struggles for democracy around the world.

The book illustrates how community-based actions, programs, and organizations that allow women to determine their lives and participate in decision making contribute to the creation of a civil society and thus enhance democracy. The case studies show how participation in grassroots movements promotes women's involvement in their organizations, communities, and in societal institutions, as it influences state policy and empowers women in personal relationships.

Introduction/ Jill M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon
1. Grassroots Social Action and Empowerment in India: The Case of Action India Women's Program/ Joti Sekhon
2. Re-Inheriting Women in Decolonizing Hong Kong/ Irene Lik Kay Tong
3. Democracy at the Margins: NGOs and Women's "Unofficial" Political Participation in Singapore/ Meredith Weiss
PART TWO: Africa and The Middle East
4. Exchanging Participation for Promises: Mobilization of Women in Eritrea/ Susan Leisure
5. Democratization Through Adult Popular Education: A Reflection on the Resilience of Women from Kwa-Ndebele, South Africa/ Khanya Rajuili and Ione Burke
6. Muslim Women's Grassroots Organizations in Syria: Self-Identity as a Form of Democratization/ Nimat Hafez Barazangi
7. Women's Grassroots Movements and Democratization in Egypt/ Nawal Ammar and Leila S. Lababidy
PART THREE: Central America
8. Women and Grassroots Democracy in El Salvador: The Case of Comunidad Segundo Montes/ Elizabeth Cagan
9. Feminist Organizations and Grassroots Democracy in Honduras/ Charles McKelvey
PART FOUR: Eastern Europe
10. New Roads to Resistance and Participation: Polish Feminists in the Transition to Democracy/ Judy Root Aulette
11. From the Ground Up: Women's Organizations and Democratization in Russia/ Jane F. Berthusen Gottlick
PART FIVE: Western Europe, North America and Australia
12. Building Democratic Bridges Over Belgian Political Bastions: The Work of The VOK—Women's Consultation Committee/ Alison E. Woodward and Rita Mulier
13. Women's Participation in Grassroots Initiatives in Ireland/ Christopher Dale
14. Sexual Assault and the Canadian State: Participatory Democracy Struggles Within a Liberal Democracy/ Alicja Muszynski
15. Empowerment and Disempowerment of Women in Central Appalachia, U.S.A./ Nelda K. Pearson
16. Women in Agriculture: Action for More Democratic Australian Farm Politics/ Ruth Liepins
About the Editors and Contributors



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Date de parution 22 juillet 1999
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PART TWO: Africa and The Middle East
4. Exchanging Participation for Promises: Mobilization of Women in Eritrea/ Susan Leisure
5. Democratization Through Adult Popular Education: A Reflection on the Resilience of Women from Kwa-Ndebele, South Africa/ Khanya Rajuili and Ione Burke
6. Muslim Women's Grassroots Organizations in Syria: Self-Identity as a Form of Democratization/ Nimat Hafez Barazangi
7. Women's Grassroots Movements and Democratization in Egypt/ Nawal Ammar and Leila S. Lababidy
PART THREE: Central America
8. Women and Grassroots Democracy in El Salvador: The Case of Comunidad Segundo Montes/ Elizabeth Cagan
9. Feminist Organizations and Grassroots Democracy in Honduras/ Charles McKelvey
PART FOUR: Eastern Europe
10. New Roads to Resistance and Participation: Polish Feminists in the Transition to Democracy/ Judy Root Aulette
11. From the Ground Up: Women's Organizations and Democratization in Russia/ Jane F. Berthusen Gottlick
PART FIVE: Western Europe, North America and Australia
12. Building Democratic Bridges Over Belgian Political Bastions: The Work of The VOK—Women's Consultation Committee/ Alison E. Woodward and Rita Mulier
13. Women's Participation in Grassroots Initiatives in Ireland/ Christopher Dale
14. Sexual Assault and the Canadian State: Participatory Democracy Struggles Within a Liberal Democracy/ Alicja Muszynski
15. Empowerment and Disempowerment of Women in Central Appalachia, U.S.A./ Nelda K. Pearson
16. Women in Agriculture: Action for More Democratic Australian Farm Politics/ Ruth Liepins
About the Editors and Contributors

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Democratization and Women’s Grassroots Movements
Edited by Jill M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon
Indiana University Press
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Democratization and women’s grassroots movements / edited by Jill   M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon.         p.      cm.     Includes bibliographical references.     ISBN 0-253-33445-4 (cloth : alk. paper). —     ISBN 0-253-21279-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)     1. Women in politics. 2. Women social reformers. 3. Social movements. 4. Democratization. I. Bystydzienski, Jill M., date   .   II. Sekhon, Joti. HQ1236.D45 1999 305.42—dc21 98–48402
1   2   3   4   5   04   03   02   01   00   99
Jill M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon
1. Grassroots Social Action and Empowerment in India The Case of Action India Women’s Program
Joti Sekhon
2. Re-Inheriting Women in Decolonizing Hong Kong
Irene Lik Kay Tong
3. Democracy at the Margins: NGOs and Women’s “Unofficial” Political Participation in Singapore
Meredith L. Weiss
PART TWO: Africa and the Middle East
4. Exchanging Participation for Promises: Mobilization of Women in Eritrea
Susan Leisure
5. Democratization through Adult Popular Education: A Reflection on the Resilience of Women from Kwa-Ndebele, South Africa
Khanya Rajuili and Ione Burke
6. Self-Identity as a Form of Democratization The Syrian Experience
Nimat Hafez Barazangi
7. Women’s Grassroots Movements and Democratization in Egypt
Nawal H. Atnmar and Leila S. Lababidy
PART THREE: Central America
8. Women and Grassroots Democracy in El Salvador The Case of Comunidad Segundo Montes
Elizabeth Cagan
9. Feminist Organizations and Grassroots Democracy in Honduras
Charles McKelvey
PART FOUR: Eastern Europe
10. New Roads to Resistance Polish Feminists in the Transition to Democracy
Judy Root Aulette
11. From the Ground Up: Women’s Organizations and Democratization in Russia
Jane F. Berthusen Gottlich
PART FIVE: Western Europe, North America, and Australia
12. Building Democratic Bridges over Belgian Political Bastions The Work of the VOK—Women’s Consultation Committee
Alison E. Woodward and Rita Mulier
13. Women’s Participation in Grassroots Initiatives in Ireland
Christopher Dale
14. Sexual Assault and the Canadian State: Participatory Democracy Struggles within a Liberal Democracy
Alicja Muszynski
15. Empowerment and Disempowerment of Women in Central Appalachia, U.S.A.
Nelda K. Pearson
16. Women in Agriculture: Action for More Democratic Australian Farm Politics
Ruth Liepins
Joti Sekhon and Jill M. Bystydzienski
About the Editors and Contributors
The idea for this book evolved over several years of discussion and collaboration between the authors and many others. During both the 1994 and 1995 annual meetings of the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS) Jill Bystydzienski organized a session on democratization and women’s grassroots movements in which Joti Sekhon and several others, including Charles McKelvey, participated. Subsequently, Elizabeth (Beth) Cagan, Judy Aulette, Nawal Ammar, and Christopher Dale joined our discussions and agreed to contribute to an anthology. We then sought the participation of scholars and activists outside AHS. We are both grateful to the AHS for providing an intellectual environment that encouraged and supported the development of ideas that went into making this project a reality. We also want to acknowledge the work of all the contributors in making this volume truly global in scope.
Joti Sekhon’s field work in India in 1992, 1995, and 1997 was invaluable not only in writing the chapter on Action India, but also in developing conceptual insights that inform this project. The women associated with Action India shared their lives and work, and taught her important lessons in grassroots activism. Her family in India, as well as her husband, Alan, and son, Imran, in the United States, supported her work throughout with love and understanding. And Greensboro College provided professional development funds to assist in the research. To all she is very grateful.
Democratization and Women’s Grassroots Movements
Jill M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon
Considerable attention has been directed in recent years to democratization worldwide, especially in the aftermath of the fall of communist regimes in East-Central Europe and dictatorships in Latin America. Most of the focus, however, has been on state-level activities, political elections, and the move toward capitalist markets. Moreover, while numerous persons have studied and written about social movements, including women’s movements, no systematic analysis of grassroots movement organizations and actions has been done in relation to democratic processes at the micro and macro levels.
This book attempts to fill a gap in the existing scholarship and literature by providing an examination of the connections between women’s local-level political and social actions and processes of democratization at the state, regional, and global levels. In presenting a collection of case studies from around the world, we illustrate how community-based actions, programs, and organizations that allow women to determine their lives and participate in decision making contribute to the creation of a civil society as well as directly influence, and are influenced by, key political, economic, and cultural institutions.
In this introduction, we problematize and define the concepts of democracy and democratization, discuss three major approaches to democracy (liberal, Marxist/socialist, and direct-participatory), theorize the link between democratization and women’s grassroots movements, and provide an overview of the book.
Democracy and Democratization
As we approach the end of the second millennium, more people than ever before in human history live in countries whose governments profess to be “democratic.” Democracy, we are told by the mass media, public figures, and academic scholars, is not only entrenched and safe in the West, but is currently sweeping the countries of East and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America, as well as Asia. However, the idea and practice of democracy, subject of debate and struggle for well over two hundred years, continues to be deeply problematic.
At a time when democracy is supposedly spreading around the world, great disparities between rich and poor people, and between wealthy and impoverished countries, challenge the notion of popular control of governance. Centralization of power in the hands of corporations and regional and world bodies outside existing states has reduced citizen input in decisions that profoundly affect people’s lives. And many women, the poor, as well as ethnic, religious, and other groups in numerous countries continue to be excluded from meaningful political participation.
A central problem facing those who wish to understand democratic ideals, practices, and processes is that of definition and interpretation. Historically, the notion of democracy has undergone much change in theory and practice. More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle coined the term democracy , meaning “rule by the people,” when he distinguished three basic patterns of government, the two others being “rule by the few” ( oligarchy ) and “rule by one person” ( monarchy ) (Markoff, 1996: xiv). Aristotle, as well as Plato, did not see democracy as the preferred form of government, but rather as “an aberration from the standard of good government with which popular self-government was not identified” (Parry and Moran, 1994: 2–3). Plato rejected democracy’s leveling doctrine (Macpherson, 1966: 5), and the term was rarely applied to existing governments until the eighteenth century (Markoff, 1996: xiv).
There was renewed interest in democracy in Europe and North America especially as part of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. A gradual rise in opinion favoring democracy as a desirable societal ideal emerged. Debates centered on the meaning or ideal of democracy as well as the mechanisms for enhancing democracy in society. In the twentieth century, with the advent of communism and movements for independence from colonial rule, democracy emerged as a worldwide ideal. Several forms of democracy came to be recognized relating to the sociocultural and historical contexts in which democratic ideals are defined and procedures for democratization are spelled out (see, e.g., Macpherson, 1966). While attempts have been made to identify key dimensions of democracy and to evaluate specific countries in terms of their level of democratization, such attempts have been flawed (Beetham, 1994). Moreover, since there does not seem to be a culturally neutral concept of democracy to support the development of indices of democratization, meaningful global comparisons are extremely difficult (Biryukov and Sergeyev, 1994).
For the purposes of this volume, it is not necessary to review the full range of definitions and interpretations of democracy and democratization. However, it is important to anchor the contributions that follow in a framework of democratic thought and action from which the case studies emerge. At the risk of oversimplifying, three broad approaches to democracy and democratization can be identified: liberal democracy, Marxist/socialist democracy, and direct participatory democracy. There are several variations within each approach and they share several common characteristics. Following a review and critique of each approach, we will discuss democratization at the grassroots level and the role and relevance of women’s grassroots movements for democratization.
Liberal Democracy
Beginning with the revolutions of the eighteenth century, proponents of liberal democracy in Western Europe and North America have stressed three basic principles in their theories: protection of individual rights and equal opportunity as means to human fulfillment, constitutional government, and separation of powers (Mouffe, 1992: 2). Over the last two hundred years, various procedural dimensions were gradually incorporated into the liberal notion of democracy including elected representative bodies, competing political parties, and secret ballots (Markoff, 1996). Democracy was reinterpreted from “the direct rule of the assembled people” to mean “a system of representative government in which a sizable proportion of the male population had the franchise” (Parry and Moran, 1994: 3). A parallel shift occurred in the notion of “a politics of the common good to a politics of individual protection” (Phillips, 1993: 124). In the twentieth century, the focus of liberal democracy, both in theory and practice, has been on “procedures for sorting out fairly the competing interests of individuals” (Arscott, 1995: 56).
This interpretation of democracy is based on early liberal theory as developed in the works of John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill. They stressed individual liberty and the natural rights of “man” which were defined as the rights of an individual to participate freely in the market economy without interference from other sources. The role of government, in this view, was to enhance individual liberty, and democracy came to be defined as a necessary form of government to protect individual rights and maximize productivity and wealth (Dewey, 1935: 5–21). According to its critics, liberalism did not require economic institutions to be democratic, for that would interfere with the free exercise of what were considered to be rights to private property. C. B. Macpherson argues, for instance, that before liberal democracy emerged in the western world, a capitalist market was established and then a system of government was organized to uphold and reinforce capitalist relations of production and power (Macpherson, 1966: 35–45). Historically, liberal democracy has been found in countries whose economies have been wholly or predominantly capitalist.
However, in spite of criticism of this version of liberal democracy, political democratization is typically confounded today with economic liberalization. Many view the political shifts from one-party governments to multiparty systems and the changes from planned to capitalist market economies as part of the global democratization movement. A number of observers, academics included, assume that as new political systems give more people a “voice,” the introduction of market economies provides them with greater “choice” as producers and consumers. Thus, the compatibility of marketization and liberal democracy is typically taken as a given. Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens (1992), for instance, argue that those countries, particularly in the West, that have the highest level of capitalist economic development are also those that have the most democratic forms of government.
Since the late 1980s, while the western system of democracy appears to be spreading worldwide, there has been intense dissatisfaction with, and criticism of, the liberal model (Parry and Moran, 1994; Holliday, 1994; Mouffe, 1992). The introduction of capitalist market economies has invariably resulted in concentration of wealth, an increased gap between the rich and poor, and the exclusion of most from vital economic decisions. Following the liberal-democratic ideal, the new economic institutions are seen to provide increased opportunity for individual participation in the market. But little or no attention is given to factors that prevent or inhibit individuals from participating in the market on a free and equal basis, factors such as institutional structures and relationships in the workplace, the family, the community, etc. It is no wonder that the integration of women and other oppressed groups in economic development processes in many regions of the world is not synonymous with their political or social liberation (Gelb and Palley, 1994). Some observers have argued that the recent wave of global liberal democratization has manifested itself differently in different countries (see, e.g., Biryukov and Sergeyev, 1994), and new forms and definitions of democracy have been proposed, frequently prompted by new social movements such as feminism and environmentalism (Held and Pollitt, 1986).
Critics of the strain of liberal democracy described above point out that the association between capitalism and liberal political principles is not a necessary one. Chantal Mouffe, for instance, indicates that the highly influential liberal philosopher John Rawls did not make the private ownership of the means of production a prerequisite of political liberalism (Mouffe, 1992: 3). Still others see the possibility of separating the value of individual acquisitiveness from the more humanistic values of justice and equality embodied in liberal democracy (Bhave, 1962; Macpherson, 1966). Scholars like John Dewey (1927, 1939) and, more recently, Chantal Mouffe (1992) and Avigail I. Eisenberg (1995) argue for a more “positive” interpretation of human liberty and the process of democratization as an avenue for greater self-realization and self-development of individual capacities through participation in social life of the community.
Radical and socialist feminists have been particularly critical of liberal democracy’s individualistic and rationalistic premises (Phillips, 1993). Moreover, feminist theories of democracy typically reject liberal theories of democratic representation in favor of identity-based conceptions that recognize women’s and other oppressed groups’ interests and the need for opportunities for expression of such groups’ distinctive voices in areas that are of particular concern to them (see, e.g., Young, 1989). A number of feminist scholars also see the need for fundamental transformation of gendered institutional structures before democracy can be achieved (Bystydzienski, 1995; Pateman, 1986; Phillips, 1993). Radical and socialist feminists, in particular, also critique the tendency among liberal-democratic theorists to assume and advocate a separation between the public and private spheres of people’s lives. The process of democracy is limited to activities in the public sphere of government, and women, whose lives came to be restricted largely to the private sphere, have been left out of the liberal-democratic process. Feminists have been instrumental in drawing attention to the close dialectical relationship between private and public spheres of human life as well as the continuously changing nature of public and private life (Pateman, 1986).
Marxist/Socialist Democracy
The Marxist/socialist vision of democracy is based on the critique of bourgeois liberalism in capitalist society and the theory of socialism and communism developed by Marx and Engels during the nineteenth century. While liberal democrats have discounted the significance of class differences, the Marxist/socialist view of democracy has focused on class differences and their elimination (Marx, 1963 [1843]). Marx argued that while liberal democracy and universal suffrage grant valuable political rights, effective participation of citizens in the political process is prevented by class and other inequalities perpetuated by capitalist relations of production. For Marx, true “human emancipation” could only emerge through a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system and the development of a communist society in which human beings are fully integrated into collective life.
Both Marx (1963 [1843]) and Lenin (1968 [1902]), who further developed and tried to apply this vision of democracy in Russia, initially argued that the revolution would emerge through a gradual process of development of class consciousness among the proletariat. But both made allowances for the emergence of an elite vanguard of intellectuals to lead the development of the revolutionary consciousness. While under liberal democracy officials are elected from among competing parties, under socialism representatives from a hitherto oppressed class create a vanguard, a class-conscious elite, that is to lead the collective to a classless state (Macpherson, 1966: 12–22). Theoretically, the state under socialism becomes a collective expression of the people to regulate inequalities between social and economic groups, and once inequalities are eliminated the state is expected to become insignificant (Marx, 1970: 35). In practice, the state controlled by the Communist Party emerged as a major agent of social transformation. Policies to bring about political, economic, and cultural equality have had uneven impact in the former communist states of Eastern Europe. These states experienced a decline in economic inequalities, but inequalities between different regions, ethnic groups, and the sexes within these societies continued to persist. States also varied in the degree of autonomous political activity allowed that was closely watched and orchestrated by the Communist Party. In addition, people in these states were subjected to corruption and excess on the part of their ruling elites and paid a high price in denial of civil rights for often inadequate welfare provisions (Nelson, 1983; Schulz and Adams, 1981).
While the East and Central European experiments in Marxist/socialist democracy have collapsed, the socialist democratic position has not been abandoned but is undergoing examination and reformulation (see, e.g., Anderson, 1995; Mouffe, 1992). Most importantly, socialist democrats, prompted by feminists and others, are incorporating pluralism and multiculturalism into their theories of democracy (Anderson, 1995; Phillips, 1993: 4). Moreover, they are beginning to recognize that both the liberal-democratic states of the West and the socialist ones of the East have had highly centralized political systems that “led to distancing of political decision-making and control away from citizens, and therefore to a disengagement of citizens from democratic participation” (Gaianguest, 1992: 118). Socialist democrats are thus entertaining the possibility of a more active and substantial democracy closer to the participatory model.
Participatory Democracy
The tradition of direct participatory democracy stems from a literal interpretation of democracy as “rule of and by the people” first articulated by Aristotle. In some respects, the two approaches outlined above accept this version of democracy as an ideal that cannot be achieved in reality in modern complex societies. Participatory democrats, on the other hand, not only assume that their notion of democracy is possible, but also have a long history of communal experiments all over the world to support their position (Benello and Roussopoulos, 1971; Cook and Morgan, 1971).
Participatory democracy consists of a system where the rule of the people entails equal opportunities for all to take part in decision making concerning not only traditionally defined political issues but also matters affecting the workplace, the community, and interpersonal relationships (Parry and Moran, 1994: 4). Political action and participation, therefore, take place not only in the sphere of formal political institutions associated with the state, but also in other spheres of people’s lives. A truly democratic society, according to this position, is one that permits and encourages every person, individually or with others, to have control over the course of his or her life. This also entails taking into consideration the right of others to do the same, and to have direct input in decisions affecting the collectivity (Wokler, 1994). In order to realize this vision, structural arrangements that would allow individual and collective choice have to be in place (Pateman, 1970). This also requires the creation of new institutions that would permit a voice to those most affected by decisions (Young, 1989). A truly participatory society would need a political culture, and corresponding structures, that would enable citizens to retrieve information, to develop and advance positions on issues affecting their lives, and to take part in debate (Dryzek, 1990; Habermas, 1987; Held, 1987; Lappe and DuBois, 1994).
Radical and socialist feminists have been instrumental in drawing attention to the complex interaction between people’s private and public lives and the need to expand the process of democratization to include both. In their view, the nature of public life influences an individual’s interpersonal relationships, while the personal circumstances of an individual affect the nature of public participation (Pateman, 1989).
Critics of the participatory democracy position generally remain skeptical of the possibility of sustained direct citizen participation in modern, complex societies (Wokler, 1994). Moreover, even feminist scholars who see a basic compatibility between participatory democracy and feminism point to the tendency of decentralized, communal structures to suppress diversity of views in favor of the “common good” (Iannello, 1992; Phillips, 1993). As a result, while many still remain committed to a politics of participation, there has been a tendency in recent years among some scholars to rethink the nature of participation and allow for more pluralism within a framework of consensus (see, e.g., Mouffe, 1992). Scholars note that people belong to several groups and engage in multiple relationships. Individuals, therefore, express a plurality of identities that are continuously being defined and redefined, depending on the degree of voluntary or involuntary attachment to a particular group. The participatory democratic process must be pluralistic enough to allow for multiple affiliations and identifications as well as individual self-development and self-realization (Walzer, 1992; Mouffe, 1992; Eisenberg, 1995).
Democratization, Grassroots Movements, and the State
The conceptions of democracy reflected in the case studies included in this volume derive mainly from the participatory perspective. We conceive of democracy broadly as both a political system and a culture that allows for the fullest realization of the human creative potential. We thus support the development of values and structures that promote and give people a direct voice in matters that affect their lives. This leads us to view democratization as a process by which the voices of ordinary people can find increasing organized expression in the institutions of their societies. Democratization, therefore, goes on at several different levels in society. These include formal political and administrative structures at the international, national-state, village/town, and local community levels; voluntary organizations; informal associations and community groups; productive work activities; educational systems; family and kin networks; and personal relationships. Individuals belong simultaneously to several kinds of associations and the process of democratization involves an increase in, and freedom of, participation in various spheres of life. While individuals may not be active participants at all times in all of their associations due to choice and/or constraints, a participatory democratic society is one that enhances the ability of people to make choices. Participatory democrats thus generally recognize that democracy needs to continue to undergo a process of re-creation and that a more active and substantial participation can only take place as a result of experimentation with new and different ways that seek to enhance citizen involvement and discussion. In a sense, democracy can never be achieved in any final form—it has to be continually re-created and renegotiated.
This view of democracy and democratization is relevant for the study of grassroots social organizations and movements in general and women’s grassroots movements in particular. By grassroots movements we refer to community-based initiatives, actions, and/or organizations that address issues of practical concern to their constituents and are generally committed to making better the lives of local people. Grassroots organizations are also sometimes known as base groups, people’s organizations, or local organizations. However named, they are groups that emerge and/or work at the local level to improve and develop their communities either through community-wide or more specific memberships, such as women or farmers (Fisher, 1993: 5, 21).
In response to one or more economic inequalities and crises related to capitalist economic development, state centralization, environmental degradation, class, gender, and cultural oppression, a variety of grassroots, community-based movements have surfaced around the world among disadvantaged populations. Though not all grassroots organizations are necessarily participatory and progressive (Chafetz and Dworkin, 1989; Iannello, 1992), many have emerged as a significant part of efforts to create and expand spaces for democratic decision making. Through this process they are redefining the form and content of politics (Gaventa, Smith, and Willingham, 1989; Kothari, 1990; Tandon, 1991). Grassroots organizations may aim to gain greater representation for ordinary people in formal political institutions or attempt to create alternative institutional structures to meet a variety of human needs. Small grassroots organizations are particularly effective in consciousness raising, individual self-development, and promoting group solidarity. They also enable more effective public participation (Caiman, 1992).
Grassroots and other nongovernmental organizations are an integral part of civil society, and a strong civil society is an indicator of greater democracy at the national-state level. They are important in ensuring that the state institutions are responsive to its citizens and perform a mediating role between the state, the local community, and the family. As such, grassroots organizations have the potential to redefine the connection between the public and private aspects of social lives and also to expand public space to include not only the sphere of state-sponsored political activity, but also a space autonomous from the state. This allows for greater pluralism and diversity (Tandon, 1991).
Community activism also provides opportunity for self-development and identity formation that can lead to more empowerment in a person’s private life, within the family, and in interpersonal relationships (Caiman, 1992). The extent to which grassroots organizations fulfill this potential varies, depending on both the nature of the state and associational life at the local level. However, there is growing evidence of the influence of grassroots organizing and other nongovernmental actions on the state and at the international level (see, e.g., Brill, 1995; Migdal, Kohli, and Shue, 1994; Pandey, 1991). Nongovernmental organizations have had a significant impact on the recommendations of the United Nations conferences on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, on population in Cairo in 1994, and women in Beijing in 1995.
Grassroots movements’ relationship to the state is typically dialectical. While the state provides the context within which the movements develop (Ray, 1997), many local initiatives start out in opposition to (or at least autonomous from) established governmental structures and other key societal institutions. Over time, however, grassroots movement organizations develop the potential for influencing and even altering state policies and structures. While the state is often the source of constraints and limitations on local movements, it can at times become an ally against repressive social forces (Miles, 1996).
Democratization, Women, and Women’s Movements
Women’s movements, particularly those of the late twentieth century, have been characterized as fluid and amorphous, diverse and fragmented, sporadic, issue-oriented, and autonomous “with several streams of ideological thought and varying strategies” (Gandhi and Shah, 1992: 23). Women’s movements all over the world encompass a great variety of organizations, groups, and actions—many of which emerge in response to the needs of, and are firmly anchored in, local communities. Women’s movements have thus generally and historically been associated with the values of local, decentralized democracy, and much of feminist theory has emerged from the experiences of women in these movements (Jaggar, 1983).
Feminists and others working within the participatory democracy paradigm have increasingly acknowledged the difficulty of implementing a fully participatory political and social system. In recent years, increasing attention has been given to the problem of incorporating difference, both group and individual, within a framework of fragile unity or incomplete consensus. However, most of this work has been theoretical (Bystydzienski, 1995; Phillips, 1993) and there has been little exploration from this perspective of how greater citizen participation can be achieved at intermediate, state, and international levels of organization.
The recent wave of liberal democratization generally has not served women well. In many parts of the world where democratization is said to be taking place, women, who comprise at least half of the population, have benefitted less from the changes than have men. In East and Central Europe while greater opportunities exist today for men in new political parties and electoral politics as well as in the rapidly growing managerial and small business sector of the economy, policies followed by the new governments are encouraging women to go back to their homes and assume traditional roles (Lobodzinska, 1995). In Japan, and more recently Korea and mainland China, women have not benefitted much from political change and economic growth (Brinton, 1992; Gelb and Palley, 1994). In Latin America, women’s interests are seldom included in political and economic reforms (Cammack, 1994).
This is not a new phenomenon. Feminist historians such as Gerda Lerner (1976) and Joan Kelly (1984) have shown that in many historical periods considered progressive, men and women did not benefit equally from developments that were lauded as great democratic improvements over the past. Indeed, the situations of women often worsened as a consequence of “democratization.” For example, the Golden Age of Athenian Greece in the western tradition has been looked to as the prototype of democracy, yet during its existence women and slaves were excluded from citizenship. During the European Renaissance, while opportunities opened up in political and intellectual spheres for men, they became more restricted for women (Kelly, 1984: Ch. 2). After the American Revolution, many women actually lost political rights they had exercised during the Colonial period (Darcy, Welch, and Clark, 1994). A similar phenomenon is occurring today in many parts of the world. Even the so-called advanced liberal democracies operate by denying or, at least, inhibiting the conditions of full agency of half of their populations (Parry and Moran, 1994: 280).
Does all this mean that the recent wave of democratization has had no favorable effect on women? While at the formal institutional and state levels women have not benefitted as much as men from political changes, the conditions of ferment and fluidity that exist in many regions of the world have been conducive to the development of numerous grassroots movements, including movements that women have spearheaded or have been involved in. Many of these movements have emerged as the result of contradictions created by the promises of greater democracy and the limits on exercising choices in reality. The rhetoric used by power holders, as well as changes, however small, have created opportunities for mobilization (Markoff, 1996: 14–16). And groups of women have responded in increasing numbers. Moreover, in many parts of the world currently undergoing the process of democratization, women participated in social movements that helped to bring down oppressive regimes (e.g., Solidarity in Poland), only to discover subsequently that their interests were not heeded by the new male leadership (Regulska, 1992: 184–190). The recognition of such betrayal has served as a powerful impetus for creation of autonomous women’s groups.
It appears that while at the national and regional levels women are often left out of newly created or reformed institutions, at the local level there are important developments and initiatives taken up by women. Such developments, although often overlooked, are significant because an active democracy is not sustainable without citizen involvement and participation at the grassroots. A civil society that consists at its core of a rich and complex associational life (Parry and Moran, 1994: 10–11) cannot be imposed from above, but must be continually created and recreated in daily life with the participation of all societal members.
While women need to be involved equally with men in all spheres of society, and their exclusion from the formal institutional levels is a very serious problem, nevertheless women are building the foundations for participatory democracy by establishing alternative structures and contributing to decision making at the local level. As noted earlier, community-level actions over time can, and do, influence macro-level cultural and political processes.
Overview of the Book
In this collection of case studies of women’s participation in grassroots movements we attempt to document women’s contributions to the struggle for, and creation of, participatory democratic forms of social life in various parts of the world. Each case is placed in the larger political, economic, and cultural context to identify factors affecting the process of democratization, and the relationship of women’s grassroots movements to more general societal developments.
The section on Asia begins with a chapter by Joti Sekhon that analyzes the efforts of Action India Women’s Program, a grassroots women’s organization working in low-income communities with women, children, and youth in Delhi, India. Sekhon situates her case study within a discussion of grassroots movements in India in relation to the wider social, political, and economic trends, especially since independence from colonial rule in 1947. She provides an account of the history, structure, and activities of the organization and shows how it has empowered women activists and contributed to democratization among the activists themselves in their private and public lives, at the organizational level, within their communities, and beyond. She also considers the possibilities and limitations of efforts to understand the connection between community-based concerns and patriarchal, state, and global forces.
In her chapter on Hong Kong, Irene Tong documents the struggle for indigenous women’s inheritance rights in 1994 which involved a coalition of twelve grassroots women’s groups. This successful action is set in the context of top-down initiatives at democratic reform that resulted in the opening up of the legislature to popular contestation. The growing women’s movement took advantage of the newly created political space to press for gender equality and to correct past ills. Tong cautions, however, that due to the complex politics involved in the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the concrete gains made could easily be revoked. On the other hand, the less tangible gains, such as heightened gender awareness and an increasingly participatory political culture, most likely will remain.
In her chapter which focuses on a women’s NGO in Singapore, Meredith Weiss documents the development and activities of AWARE and its relationship to the ruling People’s Action Party and the Singaporean polity and society at large. In recent years, the organization has established a higher profile and is taken more seriously by both policy makers and the people. Women in Singapore, despite functioning in a highly constrained quasi-democracy, can and do assume public roles, particularly through participation in the few politicized NGOs like AWARE which allow them to offer alternative perspectives to policy makers and to influence policy outputs by formal and informal means. In the process, they open up spaces for public debate and raise public awareness of women’s issues and concerns.
The section on Africa and the Middle East contains chapters that focus on countries contending with varying degrees of political liberalization and social change. Susan Leisure in her chapter on Eritrea focuses on a mass women’s organization, The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), which mobilized women to participate in the revolutionary struggle against Ethiopia. The NUEW, through its local cells and national organization, influenced the agenda of the revolutionary party to include gender equality and to create participatory democratic political and administrative structures at the local level. However, since Eritrea’s independence in 1993, women have been encountering resistance to equality and a return to tradition. Leisure concludes, nevertheless, that women who were active in the revolution and in the NUEW continue to negotiate their own spaces within the new society, and have been particularly effective at the local level where they are establishing economic cooperatives and working to raise awareness of issues such as the health implications of female circumcision.
In their chapter on South Africa, Khanya Rajuili and Ione Burke examine three projects in the impoverished province of Mpumalanga where adult popular education has been used as a means for women’s participation and empowerment. The first of these, a community literacy project in Dennilton, has provided basic literacy education to mostly women and was instrumental in women’s mobilization against apartheid. However, educational programs like this did not reach most of the poorest women, and thus the Learning for All Trust, a nongovernmental organization, has recently developed a number of popular education projects including the two discussed in this chapter, the Care Clubs and the Barefoot Educator Program, that provide women with group support and opportunities to develop income-generating as well as caregiving skills. As a result of participation in these projects, women have become empowered individually and collectively, in their families and communities.
The two chapters focusing on Syria and Egypt provide contrasting views of women’s grassroots activity as well as complement each other. Nimat Hafez Barazangi explores the activities of an informal women’s group that attempts to empower women within the limits of Islam. Through her study of the Qur’an, each woman in Ms. Hana’s group tries to develop an autonomous understanding of the sacred text to achieve self-realization and to use it as a guide for her actions. Members of the group also provide aid to other women in their communities with the intention of helping them to become change agents. The group challenges male interpretations of the Qur’an and even managed to preserve space for itself in the local mosque, all the while seeking to legitimize its struggles using religious traditions. The Alliance of Arab Women (AAW) in Egypt, however, operates as a secular organization, reaching women at the grassroots and linking their efforts to national and regional levels. Unlike Ms. Hana’s informal group, the AAW is a formally registered NGO working within the limitations set by the state. As Nawal Ammar and Leila Lababidy show, the AAW has established structures and networks that have increased the involvement of Egyptian women in decision making in many areas of social life. Through collaboration between women’s grassroots organizations, high-ranking officials, local universities, and international agencies, the AAW has opened up new opportunities for women’s participation in spite of opposition from Islamist and other groups.
The section on Central America presents case studies from two countries, El Salvador and Honduras, but raises issues that are relevant to democratization in Latin America generally. Many countries in this region of the world have recently experienced the demise of dictatorships, often accompanied by prolonged civil wars and external, mainly U.S., intervention. They are also facing severe problems as the result of structural adjustment policies imposed in recent years by international funding agencies as part of economic and political globalization. Within this context, Elizabeth Cagan examines the struggles of women in El Salvador to sustain the gains they had made as refugees during the civil war in the settlement of Comunidad Segundo Montes (CSM). As she indicates, while women have participated in all aspects of the community and many have become empowered both within the family and in political and economic institutions, such gains are fragile and may not withstand neoliberal market forces and long-standing patriarchal traditions. Cagan also points out that progress for women in the CSM to a large extent resulted from working on broad goals of social justice and conditions of poverty they shared with men. Charles McKelvey, in his chapter on Honduras, emphasizes this theme. He discusses how new feminist grassroots organizations emerged in the late 1980s out of the popular movement in Honduras which has been committed to social change and participatory democracy. These women’s organizations work to give women a greater voice in their communities and society at large and to change gender relations, but view women’s rights above all as human rights. Their feminism is thus embedded in the larger struggle for social justice.
The subsequent two chapters focus on Eastern Europe. The demise of communism in the former Soviet Union and its satellites has had mixed consequences for women. While these states did not allow for independent women’s actions and organizations and failed to implement gender equality, they promoted women’s education and employment, legalized abortion, and instituted a social welfare system that to some extent supported women’s family needs. Such gains have come under attack with the advent of capitalism and paradoxically, as Judy Aulette and Jane Gottlick show in their chapters on Poland and Russia respectively, have stimulated the growth of women’s activism in response to the problems created by the economic and political transition. Aulette profiles several women’s grassroots organizations in Poland and examines how they are contributing to democratization within the constraints of the communist legacy and the Catholic church. She also discusses the importance of feminists’ use of the media to raise awareness of women’s issues and to mobilize support. Gottlick documents the growing number of women’s organizations in urban Russia and shows how these community-based groups are stepping in where the state has left off, meeting the needs that the state is no longer capable of providing. In both countries women’s organizations are creating new opportunities for participation.
The last section of this book groups chapters from so-called advanced liberal democracies—countries of Western Europe, North America, and Australia. Nations in the western world pride themselves on being “democratic” and often impose their brand of democracy on countries in other parts of the globe. However, as these chapters show, women not only have limited participation in the formal institutions of western societies, but grassroots movements that struggle to achieve meaningful participation for women and other oppressed groups have difficulty maintaining participatory structures within the context of liberal-democratic states.
Alison Woodward and Rita Mulier in their chapter on the Women’s Consultation Committee (VOK) in Belgium indicate the challenges faced by a broad coalition of grassroots women’s organizations within a society which is characterized by class, religious, and linguistic cleavages that permeate the political party structure and other institutions. Within this context, the VOK has worked to mobilize women across political boundaries and around common issues so that their voices could be heard and their concerns reflected in political agendas and policies. Although Woodward and Mulier illustrate the difficulties the VOK has experienced uniting a variety of grassroots women’s groups around common goals, they also show how this coalition has contributed to democratization by empowering women both personally and collectively.
Christopher Dale, in his chapter on Ireland, demonstrates that despite long-standing attempts to exclude women from public life and formal political institutions in particular, women have had a long history of participation in community organizations and actions. The case of Moyross housing estate in Limmerick demonstrates how women both become personally empowered through their participation in grassroots projects as well as simultaneously provide needed services that improve the quality of life for members of the community.
In her chapter focusing on a sexual assault support center in Ontario, Canada, Alicja Muszynski documents the struggles of a grassroots women’s organization as it strives to provide support to female victims of male violence and to maintain a participatory democratic structure. She shows how the particular political party in national and provincial office affects women’s grassroots organizing and how reliance on funding from the liberal-democratic state compromises feminist commitment to a nonhierarchical, consensual form of decision making.
Nelda Pearson’s chapter examines a community development project designed to empower women in the impoverished Central Appalachian region of the United States. Pearson shows how, for a short time, the project provided an opportunity for poor rural women to become meaningfully involved and to determine activities that affected their lives and improved their community. The success of this endeavor, however, was short-lived as the government-funded agency that administered the project asserted its control and effectively disempowered the project participants.
The last chapter in this volume focuses on Australian farm politics. Ruth Liepins discusses the role of the “women in agriculture movement” in increasing farm women’s recognition and participation in their industry. She specifically examines a local group, Women on Farms Gathering, which has been an effective vehicle for women’s personal development as well as for democratization of Australian agriculture at both local and state levels. Liepins warns, however, that the gains made by this women’s grassroots movement may be in jeopardy as the political climate becomes more conservative and the liberal-democratic state moves away from policies that previously supported broad-based feminist efforts.
In the conclusion to this collection, we analyze the variety of ways in which women in sixteen different countries, in different parts of the globe, struggle for more control over their daily lives while simultaneously creating and extending opportunities for greater participation. We discuss the processes by which women’s grassroots organizations and actions contribute to increased participation at the organizational, local, state, and regional levels and the theoretical and practical implications of the connection between women’s community-based movements and democratization.
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Grassroots Social Action and empowerment in India
Joti Sekhon
After I started going to the meetings I was able to understand myself more. I felt that I was not alone, that there was an organization behind me to support me. So I felt stronger. Earlier all the battles I had fought at home I always fought alone.... About Action India I will say one thing, this is where I have got the strength to understand life and live life. My parents gave me birth only, but the right way to live did not come from home.... I started working with young girls because I felt that at a young age there is the most restriction on girls, there is no one to show them the way and make them aware and there is no one at home to listen to them. So I felt that there should be a forum for girls so that they can come and say what is on their mind and talk about their problems and hopes and aspirations and also find new avenues in life (Reshma, Girl Child Program). 1
Reshma’s words illustrate the nature of empowerment and individual self-development through collective action that often characterizes democratization at the grassroots. The struggles for social justice, equality, and empowerment, however defined, at this level are an essential part of the overall democratic process. In this chapter, I focus on Action India Women’s Program, an organization working with women, children, and youth in four urban communities or bastees in Delhi, India. Most research on democratic processes in India and elsewhere has been at the macro-level, or has focused on state-oriented activities and electoral politics. Little systematic analysis of small, local organizations has been done to illustrate the kinds of changes they effect and the ways in which they contribute to the democratic process. Numerous grassroots organizations have emerged in India since the late 1960s and early 1970s among categories of people who define themselves as disadvantaged in some way, such as the poor, landless agricultural laborers, the lower castes, tribal groups, and women, focusing on a variety of economic, cultural, and environmental issues. Following an overview of the historical and social context in which grassroots movements have emerged in India, I describe and analyze the work of Action India. In my concluding remarks I reflect on the potential for grassroots social action to influence democratization at the larger societal level in India.
The Indian Context
The cultural, social, political, and economic diversity of Indian society has, for centuries, allowed for the emergence of varied forms of voluntary activities by people at the local level. Self-help initiatives and philanthropic activities for providing civic amenities and disaster relief, as well as village councils and community-owned schools afforded avenues for voluntary participation. Recent historical research has also revealed various forms of resistance to authority and movements against perceived injustices. Much of the detailed evidence is from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when India was under British colonial rule. This period also marked the beginning of several social reform movements such as those focusing on religious reform, ending child marriage, and improving the status of women, the lower castes, peasants, and tribal groups. Many of these movements included mobilization of people at the grassroots level. With increasing resistance to policies of the colonial administration, many of the movements for reform and resistance were incorporated into the nationalist struggle against British imperialism (Kothari, 1993: 136–139).
The first two decades after independence from British rule in 1947 were marked by few movements of resistance against the state. In keeping with the constitutional principles of equality, liberty, and social justice as well as secularism, socialism, and democracy, the government of India instituted several laws granting equal rights to all disadvantaged groups and launched numerous plans for economic development and modernization. The aim was to promote economic growth, social equality, and national integration and to do it all through the democratic political process (Frankel and Rao, 1989 and 1990; Rudolph and Rudolph, 1987; Kothari, 1989 and 1990). Popular participation at the grassroots level was officially viewed as an essential part of the process.
However, state-orchestrated and uneven capitalist economic development and the liberal-democratic model of politics have largely benefitted the middle and upper castes and classes and a few segments of the poor, lower castes and classes. Numerous studies have documented increasing inequality and marginalization in recent decades among significant sections of the lower castes and classes, peasants, and women (see Omvedt, 1993; Shiva, 1989; Kothari, 1989 and 1990; D’Monte, 1989).
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was increasing realization by people from various marginalized groups that they were being left out of the development and democratic processes. It was also becoming clear to many that the government lacked both the political will and resources to initiate and implement all of its policies. A series of economic crises brought on by the slow pace of industrialization, uneven spread of economic development, droughts, and inflation added to the sense of exclusion and deprivation. Lower castes, small and poor peasants, landless agricultural workers, women, and people from different religious, linguistic, and tribal groups started organizing and mobilizing for inclusion in the political and economic process.
State leaders responded to competing demands from various categories of people and economic stagnation with greater control and centralization of power, culminating in the declaration of a state of emergency and suspension of constitutional rights from 1975 to 1977 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This period was marked by the organization of numerous social action groups in the rural and urban areas, including Action India. Many of these organizations and groups were initiated by educated middle-class individuals. These middle-class people have gradually emerged as partners in the process of change, in broadening political opportunities, and articulating the interests and needs of the marginal groups (Kothari, 1993: 131–162). Among the ideological influences on these groups are the formulations of Gandhi, neo-Gandhianism, Marxism, and neo-Marxism, as well as various shades of feminism and liberation theology, and combinations thereof. The groups include welfare and charity organizations, development groups, struggle-oriented social action groups, groups focusing on legal action, documentation and research centers, and single-issue organizations dealing with women, unorganized labor, the environment, or some mix of these activities. They also relate in a variety of ways to broader political processes and the state. So long as they do not overtly challenge state authority, these organizations are relatively free to engage in activism in their communities.
Action India Women’s Program: History and Activities
Action India was formed in 1974 by a group of middle-class women and men with the aim of organizing “the poor and [to] enable them to demand their rights as citizens, and collectively struggle against the exploitation and injustice inherent in a class, caste society” (Action India, 1992: 1). They started working in two “squatter” settlements where people had migrated in search of livelihood. They first worked with a community that had been displaced from West Bengal where sixty-nine villages had been uprooted for the development of the Haldia Port and Petroleum complex. These activists eventually moved along with the community to work in four “resettlement” colonies created by the government during the emergency years from 1975 to 1977. These were among the settlements established as part of the drive to “beautify” the city. About 750,000 people were uprooted from their dwellings and coerced to move. They were provided with twenty-two and a half square yards of land in exchange for forced sterilization that was part of a population control program. Initially the activists worked on the acquisition of basic civic amenities for the residents, such as adequate water supply, street lights, ration cards, public transportation, health care, and education.
In 1979, a core group of five women activists with Action India started working specifically with women. They were influenced by the women’s movement that had emerged in India during the 1970s. Galvanized by the publication of the Report on the Status of Women in India, in preparation for the International Women’s Year commemorated by the United Nations in 1975, the movement focused on various forms of oppression of women. The aim of the Action India activists was to organize women at the community level where their lives were enmeshed within a patriarchal family and community and were characterized by economic marginality. This was different from the traditional Marxist/socialist method of organizing the working classes exclusively in “workplace” settings. As middle-class women, the activists saw their “role not as leaders, but facilitators, bringing women together to form small autonomous groups in the neighbourhood” (Action India, 1992: 4).
The first such group, called Sabla Mahila Sangh or association of empowered women, was formed in 1980 as a cooperative to produce and market crochet products without having to go through a broker. Education and awareness about women’s health and reproductive rights were introduced as well. This informal group, starting with about ten women, gradually grew to include twenty-five women. By 1984, a Community Health Worker project was developed by recruiting and training women from the bastees as health workers. Since the early 1990s additional programs have been developed including the Women, Law and Social Change project, Economic Activity for Women’s Empowerment, and the Children, Girl Child, and Youth Programs, though the Youth Program was recently discontinued.
The Community Health Worker Program (CHW) is based on the assumption that health of the people is a social, political, economic, and cultural issue. Therefore, improvement in people’s health is believed to be contingent upon improvement in the overall quality of life. Issues such as poverty and the unequal status of women in the family and society are thus associated with lack of access to adequate health care, lack of proper nutrition, lack of control over women’s own livelihood and bodies, and lack of knowledge and awareness of factors that affect one’s health. The CHW program has developed to focus on education, awareness, and action to deal with these problems. Over the years, the women have worked on a variety of issues, such as sanitation, adequate and clean water supply, adequate and affordable food supplies, reproductive rights and fertility consciousness, self-help, and herbal medicine, nutrition, and preventive health care. The focus now is to revive indigenous knowledge of medicine and healing and to develop a health care system based on the recognition of the traditional role of women as health care providers. This is seen as necessary if women are to gain control over their bodies and be in a position to make conscious choices concerning their health and well-being (Action India, 1996e and 1997a).
Community-based health care workers have been trained to work on fertility consciousness in groups of ten to twelve women. This knowledge is being used to improve the health and lives of the workers themselves, and is disseminated to women in the communities through the Sabla Sanghs and other grassroots forums. The health workers have gained the confidence of and recognition from women in the Sabla Sanghs, and today speak out about issues that are widely viewed as areas of “shame” and “silence.” For example, many women are abused and harassed by their husbands who demand frequent sexual intercourse that exacerbates health problems these women experience. Some women are harassed for not having a child or for not producing a son. Knowledge about reproductive health has enabled many women to have more control over their bodies and relationships with their husbands. Also, common ailments are treated through herbal healing and changes in diet and nutrition, while access to modern diagnostic methods and medical care is provided when necessary. In addition to growing awareness of the patriarchal structures affecting health within the family and community, women are also challenging state-sponsored “family planning” programs focusing narrowly on limiting family size mainly through contraception. As understanding and action to deal with such issues has developed, new programs have been created to address other social and cultural factors that affect health and well-being. These include projects focusing on legal issues, economic empowerment of single women, and programs for girls, children, and youth.
Over the years, numerous cases of domestic violence, stress, and abuse were brought to the attention of the Sabla Sangh members. They took whatever action they could to resolve them. Through this work at the grassroots level, however, it became clear “that the laws of marriage, custody, maintenance, inheritance and property rights do not serve the needs of a whole variety of conjugal arrangements that have come into being” (Action India, 1996b: 1). Moreover, women do not have knowledge of the laws nor do they have effective access to the legal system. The laws themselves are related in a complex manner to patriarchal norms and embedded in many religious customs. Women in the bastees expressed a need to work on these issues and the “Women, Law, and Social Change” project was developed in 1992. The immediate goal was conflict resolution and solving problems through social action and legal redress. The long-term goal is sociocultural change and legal reform by evolving a space for women to develop new ways of thinking about laws and customs, and changing attitudes and value systems that oppress women. These objectives are being achieved through a variety of means including establishing Mahila Panchayats or women’s councils that meet weekly in the four neighborhoods to deal with violence and conflict within the family, conducting legal literacy workshops for educating women about the laws affecting them and the possibilities and limitations of law, educating and training community-based paralegal caseworkers in conjunction with legal counsel to support women seeking legal redress in the courts, documentation and recording of cases, and providing legal aid and counseling for women in crisis situations (Action India, 1996b: 3–5).
The Mahila Panchayats have emerged as a radical alternative in the bastees to the traditional concept of family and village panchayats that functioned as part of a patriarchal system within which women had no voice. About twenty to twenty-five volunteers from the communities and two or three caseworkers from Action India meet weekly to resolve marital disputes and other conflict situations within the family. The kinds of cases brought before the Mahila Panchayats include wife battering within the context of joblessness, alcoholism, gambling, childlessness, lack of maintenance due to desertion, separation, or divorce, bigamy or relationships outside of marriage, denial of share in property rights, dowry-related harassment, sexual abuse, child custody, rape, fraud and cheating, harassment at work, sexual exploitation and prostitution, and neglect of parents in old age. Over 500 cases were brought before the Mahila Panchayats in the first three years of the project from July 1993 to December 1996. The Mahila Panchayats have gained recognition in the bastees for the fair and effective manner in which they have resolved issues and as forums that are accessible to the poor and ordinary people at all times. They also provide opportunity for the development of leadership potential among women without fear of control by males. The caseworkers and Mahila Panchayat members have developed an understanding of legal issues and are able to handle cases and suggest further legal counsel as needed. Action India organizes training workshops, and undertakes documentation and studies of issues such as child marriage, the concept of equality in Muslim Shariat law, the Uniform Civil Code in India, sexual abuse, and child abuse (Action India, 1996a and 1996b).
Ever since its founding, Action India has sought ways to assist women to improve their economic well-being. Though efforts to develop cooperative economic enterprises were unsuccessful in the organization’s early years, women in the communities have continued to ask for remunerative work and more control over their economic sutuations. There are few opportunities for well-paying jobs for women in the bastees where they live. Some engage in domestic labor, piece rate work, small-scale vending, factory labor in small-scale factories, construction work, or sewing to support their families. In 1994, therefore, Action India developed a project and sought funding for “Women’s Economic Activity for Empowerment” (Action India, 1996f).
As part of the program for self-employment for single women, a loan project was implemented in January 1995 and loans of Rs. 10,000,5,000, and 2,000 were given at a service charge of 6 percent (US$1 equaled about Rs. 38 in 1997). While most applicants wanted to start small retail outlets to sell a variety of goods, such as cigarettes, cosmetics, snacks, and groceries, the members of Sabla Sanghs decided to give preference to manufacturing enterprises in order to encourage the development of productive skills and to limit de-skilling.
Shobha, for instance, used a loan to further develop her screen printing business and expand into fabrication of leather bags. Sandhya increased the number of items in her shop selling hot snacks and purchased a second chulla (coal-burning stove) to expand her business. Fourteen-year-old Sangeeta, an orphan living with her brother, grandmother, and uncle, used the loan to expand her small shop selling accessories such as bangles, lipsticks, and buttons. Munni makes quilts ordered for export and got a loan to supplement her income by starting a small grocery store out of her home. These enterprises have become means for the women to get more control over their situations in a society in which their lives and work are closely tied to their family roles and responsibilities (Action India, 1996f).
Though most women are very conscientious in managing their loans, working on their businesses, and repaying the money, they are often hampered by a variety of personal and family circumstances they have little control over, such as ill health, household responsibilities, economic crises, and problems with other family members. Many of these constraints are associated with gendered social expectations. Though these women are “single” in the sense of being unmarried, widowed, divorced, or separated, they usually do not live alone. Within a broader concept of the family than in western societies, the women live with married and unmarried children, parents, in-laws, brothers, and/or other relatives.
After evaluating the program in its first year, at the suggestion of many women who obtained the loans, individual loans were discontinued and funds channeled into savings and credit groups in the bastees. The women wanted to make this project more community-based and to take more responsibility in developing and managing the economic empowerment program. The plan envisaged the formation of groups of ten to twenty members each who would contribute monthly to a savings plan, and develop their own rules and criteria for disbursing loans. By the end of 1997, fourteen groups had been formed with a total membership of 205, generating Rs. 56,727 in savings and disbursing loans totaling Rs. 18,900 (Action India, 1997d). Once these groups were in place, efforts were made to incorporate the women into the health program and the Sabla Sanghs to provide social and emotional support (Action India, 1997c).
Action India members have worked with children by providing nonformal education and literacy programs and assisting with problems faced in government schools. A “Children and Youth Program” was started in 1990 with the aim of promoting community action through awareness of a variety of social, political, and cultural issues such as education, secular ideals and religious fundamentalism, electoral democracy and politics, bureaucratic functioning, economy, gender, and health and nutrition, within the context of the concepts of equality and freedom. The hope is to enable the development of skills such as cooperation, healthy competition, and leadership, and to enhance self-esteem and sense of self-worth (Action India, 1993: 1–3). Strategies used to achieve these objectives include the establishment of a library and drop-in center in each bastee, as well as nonformal literacy study groups, children’s fairs, environmental education and cleanliness drives, and children’s discussion forums using role playing, stories, games, songs, plays, and exhibitions. About twenty-five children make use of the library and reading room each day, but numbers are not consistent. Dozens more participate in the various public events organized in the bastees (Action India, 1993 and 1996d). The program for male youth, however, was discontinued in 1996 as it did not function well.
Grassroots forums for young girls and women were also formed in 1990. The Nanhi Sablas are for girls nine to twelve years in age and the Choti Sablas for thirteen- to twenty-one-year-old females. In a society where daughters have little control over their lives, these forums are an important part of the process of empowerment. Early marriage is the aim of most parents and a daughter’s education is not viewed as important. Sewing classes have been started as a means to bring in the girls and introduce them to a variety of social and cultural issues that affect them. These forums “create a space for young girls to speak out without fear, to share, to learn about life and what it means to be a girl in a male dominated society” (Action India, 1996c: 1). Many of the girls become more aware and often there is conflict in the families as they challenge the views of their parents and brothers. However, these girls are not always able to withstand pressures toward early marriage. Action India is now working on the issue of child marriage. The aim is to survey a group of about 150 girls, their mothers, grandmothers, and even fathers, to understand the cultural, economic, and social factors and complexities contributing to child marriage. On the basis of this study, the hope is to develop programs to enable girls to seek alternatives to early marriage, to educate parents, and develop a grassroots campaign on the implications of child marriage (Action India, 1996c: 2–6).
Organizational Structure and Functioning
The variety of programs created and implemented by Action India have been developed for the most part through a participatory democratic process. The formation of grassroots forums has been an explicit part of the plan of program development and action for the organization since its inception. It is clear from attending these forums and from conversations with participants that they provide a key public space for those who attend and participate in them. The Sabla Sanghs and Mahila Panchayats in particular have become very well known in the neighborhoods and have achieved a measure of authority rarely seen in informal groupings and organizational settings. To the extent this has happened, it indicates that their influence reaches beyond the women who participate in the forums.
Starting with a founding group of five volunteers, Action India had by 1997 grown to include fifty-four paid staff members. At the end of 1997, the work of Action India was guided by a collective of three founding members and fourteen other karyakartas activists who had been with the organization for over ten years. Their role is to develop a perspective on the basis of analysis of issues raised at the bastee level and macro-level issues such as government policies and economic trends, and to facilitate the development of programs for action. The collective was constituted in 1996 to enable more effective functioning and communication between karyakartas in the various programs that had grown since 1992. At this time also, a Bastee Vikas Manch (BVM) or Community Development Committee was established in each bastee composed of karyakartas from all the programs in a particular bastee. The BVM meets weekly to coordinate, develop, and maintain a holistic program structure. In the opinion of some activists, the BVMs have emerged as important decision-making forums. A weekly newsletter also has been started to keep the staff informed of all the activities and projects. Each program, meanwhile, has a coordinator and several karyakartas who meet regularly. Another organizational level consists of bastee residents who meet weekly or periodically in one or more of the community forums or make use of the library and sewing center for young girls. There is ongoing interaction between the organizational levels with many activists participating at all levels.
While the original aim was to “build a collective structure that would be non-hierarchical,” as the organization has grown “inequalities of class, education, age, experience, knowledge and skills in themselves create invisible structures” (Choudhury, 1992: 6). Action India members have, however, consciously tried to deal with these issues. The initial intent was to provide equal salaries to all paid staff members, but after some years, members acknowledged the need to vary salaries a little on the basis of educational qualifications, experience, role in the organization, as well as interest and ability. The difference in salary between the highest and lowest paid full-time worker is about Rs. 1,000. However, women in the health program decided not to differentiate their salaries much and instead to train and upgrade the skills of newcomers (Choudhury, 1992: 7–8). One strategy used for overcoming differences of experience, ability, education, and socioeconomic background is to demystify knowledge. Intellectuals, academics, and professionals with specialized knowledge are used as resource people to disseminate information and skills through study groups and workshops to the karyakartas. This knowledge is then shared with people in the bastees in terms that relate to their lives. Continuous effort is made to allocate responsibilities “according to the needs of the programme and individual interest and ability ...” (Choudhury, 1992: 6). Realizing the time it takes to understand issues and act effectively, and the need to develop a team of workers focusing on a particular program, Action India members decided not to have frequent rotation of tasks. This manner of functioning has also allowed for the development of individual abilities and creativity. Critical organizational and programmatic decisions are made as collectively as possible, through often heated discussions, in the attempt to reach consensus.
However, there is conflict and tension over the allocation of tasks and responsibilities as well as over perceptions about the commitment and contribution of some individuals. For example, there was considerable tension when individuals from within the programs were appointed coordinators for the programs in the late 1980s. The women had become accustomed to viewing each other as equals and had difficulty accepting a member from their own community and socioeconomic status in what was perceived by many as a position of authority. Some of the coordinators themselves took time to work out the apparent contradiction between their role as coordinators and the ideology of equality they had come to internalize. The karyakartas incorporated into the organization from the bastees were more willing to accept the authority of the founding members of the core group and the middle-class members (Choudhury 1992: 7–14).
The issue of class, however, is complex. Since Action India was founded, only about three or four activists at any one time have been from the middle and upper middle class. Efforts have been made to redefine their role and develop programs and leadership from the bastees to overcome dependency on the middle class. Though class differences remain, class alone is not necessarily the source of conflict and tension. Much depends on the way in which activists from outside the bastees interact with those from the communities. Recently there was tension between a middle-class professional resource person hired to streamline a program and the coordinator recruited from the bastee who had been with the organization for over ten years. Many karyakartas felt that the middle-class activist attempted to take control of the program and did not respect the karyakartas from the bastees. She left at the end of the one-year agreement. One health worker who had been with the program since its inception noted that “there is a difference in terms of understanding issues because of the level of education and number of years of experience. But these differences are not an obstacle. In fact we get helped by these differences. The people who have been there earlier teach us how to move forward.”
My formal interviews and informal conversations with members of Action India revealed varying perceptions about the structure of the organization and changes in recent years, as well as about the relationships among members of the organization. Most felt that with the increase in the number of programs and staff it became necessary and inevitable to allocate responsibilities to ensure efficiency and clarity of tasks. Some felt this was a positive development; others believed that this change had added an element of hierarchy and impersonality to the organization. One woman who had been with the girl child project since the mid-80s noted, “now the work has been distributed and everyone has specific responsibilities so the work does not appear as burdensome.... when we have our separate responsibilities, it is easier to focus on that work.” One member who has been with Action India since 1977, however, felt that the passion and commitment of the early years was no longer there. With a smaller group, it was easier to maintain a sense of perspective when developing programs. Now it is harder to maintain coordination between the different programs, she indicated. Further, “some issues we cannot even sit down and talk about today.... We don’t have the time.... Also there is less trust now.... Even among the core group today we can no longer discuss issues openly.” This was echoed by another member of the core group who stated that the organization has become too big to manage effectively as a participatory and collective organization. These views, however, were expressed in 1995 when, according to one founding member, “we were in a period of crisis and at crossroads. The situation demanded restructuring and new forms of communication and feedback.” As already noted, a new collective and BVMs were formed, and a newsletter established in 1996 to deal with some of these problems.
There was some concern over personality clashes and conflicts among the members and some of the activists felt that this had a negative effect on the work of the organization. Others, however, thought that some clashes and conflicts are inevitable when working on such complex issues and when members hold strong opinions about them. An older member of the organization felt that these issues were talked through and resolved even if it occasionally took a long time. Most members interviewed pointed out both the positive and negative aspects of the organizational structure and the method of functioning.
One key dimension of Action India that most commented on positively is the development of leadership from the grassroots. Most of the paid activists have been recruited from the bastees. For example, the community health workers were selected from the bastees and trained to develop knowledge and consciousness about themselves as activists in addition to earning a living from their work. And on the basis of this knowledge they were expected to reach out to other women in their communities (Action India, 1987: 1–3). The hope was to develop an interdependent relationship of learning and sharing of experience and knowledge between the community residents, the community health workers, and other organizational members, and to develop a common consciousness, perspective, and vision through action, workshops, and continuous self-evaluation.
Over the years, the CHW program has become more autonomous as the workers have developed more knowledge and skills and have become more confident. A formal self-evaluation of the program in 1987, and an external evaluation in 1993 (Sadgopal, 1993) reflected a conscious awareness of issues relating to democratic functioning of an organization as well as the issues of health. As of 1996, “the coordinator of the health program is responsible for collectively planning and implementing the program” (Action India, 1996e: 5). Issues and problems at the local level are identified by the Sabla Sangh members. The collective provides guidance, coordinates training of health workers, connects with funding agencies and other similar organizations, and assists with information needed to develop programs. However, the training is grounded in the realities in the bastees as well as the participatory philosophy of Action India. Ideally, the health workers first analyze their own health and health problems. They then set about improving their own health using the principles of preventive health and self-help. This knowledge and understanding is used as a catalyst for dealing with the health of the women in the bastees. Though more aware and self-conscious, the health workers do not always apply the knowledge they acquire to their own health situation.
The Mahila Panchayats also provide space for development of leadership and personal empowerment for women who participate. About one hundred women from the Sabla Sanghs in the four areas were initially trained in legal literacy and laws affecting women and families. Two women from each bastee were selected by the Sabla Sangh members as “caseworkers” and employed by Action India. Two experienced members of Action India were selected as coordinators (Action India, 1996b: 7). The coordinators have a somewhat autonomous responsibility in mobilizing support for the Mahila Panchayats and handling casework. Action India provides the administrative support, guidance in developing and maintaining the overall view of the program, training, and legal counsel.
The karyakartas and members of the grassroots forums such as the Sabla Sanghs and the Mahila Panchayats work in a rather flexible and spontaneous manner. Because they are also from the bastees, most karyakartas are very committed and connect well with the women living there. As Action India has grown, there has been more concern with efficiency and clarifying guidelines about expectations. Efforts have been made in recent years to formalize procedures, keep meetings more focused, and improve record-keeping and documentation. This is often a challenge for activists who have little formal education. Their work is also affected by their existential circumstances of living in urban low-income neighborhoods where there is a daily struggle for survival. Not all karyakartas work with equal diligence and dedication, and many have a difficult time balancing family and work demands. But even though they come to Action India primarily for a job, over a period of time most develop a sense of commitment as they acquire more knowledge and understanding. Those who do not grow usually do not stay long with the organization.
The long-term survival of Action India is a little uncertain. The two main issues of concern are continuous funding and developing and maintaining a competent and committed staff. Funding is through grants from foreign agencies. There is a constant struggle to locate funds, and a great deal of time is spent in writing grant proposals and project reports. This also underscores the need to train staff to document their work and develop proposal-writing skills. This is difficult when most karyakartas have little formal education and very few know English. However, many karyakartas have developed such skills in Hindi and their work is then translated into English. Funding agencies are often reluctant to fund projects in urban areas even though there is continuous large-scale migration to the cities. As for the staff, three of the five founding members of Action India are still with the organization. However, seventeen of the activists have been with Action India for over ten years, while most of the others have joined as new programs have developed in recent years. One founding member noted the difficulty in attracting middle-class and educated workers due to low salaries at Action India. Middle-class educated women who want to work at the grassroots level are often paid large amounts by donor agencies as independent consultants on projects. However, this founding member noted that such issues are an inevitable part of the process of organizational change. She is confident of the ability of the organization to nurture a new generation of activists and to generate funds from funding agencies while also raising some money from the community for specific events.
The foregoing description of the activities and organizational structure and functioning of Action India shows that the programs have developed through a continuous process of action in the bastees, reflection and analysis of the programs, and development of new projects based upon needs expressed at the grassroots. These processes have been affected simultaneously by the changing sociocultural, political, and economic trends related to globalization of the capitalist economy and its uneven effect on employment and livelihood. There is a continuous struggle to incorporate participatory decision making both within the organization and in the bastees where the programs are implemented. There is also an explicit commitment to the personal development of the activists and meeting their needs.
Public Participation and Changes in Personal Lives
Interviews with 24 karyakartas of Action India in 1995 and 1997 revealed that each had experienced a clear change in consciousness as a result of joining the organization. Each felt empowered personally as a result of the knowledge gained from the work and her role in empowering others. However, each has experienced this change in a different way, related primarily to the level of awareness and the nature of work she did before joining Action India, her socioeconomic background, educational level, caste in some instances, the number of years with the organization, and the nature of association and work with Action India. Brief portraits of a few of the women, incorporating their own words, will illustrate this process.
Vimla, about 42 years old, was one of seven brothers and sisters in a working-class family. When her father, a government employee, was murdered, her mother opened a tea stall in order to support the family. Though her mother tried to educate all her children, Vimla, the oldest daughter, stopped going to school after grade eight and was married at fourteen to a man almost twenty years older. Vimla never had a good relationship with her husband; he spent a lot of time and money drinking and gambling with friends, and physically abused her. Even though her husband had a stable government job, Vimla engaged in various small home-based enterprises to earn money to raise and educate their three children. She came in touch with some women from Action India through her work and asked them for a job. She was employed in 1987 and now is the coordinator for the law project. Vimla recalled,
Earlier, I did not even know there were organizations for women. If I had known, I would have done something else. My life would have been different. I would not have married this man.... Some men in the family and the neighborhood also used to bother me thinking that since my husband is so old they could take advantage of me.... Some sort of hatred for men grew inside me. At that time I used to think I should be like Phoolan Devi (a woman who became an outlawed bandit). I wanted to take revenge. Sometimes I would think that if someone gave me a pistol, I would shoot all men. After joining Action India I gradually realized that these women also think about the things I think about. But our methods of dealing with them were different. Gradually, over a period of time, through discussions and workshops, I developed my own perspective. I stopped thinking about hatred and revenge and started thinking about women’s struggles for equality. I got involved with the Sabla Sanghs in the bastees and worked with the group working on women’s health. I developed feminist views and learned how to use them to resolve problems.
Vimla’s husband is now blind and they continue to live in the same household. He does not acknowledge her work, though he sometimes jokes and taunts her about it. Said Vimla, “I think, he has been influenced in a subtle way and knows that I am right. But he does not want to accept that because men in our society are not raised that way.” However, Vimla feels she has had more impact on several of her other family members, especially her daughter. She thinks she has had mixed influence on her eighteen- and twenty-year-old sons. At one point they started sharing in household tasks but protested because none of their friends were expected to do so. Vimla is also very proud of the recognition and respect she receives from many people in the bastees. “It is not so much for the money,” Vimla says. “I had a job earlier also and earned an income. But working in a women’s organization makes me feel different. People in the neighborhood also know that if any woman is being bothered or is being mistreated I will bring the whole organization with me in support of her.”
Fifty-six-year-old Gouri, meanwhile, is from an upper-middle-class family and is a founding member of Action India. Educated in convent schools, she was married at sixteen to a corporate executive. Though she thinks her husband was “very democratic,” she resented not having gone to college. Gouri eventually got a teaching diploma and taught in a few elite schools before she started teaching in a day care facility for children of construction workers in the early seventies. She associates the biggest change in her life with learning to empathize and work with the poor, creating her own space within her family, and dealing with her family’s class background. She recalled,
The first time I went in a morcha (demonstration) with the poor people to the government office that issued ration cards for food... This was the first time I walked on the streets with the poor. It was a strange experience for me, a very conflicting situation. My husband was by then on the board of directors of a corporation. But after that I felt more comfortable. I went everywhere with the poor.... I used to get back home very angry. I could have shot everyone. In retrospect, I think it was very important for me to feel that anger. Otherwise how could a middle-class woman like me want to do this kind of work?
Gouri believes that she has reached a good balance in maintaining a stable family environment while creating a separate space for herself within the family and the organization. She had to negotiate with her family in the early years and make them understand the nature of the work and explain why she needed to work the way she did and why she needed to go out in the evenings when most of the meetings were held. A major step was staying away from home overnight for the first time. In those early years she also tried to impose her views on her family and tried to simplify their lifestyle. Her sons, however, could not accept the dichotomy between their lifestyle and the conditions in the bastees. But, says Gouri,
I was already about thirty-five years old and I knew I didn’t want to live a life of poverty. But I also didn’t want to live the life of a corporate wife. So I had made a compromise mentally to balance the two. I felt my work was my own and my work does not have to be decided by others. At the same time, my family was very good to me. They never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do. So I had no reason to leave them and set off on my own. So I had made a very comfortable choice, I would say. At the same time, I was very conscious of the fact that no matter how simply I dressed and how faded my clothes were, in the eyes of the people in the bastee I was of another class. To that extent I was still an outsider.
With the growth in programs and activists from the bastees, Gouri now focuses more on facilitating the various programs and maintaining external relationships with other organizations and funding agencies.
Virmati’s perspective and development of the self are framed by her experience as a single woman in a society where a woman derives status from being married and being the mother of a son. Thirty-five-year-old Virmati was married when she was about twelve and went to live with her in-laws in a village when she was seventeen years old. Widowed and with a daughter a few years later, she was forced to marry her husband’s younger brother who tortured and abused her. She eventually fought for, and obtained, a divorce. By then she had had another daughter. Virmati joined the Sabla Sangh in 1984 and eventually became a health worker. After a few years she helped initiate the single women’s program. She notes, “when I heard and saw the problems of other single women, my own sorrows suddenly seemed so small compared to theirs. This was inspiration enough to work.” This work has also given her the strength to deal with her own situation. Virmati adds that “the project has created a space within Action India where single women can share their problems.” Virmati feels empowered because she has been able to work through her own experience as a single woman and also develop and participate in a program aimed at empowering other single women. However, she still feels vulnerable to the social stigma of being a single woman with two daughters and no son.
Prem grew up in a working-class family and was aware of the higher status accorded to males in her own, as well as in her husband’s, family. For several years after her marriage she was a housewife but she and her husband were unable to have a child. She thus experienced a great deal of prejudice from within her family and community. Prem internalized the attitude that it was her fault that she could not have a child and felt worthless as a result. After she started attending Sabla Sangh meetings in the mid-1980s, she began to understand these issues more and her thinking changed. Prem eventually negotiated with her family, and she and her husband adopted a baby girl in 1991. In 1992 Prem formally joined the Girl Child Program. She was very articulate about her work and how her association with Action India has improved her status within her family and has also influenced them. “Even in my family, with my husband also there has been change. Earlier it was the same husband who never took my words seriously. He would not listen ... but gradually he has come to understand that my work is like this ... and he even helps in the house.” Between 1995 and 1996 three activists with the Children’s Program left, and Prem stepped in to take a leadership role in coordinating the program.
Thirty-three-year-old Reshma is unique among the women I interviewed as she is the only one who had joined Action India as a young unmarried woman and got married after she participated in the organization. Her case is significant in trying to understand the effectiveness of involvement with Action India for the way in which she handled crucial life-altering events. Reshma grew up in a large working-class family where there were many restrictions, especially for the females. But Reshma was always very independent and stubborn and fought to maintain her independence even before joining the Sabla Sangh in 1980 as part of the crochet workers’ cooperative. Even before that, she made and sold crochet products to earn some money for herself.
Reshma said that her work with Action India and the support she received from the organization have enabled her to deal with numerous personal issues. In 1984 she successfully resisted an attempt by her family to get her married to a man in another part of the country. Reshma wanted to stay in Delhi and was also adamant that she would continue her work with Action India. When she did get married, she struggled and eventually negotiated with her husband and in-laws a way to continue to work and go out on workshops with Action India. Reshma has also encouraged her sister to be educated until grade twelve and is now negotiating with her parents to let her sister go to college. She also got her mother sterilized secretly as her father would not have allowed it. Reshma also noted that there have been many changes among people in her bastee and in their opinion about the kind of work she does. As she said, “Now in every street there are three or four girls who come to the center and their mothers are also getting involved so they keep track of what is happening. If there is any kind of problem in their homes, they will come at any time of the day or night.” People in the neighborhood also call her sometimes to be with them for support when negotiating marriages for their daughters. This reflects Reshma’s enhanced status and recognition in the community. After working in the Girl Child Program for many years, Reshma joined the law program and is developing a curriculum on laws affecting women for the Nanhi and Choti Sablas.
These portraits are a clear indication of the development of a more explicit and conscious sense of self among the activists in Action India. This change occurred alongside the knowledge the women gained from being part of the organization and the space provided by Action India to think about issues that affect them and others. The self-awareness is linked to the women’s transforming relationships with others in several ways. First is the relationship with members of their families, both immediate and extended. Second, this self-consciousness is related to the way in which they relate to others in the bastees where they live and work, and how they are viewed by them. The activists’ views also reflect the fact that their lives are embedded in multiple relational contexts. They are very aware of this and clearly articulate the choices they have made and are making. They are trying to construct a sense of self in relation to their multiple associations within and outside the family context. The participatory type of democracy outlined in the introduction to this volume allows one to view this complex process of democratization in private and public lives.
The process of change and democratization, however, is not a clear-cut and linear one. For some women, relationships with husbands have improved or remained the same; for some they have taken an up-and-down route. The children have not been influenced in any consistent manner. Many of the women expressed the opinion and awareness that the young have a variety of problems and are also influenced by their peers and by currents in the larger culture. It is striking that a number of children of the karyakartas are having difficulties with their education and employment. This is related to the difficult situation of working-and lower-middle-class people in a country with continuous economic problems and crises. Many activists are not satisfied with their family situations and personal lives. Moreover, many of the women do not live according to the feminist and democratic principles they espouse and advocate. However, they all derive significant personal strength from the opportunity provided by Action India to deal with or bear problematic personal issues. An analysis of the lives of the activists provides evidence of the plurality of identities and variations in paths to empowerment and democratization.
Though I have focused on the internal dynamics of Action India, building networks and coalitions with other grassroots organizations and progressive groups is an explicit aspect of the objectives of the organization. This networking takes place as and when issues arise. For instance, workshops are held and information shared with other groups working on health and legal issues. As part of the women’s movement in India, Action India members participate in the National Conference of Women’s Movements held every two years. In the bastees, there is some interaction with other organizations working at this level. Since the early 1980s, there has been an increase in right-wing, religious fundamentalism often resulting in communal violence. Some Action India members have worked with other community and human rights organizations on this issue. They also have taken a critical stance toward several state economic, political, and social policies that they believe to be detrimental to the well-being of the poor, minorities, and women. Some members participate in coalitions aimed at improving state policies.
Action India attempts to develop programs on the basis of understanding of the integral connection between micro-level issues in the bastees with macro-level developments such as government policies and globalization of the economy. Continuous efforts are made to educate the bastee residents on these issues. For example, in July 1997 a workshop on food security was held. Action India karyakartas, bastee women, and activists working at the national and international level came together to discuss the connections between rising cost of food, high-tech agricultural practices, and the attempts by western bio-technology companies to claim intellectual property rights on various forms of common indigenous knowledge. Two bastee women later testified before the People’s Commission on Patenting of Life Forms about indigenous health practices and how control of patents by multinational drug companies would negatively affect local access to these forms of knowledge. This incident demonstrates that as understanding increases, there is more potential for networking and participation in campaigns to influence state policies and public attitudes. Nevertheless, thus far such efforts have not been made in a sustained manner even though the Action India activists think that this is important. Action India does, however, support other women’s organizations and forums that lead campaigns on many issues to influence state policies.
Action India emerged in the context of the women’s and other social movements, such as the environmental, anti-caste, and the peasant movements that have, since the early 1970s, increasingly challenged the state and other powerful interests. Numerous grassroots and other nongovernment organizations are part of these movements, and the mainstream political parties can no longer ignore issues raised by them. In fact, women’s and other issues have become incorporated into the official rhetoric of all political parties and many state policies in India. The translation of rhetoric into action, however, remains largely problematic. The autonomous grassroots organizations such as Action India can, and often do, play an important role in pressuring the state. They add to the plurality of public spaces and a broadening of the arena for political action so essential for the process of democratization. In addition, they contribute to empowerment in the personal lives of individuals participating in these organizations. At the same time, the liberal-democratic framework in India does allow for the formation of grassroots organizations even as their functioning and impact are limited by the larger state and international economic, political, and social structures and processes.
1. All quotes are from interviews with Action India activists conducted in New Delhi, India in 1995. The quotes and summaries of interviews were clarified in follow-up discussions in 1997. At the request of the activists, I have used their real names.
Action India Women’s Program. 1987. Community Health Workers Project Report. Unpublished.
———. 1992. Historical Background. Unpublished.
———. 1993. Children and Youth Programme Report. Unpublished.
———. 1996a. Women, Law and Social Change: Brief Report January-June 1996. Unpublished.
———. 1996b. Project Proposal: Women, Law and Social Change. Unpublished.
———. 1996c. Empowering the Girl Child: An Action Research Project on Child Marriage. Unpublished.
———. 1996d. Education for Equality and Community Participation: A Mid-term Report. Unpublished.
———. 1996c. Self Help and Herbal Medicine: A Women’s Resource Centre. Unpublished.
———. 1996f. A GTZ Self Help Project—Annual Report 1995: Women’s Economic Activity for Empowerment. Unpublished.
———. 1997a. Tools for Empowerment: Women’s Health Programme Project Proposal. Unpublished.
———. 1997b. Women, Law and Social Change Project Report. Jan. to Dec, 1996. Unpublished.
———. 1997c. Capacity Development for Economic Empowerment: Report, July 1996 to January 1997 and Action Plan for 1997. Unpublished.
———. 1997d. Action India Economic Program: Summary Report 1997. Unpublished.
Choudhury, Gouri. 1992. Changing Organizational Structures. Unpublished.
D’Monte, Darryl. 1989. “India’s Environment: More Diversity Than Unity.” In India Briefing, 1989 , edited by M. M. Bouton and Philip Oldenburg. Boulder: Westview Press, 83–105.
Frankel, Francine R., and M.S.A Politics. Rao (eds.). 1989 and 1990. Dominance and State Power in Modern India: Decline of a Social Order. Vols. I and II. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kothari, Rajni. 1989. State against Democracy: In Search of Humane Governance. Delhi: Ajanta Publications.
———. 1990. Politics and the People: In Search of a Humane India. Vols. I and II. Delhi: Ajanta Publications.
Kothari, Smitu. 1993. “Social Movements and the Redefinition of Democracy.” In India Briefing, 1993 , edited by Philip Oldenburg. Boulder: Westview Press, 131–162.
Omvedt, Gail, 1993. Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.
Rudolph, Lloyd I., and Susanne H. Rudolph. 1987. In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sadgopal, Mira. 1993. The Community Health Workers Programme of Action India, New Delhi: An Evaluation. Unpublished.
Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.
Re-inheriting Women in Decolonizing Hong Kong
Irene Lik Kay Tong
The history of all previous women’s movements is necessarily part of the history of the societies from which such movements arise. Women’s aspirations and activities bear witness to the sociocultural, economic, and political environment of the societies in which they live. The women’s movement in Hong Kong was fermented in the late colonial period, became more mature on the eve of the changeover of sovereignty from Britain to China, and faced an uncertain future upon the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). 1 It is the aim of this chapter to document the 1994 women’s struggle for inheritance rights, which were denied to all “indigenous” women who lived in the northern part of the territory. 2 This case study will demonstrate the resourcefulness of grassroots women’s organizations in Hong Kong, their ability to form flexible alliances, and their versatility in devising strategies to translate seemingly “sectional” interests into wider community interests. All this would not have been possible had it not been for the gradual development of partially democratic institutions in the territory over the past two decades. Hence, the struggle for women’s rights both benefitted from and contributed to the process of democratization. At the same time, the intense resistance encountered by women’s groups during their struggle underscores the fact that the success or failure of women’s actions could never be isolated from the specific context of the time. In this case, it was the context of the impending changeover of sovereignty which complicated the debate.
The Colonial State Prior to the 1980s
Colonies typically have been acquired through less-than-democratic processes and colonial regimes were seldom democratic. Prior to the late 1970s, governance in Hong Kong was characterized by the absence of electoral politics and channels for popular participation, much less scrutiny of the government. Essentially, it was the colonial bureaucracy, operating in a highly secretive manner, which, in consultation with large business interests (many of which were British), initiated, passed, and implemented laws; hence, the phrases “administrative no-party state” (Harris, 1980), and “administrative absorption of politics” (King and Lee, 1981). Civil liberties were curtailed by draconian laws and highhanded police action. Political space and the political consciousness of the Chinese population (making up 98 percent of Hong Kong) were too limited for organizing on a scale which crossed class, occupational, and ethnic boundaries. Civil society was underdeveloped and politics took on a mystical quality.
In the absence of full legitimacy, there was always a need of the colonizers to secure compliance and cooperation from the colonized. The strategy of indirect rule was employed, which kept local customs and social institutions intact, while co-opting the local elites into the colonial power structure. Seats in the executive, the legislature, the municipal councils, and the consultative bodies were filled through the appointment system. This highly centralized process based on “old-boy” networks effectively barred women from political power, 3 and women’s concerns had to be mediated through “better-entrenched interests” (i.e., men) (Cheung, et al., 1994: 328). As in the case of indirect rule in India and Africa, a double standard was often applied to gender issues, except that in Hong Kong, the gender ideology of the colonial regime meshed well with the patriarchal Chinese culture. For example, while slavery was banned in Britain, the British government was in no hurry to outlaw the mui tsai (bonded girl-servant) system in its colony as long as it served the interests of the Chinese (male) elites (Jones, 1992).
In this sociopolitical context, it is not surprising that a local women’s movement was almost nonexistent. Gender consciousness was low and there was “[n]o permanent organizational base and no long-term strategy for social transformation” (Tsang, 1995: 278–279). Chinese women’s organizing hardly went beyond the formation of philanthropic organizations such as the Hong Kong Chinese Women’s Club, which was founded in 1938 by upper-class women. Although by 1947, the Hong Kong Council of Women (HKCW), involved with consciousness raising and advocacy, was founded, it remained essentially a “foreign” organization accessible only to speakers of English. Even with the constant efforts of the HKCW, the colony took a long time to repeal discriminatory legislation. Polygamy, for example, was not abolished until 1971; conditional abortion was not made legal until 1973; and equal pay was not implemented in the civil service until 1975. Women’s rights were scarcely on the political agenda, nor were they audible in the political rhetoric of this era. It was argued that legislative changes in this period “did not come from any organized pro-women movement in Hong Kong. . . . [They] were supported by the majority of the legislators because of the changing social climate . . .” (Cheung, et al., 1994: 333). 4
Political Democratization in the 1980s to Early 1990s
Although people of Hong Kong have been generally characterized as politically apathetic, the 1970s did see the growth of pressure groups, student movements, and community movements. They departed from the political activism of the 1960s in that the latter was often induced by ideological rivalry between Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan. The new political activism was aimed at improving Hong Kong people’s livelihood and challenging the monolithic power of the colonial administration. As a reaction to the elite-dominated politics, the emerging movements adopted a distinct grassroots orientation. Their leaders were often young, intellectual elites who had experienced upward mobility (through education and hard work) from the working class but still retained their identification with the latter.
Partly prompted by the economic boom of the 1970s, the colonial state began to introduce more proactive social policies. For example, the Independent Commission against Corruption was set up in 1974 to facilitate the establishment of a “clean government”; nine years’ free education was introduced in 1978; and a lot more low-cost public housing was built to accommodate the vast number of squatter dwellers, many of whom came from China originally but over the years began to regard Hong Kong as their permanent home.
Another government response to popular demands was the initiation of a series of top-down democratizing changes in the 1980s. 5 A system of administrative decentralization involving limited direct elections to local councils was introduced in 1981, and some indirectly elected seats were introduced into the legislature in 1985 in the form of “functional constituencies” composed of selected occupational sectors that were deemed to have vital contributions to make to the local economy. 6 It was in 1991 that Hong Kong first saw direct popular elections to eighteen out of sixty seats in the legislature, a move which ushered in a new era of party politics. 7
The all-Chinese women’s groups formed in the 1980s were nurtured in this more liberalized political environment. The founders of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism (AAF), for example, were student activists and social workers who had gained experience in social action in the 1970s (Choi, 1995: 96). Other major organizations formed in the same period include the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, the Hong Kong Women Christian Council, and the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association. Though the founders of these groups were well-educated and could be labeled as “middle class,” all these groups share a distinctly “feminist” agenda and grassroots orientation. Unlike their counterparts in the HKCW, their approach to building the women’s movement tended to be more confrontational (meaning less handshaking with power elites), more skeptical of the establishment, and more prone to view women not only as victims, but as agents of social change. Beyond these similarities, the groups themselves represent a diversity of orientations and goals. Nonetheless, the women’s movement, as one could legitimately call it by now, was able to unify over major issues and to engage the political institutions. By the early 1990s, some victories had been won over issues such as domestic violence, maternity rights, pornography, separate taxation for husband and wife, and civil rights.
The movement was also pro-democracy in the sense that it recognized the importance of building a viable civil society in which space and opportunity exist for diverse opinions to be expressed. Thus, women’s organizations in this period were also concerned with constitutional developments and actively participated in lobbying for a faster pace of political reform. In concrete terms, the latter goal includes full direct elections to the legislature.
Background to the Struggle for Inheritance Rights in 1994
After incidents of rebellion in the New Territories at the turn of the century, the colonial government introduced a New Territories Ordinance (NTO) in 1910 to pacify the inhabitants. Part II of the Ordinance provided for the prevalence of Chinese customary law on New Territories land. It meant, among other things, that the “indigenous” practice of male-only inheritance would be preserved. 8 To the women’s movement, the Ordinance symbolized a colonial pact between the administration and Chinese conservative elites, which served to reinforce “precolonial forms of patriarchal power” (Jones, 1995: 171).
In 1989, when the Basic Law (the “mini-constitution” for the HKSAR) was being vigorously drafted, the women’s movement saw it to be opportune to lobby for future gender equality, or at least to repeal existing discriminatory legislation. To its disappointment, Article 40 of the draft Basic Law stated, “The legitimate traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the ‘New Territories’ shall be protected by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” Owing to their lack of political clout, women’s groups were unable to prevent the article from being carried through to the final version. 9
What prompted renewed attention to the provisions of the NTO was the rapid development of the New Territories by the government since the late 1980s. New towns were being built at a rapid pace and both public and private housing dominated the rural landscape. By 1994, an estimated 42 percent (about 2.37 million) of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories (Hong Kong Hansard, 1993: 265). It was only “discovered” in 1991 that the NTO applied to the entire geographical area of the New Territories (not only to the indigenous inhabitants) and that the government had not applied for exemption from the NTO when it built public flats (Jones, 1995: 176). This meant that female nonindigenous residents of the New Territories were also denied the right to inherit property. When a local Chinese newspaper, Ming Pao Daily News , published an article revealing this state of affairs on September 9, 1993, the government, the public, and members of the legislature were alarmed.
On October 13, 1993, a motion was passed after heated debate in the Legislative Council to repeal any discriminatory legislation that prevented women from enjoying succession rights. (This Legislative Council, in which the democrats won a landslide victory, was constituted in 1991.) The government then quickly introduced the New Territories Land (Exemption) Bill, which sought the exemption of “urban land” in the New Territories from Chinese customary law, while leaving “rural land” (land inhabited by indigenous residents) under the NTO. No eyebrow would have been raised by this relatively noncontroversial Bill had it not been for the development of an increasingly “loud” feminist voice at that time, supported by liberal legislators “from within.”
The Women’s Movement Takes Up the Issue
The year 1993 was not the first time women’s groups paid attention to the plight of indigenous women of the New Territories. Apart from the opportunity provided by the drafting of the Basic Law in 1989, women’s groups had actually been lobbying for the abolition of discriminatory provisions in the NTO for a decade. 10 In 1990, for example, when the Bill of Rights was debated in the Legislative Council, women’s groups pointed out that the male-only inheritance in the New Territories violated Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But their voices fell on deaf ears. In the end, the Bill of Rights was not to be applied to “private transactions” (Petersen, 1993). In the words of indigenous women:
Government has been singularly negligent in administering the New Territories: there are no official records, there is no exact figure of the indigenous population, no gender breakdown, no well-kept records of all village issues. ... Everything concerning indigenous villages’ administration remains a black hole. People see problems inside but no one dares to probe too deeply.
The predicament of indigenous women nowadays lies with the absurd fact [that] while agriculture as an economic mode has no significance in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, this outdated agrarian social structure still dominates most villagers’ ideology and life-style. It is unrealistic to expect and wait for reforms to come from the interest-vested male village leaders (Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, 1995: 90).
Indigenous women in the New Territories were not only deprived of inheritance rights, but basic dignity and even survival rights. In November 1993, with the help of the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, the New Territories Indigenous Women’s Committee was established, remaining affiliated to the former. It started with ten members, all of whom were indigenous women suffering from injustice in the villages. But the Committee, and the members themselves (some of whom were illiterate), seemed to possess little bargaining power. In one of the members’, Tang Ying’s, own words:
The New Territories Indigenous Women’s group, of which I am a leading member, has been marginalized by the village because we are fighting for land inheritance rights. . . . Because I am involved in the inheritance rights movement to change this law [NTO], my uncle, who opposes our cause, refused to sign the necessary papers that I needed in order to obtain my mother’s grave-site. ... I have no rights as a daughter and had to beg to have my mother buried in her rightful place, beside her husband in the village. Like all the girls of the New Territories indigenous villages, I grew up without being afforded, by the village culture, by my parents, or by Hong Kong legislation, the dignity of any sense of self-worth or personhood (Hong Kong Women Christian Council, 1995: 125).
The attention of the media, however, was captured, and by December 1993, the plight of members like Tang Ying, Cheng Lai-sheung, and Tang Mui became widely known as symbols of extreme gender inequality in an otherwise “modern” Hong Kong. Their cause drew much concern from local women’s organizations, as well as sympathy from the Hong Kong populace. 11
Events took a major twist in January 1994 when Christine Loh, an appointed legislative councillor and lawyer, proposed to amend the government Bill to include “rural land” as well. The intention was to give indigenous women inheritance rights equal to those of their “urban” counterparts. At the Bill’s committee meeting of the Legislative Council in March 1994, the administration did not object to Loh’s amendment. This angered the indigenous men who believed the administration had broken its century-old promise of not interfering with indigenous interests. On March 22, 1994, more than a thousand angry men from the New Territories gathered outside the Legislative Council chambers and shouted foul language at the administration and at the (mostly) female supporters of the amendment, who had also gathered outside the chambers. Some men were so agitated that they tried to use violence and one legislator was hit. Verbal threats of rape were also heard. When scenes of the scuffles were transmitted through the television, the public was appalled by such “uncivilized” behavior. 12 Three months’ intensive lobbying by the two opposing camps followed, involving extensive public participation, culminating in the Legislative Council debate of June 22, 1994.
It was immediately after the scuffles of March 22 that a Coalition for Equal Inheritance Rights (hereafter referred to as “the Coalition”) was formed by 12 women’s groups. 13 These women’s groups became the “reformers” who wished to see archaic practices repealed. Unfortunately, by 1994, the local women’s movement was itself divided. The Hong Kong Federation of Women, established in 1993 and boasting a membership of some eighty women’s groups, was popularly regarded as pro-China and conservative when it came to gender matters. Its chair, Mrs. Peggy Lam, also a Legislative Councillor in 1994, was later to introduce a less “progressive” alternative to Loh’s amendment. Needless to say, the Federation was not part of the Coalition.
The Strategies of the Women’s Coalition
Since its component groups had accumulated a great deal of experience during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Coalition exhibited efficiency and political maturity in this struggle. As early as October 6, 1993, women’s groups, led by the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, helped five aggrieved representatives of what later became the New Territories Indigenous Women’s Committee to lodge a formal petition to the Complaints Division of the Office of Members of the Legislative Council (OMELCO). This conferred legitimacy to legislators to pursue the subject. Indeed, on October 14, 1993 (the day after the motion was passed in the legislature), the Women’s Affairs Sub-group of the Legislative Council was accused by New Territories men of stirring up trouble. The sub-group then retorted that they had to follow up the matter because a formal complaint had been lodged (AAF, 1995: 42).
Full use of the media also proved successful. The earliest response to Ming Pao Daily News ’s report of September 1993 was a declaration published in the newspaper by AAF the next day. Thereafter, an advertisement signed by a few hundred individuals and women’s groups also appeared in the newspaper on October 13, 1993, to coincide with the motion debate in the Legislative Council. After the March 1994 violence, the issue received unprecedented media coverage and groups supporting the women’s cause placed advertisements (with hundreds of signatories) in the local newspapers. These groups included Christian associations, democratic party members, university staff and students, and, of course, the Coalition itself. Signature campaigns were held in various regions, including some crowded housing complexes in the New Territories. By the end of May 1994, at least 30,000 signatures had been collected and handed to the Legislative Council Bills Committee. At the same time, numerous articles were written and published in local Chinese newspapers. Some of these articles were written by mobilized members of the groups in the Coalition, while others were written by individuals in society at large (AAF, 1995).
In addition to initiating face-to-face meetings with members of the Bills Committee, the Coalition started to stage demonstrations outside the Legislative Council on April 11, 1994, and vowed to sit outside the legislature every Wednesday afternoon (when the full house of the Council met) until Loh’s amendment was passed. Sun or rain, these sit-ins took place, and the Coalition managed to lobby the legislators who passed by. Popular Chinese folk songs were sung with freshly composed lyrics, and skits were performed by women activists dressed as rural, indigenous women, wearing the characteristic broad-brimmed black hat.
Meanwhile, inside the Coalition itself, a number of issues had to be ironed out. 14 As the Coalition comprised a variety of women’s organizations with a diversity of clienteles, standpoints, and resource capabilities, the Coalition meetings themselves were challenges to feminist organizing. Not that this was the first time some of these women’s groups formed a coalition, but the same questions appeared as in all previous coalitions. Who should provide the leadership? Who should set the agenda of the meetings? How should strategies be decided? Where should the boundaries of the struggle be drawn, that is, should the Coalition fight only for the issue in question, or seize the opportunity to reach out to more people and raise the consciousness of the general public as well? As usual, these questions troubled members of the Coalition at the beginning but were quickly resolved. The method was simple. Usually the group(s) that could, at a given moment, contribute more resources and effort unofficially assumed leadership, 15 and the group(s) that had the requisite resources would attempt to do more to educate the public at large. 16
Each group in the Coalition enjoyed a high degree of autonomy as long as its activities did not contradict the lowest common denominator which brought the groups together in the first place. The Coalition, therefore, had a loose and flexible structure. Each group would send one representative (usually a core member) to attend Coalition meetings (mostly in the evenings as all members held full-time jobs), and matters would be discussed freely (without rules of order) and decisions made collectively. There was hardly a need to put matters to the vote.

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