India: Dalit and Tribal women together for self-help

Manju Gardia

Nawa Chhattisgarh Mahila Samiti (NCMS) is a self-help organization active in 400 villages. It has brought together Dalit and Tribal (Indigenous) women for the first time, overcoming years of divisions.

Every March since 2000, NCMS co-ordinates Global Women’s Strike actions all over Chhattisgarh. Thousands of women, mainly agricultural workers, hold rallies and marches. Men support by cooking and in other ways; some landlords lend their trucks.

Manju Gardia, founder of NCMS, has introduced the Strike to grassroots organizations in Orissa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bangalore, Maharashtra, Karnateka and Tamil Nadu.
NCMS campaigns for:

An end to bonded and child labour
Rural workers often have to borrow money from landlords, who then impose an illegal debt, forcing whole families to work for them for generations. NCMS makes visible the work of bonded women and children which landlord don’t even count towards the payment of the family’s debt. They have won High Court rulings freeing many families with full compensation (25,000 rupees each) and a release certificate in the name of both husband and wife, making clear both are entitled to the money.
Food security
Chhattisgarh is “the rice bowl of India”. Droughts, heat waves, floods and failed harvests have increased with global warming. In 2003 women headed households won compensation for loss crops due to floods.

Grain banks have been established in many villages. Every woman contributes 5kg of rice twice during the harvest. Each bank grows to about 300kg a year, from which women can borrow. Rice loans are repaid with a little extra rice as interest.

Seed banks preserve native seeds of rice, dhall and vegetables (which are being destroyed by cash crops), and to resist GM seeds. Native seeds are organic, cheaper, hardier, use less water and grow more quickly.

Farming co-operatives sell half the grain and save the rest. Some of the money goes towards helping women in other villages start co-ops. A signature campaign won a subsidized monthly ration of 40kg of rice from the State for single women – unmarried, divorced, widowed – who have no income after the harvest. Two saris from each village were used as petitions and sent to the government. 100 villages took part. Manyorganizations joined the campaign to win a national food law in 2000.

Land rights
NCMS helps women get their names on land titles so they cannot be evicted from their homes when their husbands die or want to separate.

“Revolving fund”
A few women are given an animal to breed or money to buy seeds. They will then give some money from selling surplus produce or the offspring of the animal such as kid goats, to other women. A small sum goes to the Village Action Group fund run by NCMS members to make low-interest loans to women for emergencies or to buy books or school uniforms.

Pay equity and higher wages, for social security and pensions
Women agricultural workers went on strike during harvest time – men get higher pay even though women plant and harvest more grain.

Women work in the rice fields July to November. The other months they get no wages. In some places they work March and April in the forest, collecting berries, honey, herbs and resin. For the rest of the year they migrate to the city to do very low paid brick-making or building work. Some survive as prostitutes. NCMS organizes with domestic workers who are particularly vulnerable to rape.

Justice for survivors of rape and domestic violence
NCMS campaigns to stop rape by husbands and those with power and authority – going to the High Court to win justice for rape survivors, as well as taking direct action. Women from different villages have broken up rapists’ wedding ceremonies, and demonstrated outside the homes of husbands who beat their wives.

NCMS provides self-help legal training on how to report rape to the police and fight a legal case.

Right to basic education
Village Action Committees monitor that teachers don’t beat the children or get them to work for them, and press for nutritious school meals.

Accessible healthcare
Using herbal medicine and alternative health camps, Tribal women prepare remedies from forest plants and travel to different villages to provide treatments. NCMS also presses for a free women’s hospital.

Resources for women and children with disabilities.
Wheelchairs, hearing aids and disability pension cards have been won. They campaign for all children to go to school together, not segregated.

NCMS trains women to be elected to the Panchayat (local council) and remain accountable. Women are the majority in many councils.