Determining women’s destiny
How evaluating an educational program that helps women in India empower themselves could help ensure its future
Posted by Niki Wilson on May 17, 2016
Just outside the city of Muzaffarpur in the Indian state of Bihar, a middle-aged woman named Vibha works as a stonemason in a production plant. Without knowing the context, there would be nothing remarkable about this situation — after all, women are paid to work physical jobs around the world every day. But not here, where women don’t often have the education and training required to earn money for themselves. Vibha is known locally as “the first woman mason.” The fact that she has a job — let alone one traditionally held by men — was a social breakthrough in her community.
Vibha’s journey to employment was born from a necessity for the most basic needs. She comes from one of Bihar’s poorest districts, a place where there are neither bathrooms nor infrastructure for sewage. Many people simply defecate in open fields or patches of vegetation, exposing themselves to E. coli and the bites of poisonous snakes and insects. It’s a difficult situation for all that live there, but women suffer additional hardships.
As public nudity is taboo for women in India, they tend to only relieve themselves before dawn or after dark, a practice that can lead to medical problems caused by attempting to suppress urination and defecation for the entire day and leave them vulnerable to sexual assault.
The Mahila Samakhya program is working to help prevent such problems. Launched in 1988 by the Indian government, it educates and empowers rural women on issues such as sanitation, domestic violence, education and child marriage. A key part of the program is that women identify specific issues important to their communities and support each other to find solutions.
Through her local Mahila Samakhya program, in 2000 Vibha learned about the basic principles of hygiene and sanitation, and was encouraged to participate in the planning and management of water and sanitation resources. The program helped train her and other women as masons so that they could build toilet facilities themselves. The work not only made Vibha’s environment more secure but also created a path to her economic empowerment.
The process by which Mahila Samakhya economically empowers women like Vibha is the subject of a three-year study being conducted by Nivedetha Menon and her colleagues at the Bangalore-based Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. Menon hopes the study will help her and her team understand more about how women learn to negotiate and advocate for themselves. “What is the process through which women start to see themselves as persons?” she wonders of those who come from districts where women are often considered property and are married away from their families at young ages.
Funders of the centre’s evaluation — Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — hope that it will provide opportunities to learn from the program’s successes, along with opportunities to lend credibility to the outcomes.
“Evidence-based policy is becoming more and more important,” says Sharon Buteau, executive director of the Chennai-based Institute for Financial Management and Research LEAD, an organization supporting the centre with their experience in setting up successful study designs for collecting information in rural India. Buteau says the government must show more transparency in their programs. It’s not enough that they exist — programs must be evaluated and reported on.
The evaluation team is working in Bihar and the state of Karnataka, collecting data from almost 4,000 households. While in some areas Mahila Samakhya groups have been established for decades, in others, the program is relatively new to the community. This will allow researchers to observe the effects of the program at different levels of progression.
Meanwhile, Vibha travels around Bihar teaching other women masonry skills, takes university courses and is held up by her children as a role model. Through the support of Mahila Samakhya and the women in her community, she has overcome many gender stereotypes to become a respected community member. In doing so, she has laid the groundwork, brick by brick, for others to follow.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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