Economic empowerment and tribal women in India


Saswati Roy

Sumitra, Champa, Samprada, Sushama, Kalabati, Salma are some of the tribal women living in remote corners in the state of Orissa in India who we have met during our recent visit to their villages. The women's organisation with which I work, Swadhina, has been encouraging and promoting women's groups in these villages for the past five years.

These women live in distant villages located amidst hilly forested regions. Their life is integrally linked to the forest, which has been their source of food, fodder and wood for fuel. They worship nature and in sickness collect medicinal herbs from the forest. The western model of "modernisation", a development ideology pursued in India since independence in 1947, has ruthlessly damaged and destroyed vast tracts of forest in the interests of larger development projects. The results have been disastrous, leading to the erosion of a life support system, and the uprooting of a large section of the tribal population from their ancestral lands. Already poor, they then lost control of and access to a wide variety of resources on which they depended.

Modernisation has led to the disappearance of people-based practices such as agro-forestry and food gathering. This has specifically and adversely affected the lives of women, increasing manifold their daily drudgery. Such displacement, non-access, non-possession, non-entitlement has further thrust these people into mute acceptance.

Supporting women's organisations

Women have always remained invisible, forgotten, unrecognised. Now they have lost the most and gained very little. Swadhina stresses that women should organise at the grass roots, and helps them to enhance their analytical power and use it to identify and analyse the issues that affect their lives and take actions around these issues. So in each village where Swadhina works, there is a village-level women's organisation which plays a pivotal role in local development. Through repeated training sessions the women are oriented on social issues and equipped with leadership skills. Gradually they gain confidence and assume responsibility for all the development activities initiated in their village. The process of empowerment starts in their minds, in their attitudes, value system and judgement. Ultimately when Swadhina withdraws, the women continue to work as local village level organisation.

Strengthening local systems

Development, driven by macro-economics, has waged an unabating war on the poor through the depletion of natural resources and the marginalisation of people who are already poor, especially women. The appropriation of the world's resources has taken place through the merciless extraction of mineral wealth, reduction of biomass and biodiversity, the gradual disappearance of indigenous knowledge, and the destruction of self-sustaining ecological systems.

The much-promised benefits of development have never trickled down to the people, instead it has created multiple forms of dependence. So the challenge now is to strengthen self-sustaining local systems, and re-establish people's faith in their own capabilities and the wealth of indigenous knowledge for self-development.

Sustainable agriculture

Agriculture has been commercialised, with promotion of cash crops and the introduction of machines and use of chemicals, which also results in external dependence. Therefore we are promoting the concept of farming for health. Women are encouraged to grow new varieties of nutritious vegetables and fruits at their homes, which will cater to the health needs of the family, and at the same time they can earn money by selling the surplus. Community Nurseries jointly owned by the community and developed on a piece of land offered by the villagers are also being promoted, these will continually supply seed and saplings to the families.

Dhai ma--the health worker

Women have greater understanding and knowledge about the indigenous health care system, which is fast vanishing in the era of professional health care practices. Our oldest health worker in the Dhenkanal area is popularly known as Dhai ma. She is a very old and experienced midwife who has carried out many deliveries in and around her villages. This time when we met her at Markata she was as active and smiling as ever. She does not know how to sign her name.

In spite of being illiterate she was selected and trained by Swadhina to work as a health worker for her expertise as a midwife and profound knowledge of health issues. Dhai ma later participated in training sessions and learnt more about safe methods of delivery. Soon health workers from other villages started to accompany her during deliveries, and she trained them. Now at least six women, who had no previous experience, are working as expert midwives in this region. In return for their service they get cloth, vegetables and rice, and sometimes cash. These women now have the skills and confidence to sustain themselves through their service to the community.

Promoting "haat"

Promotion of weekly village markets, locally called "haat", is one Swadhina's main projects. So far five such rural markets have been started through Swadhina's initiatives. These have been in villages where the nearest market otherwise is several kilometres away and villagers have to walk to reach there. A "haat" caters for local needs and provides a forum where villagers can buy and sell their local produce. Both women and men are running shops in these markets. Usually the women's committee of the villager where the "haat" is located secures permission on a lease from the local administrative authority.

Economic self-reliance

Economic independence is one of the stepping stones towards overall empowerment. Swadhina trys to ensure that economic activity is started within the local context, and does not impose alien economic ventures on women. Generally, after identifying what skills local women have and the availability of raw materials, the women's groups decide themselves which type of activity will be pursued.

Again any effort at economic self-reliance has to be embedded in people's own culture, for culture gives meaning to people's lives, as well as a sense of direction. It is often forgotten that development is indeed an inner process directly linked to specific cultural values. In view of this, any economic activity for the tribal community has to be collective, since for them collectivism is the essence of life, and sharing is a cherished value.

But our job is not over just because income starts to be generated. We believe it is very important to see how the income is being used. Swadhina encourages women to save money in a group fund, from which they can apply for loans for starting small businesses, or to cope with an emergency situation within their family. Formation of the savings fund, run and managed by the women themselves, has brought immense relief to the women and, through them, to the whole community. They have now been released from the clutches of the local money lenders who for years have continued to exploit and oppress poor villagers.

Shakhar Marandi: the shopkeeper

Now many women in the villages have started their own business through taking out a small loan from the group fund. Sakahar Marandi is one of the women we met while visiting Chanchipada, a village in Mayurbhanj in Orissa. When we met her at the village market she was busy running her small shop. Shakhar is a 28-year-old tribal woman who had attended school for a few years but left after the primary level. Last year she was hospitalised, having a tumour which had to be operated on immediately. She needed around Rs3000/- for the treatment. She applied for a loan to her village women's savings fund. Though in the fund she herself had saved only Rs500/- the women's committee approved the loan. The operation was successful. She is now completely cured and has slowly repaid the loan. Later she took another loan to start the shop where we met her. Shakhar is a proud and confident woman, now running her shop, shedding her inhibitions and shyness.

Promoting "outdated" values

The blind rush towards industrialisation and modernisation has led to a severe degeneration of values. Harmony has been replaced by conquest, co-operation by competition. To be the best by pushing others out becomes the norm. The values of fellowship, concern for others, feeling with nature and other non-commercial approaches are ridiculed as outdated. But any attempt at social and economic empowerment is bound to fail if it does not simultaneously promote the values that will ultimately sustain and strengthen the process of empowerment itself.

Women working together in production groups stress the value of sharing as a group, as opposed to the dominant capitalist value of individual profiteering. Again, in time even these organisations can degenerate and become institutions who abuse power. Therefore it is also imperative to emphasise the value of accountability.

The basket makers at Masharda

At Masharda village in Mayurbhanj we met a group of 19 women who are bamboo basket makers by tradition. The Kalandi community to which they belong is considered to be "untouchable". Each of these women got a loan of Rs100/- with which they purchased bamboo. It takes a long time for them to understand and learn the maintenance of a production record, and cost and profit calculations. But it is not business and profits that brings them together, instead they are investing in social relations. While working together in the open fields they share with each other the joys and sorrows of life. This is also the time when important information is announced like the next date for the pregnant mothers' check-up session. While we were there two women were identified for the next check-up.

In Masharda, Bharati Kalandi, the convenor of the team, is a very active and efficient woman who diligently keeps records of every deposit in each member's savings pass book.


Empowerment does not happen overnight. It takes a long time to reach a state of refinement in our inner lives through non-violent means, and can never be measured by material possessions.

After our visit to the villagers we came back to our respective homes with the firm belief that the women we met will inspire many more women towards economic empowerment. This leads to a qualitative improvement in women's lives, whereby they feel confident in the dignity of being themselves, enjoy the right to be themselves and are not just successful in the generation and accumulation of material wealth alone. Together with their newly felt inner power they refuse to be passive victims, but actively create and shape their own future.

Notes: Raff Carmen's Autonomous Development (Zed Books 1996) was a useful source in preparing this article.

Saswati Roy started working with Swadhina as a student volunteer in 1987. Since 1992 she has worked with the group full time. She was born, brought up and lives in Calcutta. Saswati is also the Section representative of Swadina on the WRI Council.
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