The Mahila Samakhya Programme of Bihar, India, began in the late 1980s with the aim of empowering women. In the state of Bihar, seven out of ten women are unable to read and write. The caste system is very strong. In addition, the ratio of women to men which used to be 1,060 to 1,000 is now only 911 to 1,000 – showing an alarming rise in the death rate of women.
The Mahila Samakhya aims to encourage the education and confidence of poorer women. Sahayoginis are selected and trained by Mahila Samakhya. They are then responsible for ten villages in their area and encouraging groups to form.
Each small group of women is known as a samooh. Their growth has been slow and not without problems. Sometimes the men are very opposed to the samooh. But gradually most samoohs begin to take shape. Meetings become regular, more women come, their confidence in each other grows and they discuss more issues. Gradually the samooh becomes a second home for the women. From among the members they will select one or more animators to become sakhis. Over time, they tend to take over the role of the sahayoginis more and more. Training and information is shared through the movement. There is the opportunity for literacy training, women’s opportunities and potential are developed and a deeper understanding of women’s issues and rights is shared.
‘We always felt that we were destined to suffer shame, discrimination and hunger because, besides being women, we are the poorer, small people of the village. The ‘big’ people controlled us in every way. We were afraid of them.’
As a widow, Roshana knew this only too well. A landlord had forcefully occupied her treasured piece of land, forcing her to return to her parents for her survival. The sakhi, who had just returned from her training, met Roshana and promised her support if she would just come to the samooh meeting and share her troubles with all the samooh members. Roshana was only too happy to find a group of willing listeners. The samooh women gave so much courage to Roshana that she sowed peas on her land with a view to reclaiming it.
As the peas were ready for harvesting, the landlord’s men came to harvest the crop. Roshana pleaded with them not to touch her crop. But they abused and assaulted her.
The samooh women were informed. Quickly they organised themselves, moved together into the field and stopped the harvesters. They filed a case in the police station against the landlord. He had arrived there before them and had managed to accuse many of the samooh members’ husbands in a false case. However, the samooh members were brave and very determined and won their case. A few days later they harvested Roshana’s crop safely.
‘What I got back is not just my land, but a second life… I will never leave this samooh,’ says Roshana.
A growing movement
The samooh is the basic building block of the Mahila Samakhya. It is not only a physical shelter to share their fears and experiences – it is also a powerful tool for discovering their inner strengths and realising their hopes. There are now well over 1,000 samoohs in Bihar State, with over 25,000 members and over 1,500 trained sakhis. The issues which they have supported include:
- primary education in the villages
- enrolling and keeping girls in the school system
- encouraging health care
- drinking water
- action against sexual harassment
- credit and loan schemes
- action against bribes and corruption
- action for environmental protection
- skills training, such as building, screen printing and hand-pump maintenance.
Mahila Samakhya, Bihar Education Project, Beltron Bhawan, Bailey Road, Patna – 800 023, Bihar State, India.