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Women's empowerment in Kerala: From loans to education about laws, state initiative seeks to change lives

Kozhikode: Kerala, which leads the nation in most social indicators, is undergoing a silent revolution. In God's Own Country, women are being empowered not just economically, but psychologically.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

It all began when Kudumbashree, a poverty eradication mission launched by the Kerala government with the help of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in 1998, conducted a state wide survey to enquire about the mindset of its 45 lakh members with regard to women's rights.

The survey, conducted in 168 panchayats through neighbourhood groups, revealed problematic attitudes. PC Kavitha, Kudumbashree's Kozhikode district mission coordinator, said the survey showed that women were the first within the family to raise objection to other female family members travelling alone at night, that many women believed it was okay if their husbands beat them and that boys should be prioritised over girls. "Until this mindset changes, women empowerment and safety can never be achieved," Kavitha said.

E Priya, Kudumbashree state assistant programme manager, said that they simply asked questions and listened, without adding their own opinions or biases. "First, we surveyed our women members. Then, we allowed their husbands in and questioned them. The idea was to understand how women think on gender issues and plan programmes to change their attitudes," Priya added. It was this survey which paved the way for a slew of initiatives set to be launched through Kudumbashree's gender wing.

Kudhumbashree had already been trying to issue the issues of gender, women's safety and domestic violence through district level vigilance groups. However, they soon realised that women, including their members, grossly under reported domestic violence and harassment. Kavitha chalked this up to their belief that it was an insult to the honour of the family to approach the police or other agencies with such troubles.

"They still think that domestic violence should be kept 'inside the family'. Many do not complain about harassment at work or in public spaces. We may not be able to change everyone's attitude. But we can make a difference with our members and that's a start," Kavitha added.

S Harikishore, an IAS officer and executive director of Kudumbashree, said they launched gender education initiatives in 28 panchayats and 14 districts in 2017.  "This year we could start initiatives in 14o panchayats. This is an opportunity for our members to learn from themselves. We won't bring in counsellors to change the attitude, but area-specific programmes to educate our members. The change will happen automatically," Harikishore said.

As per Harikishore’s directions, mission workers are attempting to launch more programmes. Kozhikode district, for example, a leader in gender initiatives, is set to launch its 'Pink Task Force' comprising 164 members (two from each panchayat). K Rajitha, Kozhikode district gender resource person, said that the members of the Pink Task Force were trained in self-defence and would train other members. "They will also co-ordinate with law and order officials and collect information regarding violence against women," Rajitha added.

An advertisement — featuring noted actors Meera Vadudev and Prakash Bare — was also launched, showing a woman becoming a member of Kudumbashree and gaining in confidence. Also in the works: A documentary about the Kozhikode gender wing. MS Afeefa, Kudumbashree's Kozhikode district programme manager, said the documentary was being helmed by noted director Suresh Achoos and would focus on the district's success stories. "The gender wing has given our members a new strength. Our initiatives will change the lives of Kerala's women," Afeefa added.

Harikishore said that the women of each area had specific issues and concerns which needed to be addressed separately. "We can't have one common programme. Women in each area face different problems and we our neighbourhood groups will try to address them," Harikishore added.

How Kudumbashree outgrew its primary goal

Since its inception, Kudumbashree has touched the lives of lakhs of women. At the outset, financial empowerment was identified as the first step towards the emancipation of women. Through its three-tier structure, Kudumbashree started disbursing loans to small and medium-size enterprises and opened up venues for direct marketing of their products. It also ventured in to the solid waste management segment.

After achieving its initial target, Kudumbashree began focusing on female safety and empowerment. It formed vigilance groups at the village level and began training women in self-defence. Women were given a basic education regarding laws that protected women. Neighbourhood groups also gave emergency loans to its members at a rate of 2 percent and emphasised the education of girls.

Kudumbashree has 2.77 lakh neighbourhood groups, 19,854 area development societies and 1073 community development societies. According to its organisational ethos, poverty is not just a lack of money, but a deprivation of basic human rights.


Published Date: Jan 24, 2018 16:33 PM | Updated Date: Jan 24, 2018 16:33 PM

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