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Beyond swachhta, with women's empowerment: Mandi Vikas Abhiyaan

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Sandeep Kadam, DC Mandi, again demonstrates the criticality of district leadership for change. A district already declared open defecation free, Sandeep has not only continued the momentum, but reenergised it by activating mahila mandals (women groups) across his district. Hailing from Maharashtra, he says the philosophy behind this approach is the teaching of Mahatma Phule – ‘teach a woman, and you reform a family’.
He activated the  mahila mandals through a well-planned strategy. Saksharta samiti, the literacy campaign NGO, partners with district administration. They have vikas doots (development messengers) at the gram panchayat level. Sandeep effected some changes in this grass-root manpower to nominate the best people, many from those active in the mahila mandals. He then conceived a voluntary competitive programme for the district, called the Mandi Vikas Abhiyaan (MVA), comprising five components – Swachhta, shiksha samvad (education dialogue), disaster management, meri ladli ( save the girl child) and micro-insurance. The district and block coordinators (also from Saksharta samiti) were first trained in these five components. These coordinators in turn trained and motivated the mahila mandals, and appealed to them to participate in these activities. The task was to work once a week – four times a month – collectively for the village. A competitive environment was generated in the district, with more and more mahila mandals looking at it as opportunity for developmental work and recognition. The latter was executed through an annual convention wherein the best mahila mandals (54 last year) were decorated last year at the hands of the Chief Minister.

The mahila mandals took up various activities under these components. In Swachhta, the mahila mandals played important part in completing the last leg of ODF campaign by convincing the remaining people not to go out and to construct their toilets. Thereafter, they worked on solid and liquid waste management. They learnt and dug soak pits, for individual houses, as well as at common places. They cleaned the school water tanks and public water tanks (this activity was triggered when Sandeep saw in a whatsapp picture sent from field the poor quality of water in a school water tank and appealed to all the mahila mandals to take it up), swept the roads, made dust bins out of waste cement bags/ old bins and convinced people to keep one in each house. They also took campaigns with the help of children in removing bhang (cannabis), a narcotic plant. They cleaned up public water sources, many of which had fallen in disuse. The philosophy behind this campaign, Sandeep says, is that ‘one who cleans, does not dirties’. Once the mahila mandals were cleaning the village themselves, their children and other relatives thought twice before littering, since they realised their own mother would be cleaning that! When the Prime Minister gave a pledge of swachhta, and appealed to the nation to give some time voluntarily for swachhta, Sandeep deliberated on how this could be made systematic and sustainable – and came up with Mandi Vikas Abhyaan concept.

For meri ladli campaign, the mahila mandals began celebrating the birth of a girl child, organising community feast (earlier done only for birth of a son) and even DJs! They would collectively celebrate girls’ birthdays as well, giving them small gifts. So many songs have been composed around birth of a girl child replacing the word ‘boy’ with ‘girl’. The mahila mandals also became the focal point for receiving training as first responders during any disaster. This was done through the Red Cross: the difference is that due to active mahila mandals, Sandeep has been able to scale this up across the district.

A feedback that parents were not fully involved in the child’s education initiated ‘shiksha samvad‘activities, wherein the mahila mandals visited the schools and discussed childrens’ education with the teachers. They also started ‘basta kholo‘ ( open bag) campaign to open the bags and books of their children to just see and put their signature/ thumb impression – even if some were illiterate they could sense progress or otherwise of their child. These interactions also alerted them to some other issues – alcohol/ drug abuse amongst children – and they could work to try nipping it in the bud. The mahila mandals also promoted LIC’s micro insurance amongst villagers, making their villages ‘Beema grams’. The coming out of women for social activities was not without challenges. But their determination was complete. With strong support from the block/ district administration, they are taking up new and innovative activities as well.

In order to spread their good work, to cross share their activities, and to motivate them, the mahila mandals were given the phone numbers of the local journalists. The journalists began to get so many phones from these ladies, requesting them to come and see their work. They would even get gheraoed sometime, in case they did not give adequate coverage! The mahila mandal women also learnt to click pictures of their work and whatsapp it! A ‘thumbs up’ sign from the DC Saheb, or his team was enough to keep them encouraged!

With the convergence of various programmes, resources also got converged. For e.g. the IEC funds for different schemes was converged, since various activities were handled at the same platform. The district administration also converged other development schemes to those villages that perforned best in swachhta indicators. This has been included in the Central policy now – prioritisation of all Centrally Sponsored Schemes in ODF villages. Various competitions – mahila mandal  puraskar, swachh gram, unnat gram – are announced, and villages/groups rewarded collectively.

Besides the specific programmatic benefits, the MVA is leading to women empowerment. Women, associated with cleanliness, began to question various cultural practices – such as disallowing them during menstrual period in the kitchen/ making them stay in the animal house. They questioned this was unhygienic and put their health at risk. In another village, during cleaning of the village, women were surprised to find large number of alcohol bottles, and have since collectively taken up with the men-folk control on drinking. They are also actively involving themselves and villagers in programmes like bhang plant removal, knowing fully well the damage that this can do to the children and youth. They are getting a platform to speak and gaining confidence to voice their concerns.

The positive environment in the villages generated through mahila mandals has touched panchayats as well. The panchayats, though a little anxious, that district administration is closing up to mahila mandals, has no option but to join the good work. Some of the mahila mandal members are contesting elections successfully. The model is being picked up by neighbouring districts – State may well take it up and replicate across the State.
The picking up of programme by the village women ensures sustainability.

Although the approach is community engagement, as part of it, there may also be a merit in training and involving self-help groups (SHGs) more closely in Swachh Bharat. Two, the involvement of communities through any focal point – such as Swachh Bharat – creates a positive virtuous cycle of people’s participation in their own development. This may also throw up interesting model of media involvement by putting people and media closer together – and people vociferous and empowered. The mahila mandal model also provides for convergence of different developmental programmes at the village level – and takes the programme from ODF to Swachhta, and even beyond. Of course, role of Government remains critical in scaling up and supporting the local initiatives.

As the women beat all odds, and take up seemingly impossible tasks – sacrificing whatever little spare time they had; a thought does come to mind – what about men? Is sanitation a women responsibility alone?

Nipun Vinayak is Director of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India

Date: 18 August 2016