#ChooseToChallenge: Women and Social Change in Chhattisgarh

Our work very often takes us to the interiors of Chhattisgarh where we meet many women and young girls who have managed to stop violence and abuse in their lives. This has taken many years. The very fact that they can talk about it among their peers, in their families, and even travel to talk about domestic violence, discrimination and inequality are all signs of the gradual gnawing away of deep-set social patriarchal norms.

But this change hasn’t taken place overnight — years of workshops, meetings, sessions to familiarise women with and simplify heavy-duty words such as sexuality, patriarchy and emancipation have meant that they can identify and acknowledge the negative social norms around them.

Social change is a long and tiresome process. And on issues of women empowerment and gender equality, that change is particularly slow. A child is groomed to adhere strictly to social norms, efforts are made to uphold the strict norms and there is absolutely no room for dissent or disagreement. As development practitioners for some years now, we have been working on gender issues and keenly looking for signs of changes in the villages where we work. These changes and the role the youth is playing to break these norms resonates with this year’s International Women’s Day theme — #ChooseToChallenge.

A case in point is Janjgir-Champa district, where Adivasi and Dalit women have started identifying and calling out patriarchal bastions and no-go zones — caste panchayats. Until almost four years ago, it was an all men’s club. Only now are women being either elected or selected for state and district level positions. When you meet them, they will proudly explain how they have amended rules regarding marriage expenses and social rituals and made them more gender sensitive.

One woman who stands out is Kamini Dharma. She is the first woman from her village who to become the secretary of the Satnami caste panchayat. Three years ago, it was unthinkable – for her and the male panchayat members. While the caste panchayat does not hold any legal sanctity, community members prefer it as their first port of call. For instance, if a woman faces domestic violence, she would ideally approach the police or a protection officer under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, but a Satnami woman from Komo – where Kamini is from – would not.

This is how it plays out — the natal family approaches the caste panchayat to seek justice. The panchayat will then listen to the perpetrator of violence and a male family member of the survivor of domestic violence before coming to a decision. So what is the problem, you may ask. Well, the survivor of domestic violence is nowhere in the picture. There are no women decision-makers in the panchayat; it was assumed (and rightly so) that the woman wouldn’t be comfortable talking about her problems.

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This was one of the things we wanted to change through our project. But considering that the caste panchayats do not allow any outsiders and non-Satnami in their meetings and proceedings, this was going to be an uphill task. We could not attend their meetings but they could attend ours. And so we kept inviting them to all our gender equality meetings. They became regular attendees. This served two purposes — it helped them revisit their orientation on gender equality and it helped build a relationship of mutual trust with our field team.

But we had to not just get the horse to the water, but also make it drink. The moment came when after several meetings they realised and decided they needed women in decision-making roles so that survivors of domestic violence could speak up. The all-men’s club had finally opened to women. Kaushal Banjarey, one of the seven members of the block level caste panchayat, says, “When I look back, I lament how stupid we were. We were not even aware of the basic principle of justice. We never heard the survivors and did not even think it was necessary to do so.”

Our project’s focus on developing women’s leadership also meant that Kamini was a ready candidate. She was selected as the first woman in the role of block-level president. “It wasn’t an easy responsibility. I didn’t want to fall short.” And she has proved her worth – Kamini is now the district-level vice-president of the Satnami Samaj.

Kamini’s presence in these forums has brought about a positive impact. Women and men listen to her. Men have started to share responsibilities of household chores — cooking, cleaning, care giving — all considered the sole responsibility of women. This has meant more time in the hands of women who can now reach out to other women in need of help. This is not just restricted to a particular caste or community. As they say, there is a lot of ‘Bahanapa’!

Any social change is a long and tiresome process. But attempting a change is worth giving a shot. There are a few simple steps — raise feminist children, make curriculums in schools and colleges gender-sensitive, make workplaces accommodative and appreciative of special needs of women. They are tiny steps we need to take to make that giant leap to change the way women are forced to live their life.

It is time, and we have to choose to challenge.

Urmimala Sengupta until recently worked at Oxfam India in Chhattisgarh and was instrumental in running the Creating Spaces project under which the work with caste panchayats was accomplished. She is now with Terre des hommes (Tdh). Anand Shukla is Oxfam India’s regional manager of Chhattisgarh and is based out of Raipur.  

Featured image: Representative image.  Photo: Reuters