|Who Participates? The Case of Rural Women, an NGO and Joint Forest Management in Gujarat (IRMA, 1995)|
Recognising the lack of women's participation in the GVM, AKRSP decided to promote a separate women's group in the village. A number of meetings were organised (from June 1992) to facilitate interaction between the Women and Development Programme Executive and women in the village. Through a series of PRA exercises, the women were able to identify (and prioritise) some of their needs as well as draw, after much coaxing, a village resource map. By November 1992, the Jambar MVM was officially registered (bank account) with 37 members.
The need for a separate women's group arose from the fact that even if women do attend GVM meetings, they do not participate (in the sense of speaking out or contributing to the discussion), partly because of their limited numbers and partly due to social and cultural "barriers" which inhibit them from speaking in front of men, particularly male elders. It was hoped that women would slowly gain self-confidence through their participation in MVM meetings and that eventually they would feel empowered to actively participate in the GVM. This has yet to happen, in fact to a large extent this objective has backfired. Some of the women in the MVM explain that whereas in the past they may have attended GVM meetings, they refrain from doing so now, either due to lack of time, or more importantly, they now feel they have their own forum (the MVM) and therefore, do not need to attend the GVM.
However, the MVM is essentially a self-help group, that is, the women are engaged in savings and credit cycles. There is a group bank account which is maintained by Taraben, the secretary, who records monthly contributions. Taraben is literate (studied upto the 4th grade) and an enthusiastic member of the MVM, which is why the villagers nominated her as the Biogas EV.
The average monthly savings of the MVM is about Rs 125 and contributions vary from Rs 2 to Rs 20, with the average being between Rs 5-10. Total MVM savings to date (September 1994) are Rs 2328. Access to the loan facility depends on attendance at meetings, and therefore contribution to the groups savings. For example, within a 6 month period, if a member attends 4-6 meetings she is entitled to three times her savings, if she attends 2-3 meetings, she is entitled to twice her savings and if she attends only one meeting, she has access only to what she has saved.The money which is contributed to the group savings comes from short-term labour work, either on the plantation, or on construction sites near the village (roads), or as seasonal agricultural labour on the larger sugar plantations of Surat. Some money is earned from the sale of surplus agricultural produce or by selling vegetables from wada land, or milk to the cooperative society in the neighbouring village. So far there has been no major loan distribution - the group would like to spend the money for a collective activity/benefit, but they have not yet been able to decide what this should be.
Although, initial male "resentment" to the MVM was strong, it was usually expressed in the private domain of the household. Husbands told that wives that the meetings were a waste of time and that AKRSP was after their money. Needless to add, some men felt threatened by the separate organisation of women as they thought it was going to put "wrong" ideas in their head and lead them to question traditional values and accepted norms, for example, about a woman's (assumed) rightful place. They tried to stop their wives from attending meetings and in some cases, succeeded. In fact, attendance at the monthly meetings is hardly 50 per cent (16 members). Apart from the reasons outlined, women maintain that they have too much agricultural or domestic work and they simply cannot find the time (even once a month) to attend a 2-3 hour long meeting.
In addition to the savings facility, the MVM provides its members with vegetable seeds for wada lands and promotes the adoption of biogas - so far 22 members have biogas plants. These reduce the drudgery of fuelwood collection, provide slurry which can be used as manure on wada lands and a safer cooking environment. But, they do not question who does the cooking.
There is little discussion about plantation activities at MVM meetings - what should or should not be done, how the work is proceeding and so on. When questioned about this, the women replied that they do not have the time for forestry and that this is largely the prerogative of their menfolk. This does not mean that women are not aware of plantation activities and the need for assured supplies of fuelwood and fodder, but their involvement is restricted to short-term labour work, such as digging pits, headloading and weeding. They do not have a "recognised" stake in the protection and long-term management of the plantation, partly because forest protection is physically demanding and can be potentially dangerous (dealing with offenders). As far as their informal roles in this respect are concerned women do take it upon themselves to inform the GVM office bearers if they see cattle straying into the plots or any other unwarranted act.
However, one reason which could, albeit tentatively, be posed for women's apparent lack of interest in forestry, beyond employment, is that Jambar is essentially a subsistence agricultural economy. Not only is agricultural work demanding and time-consuming, it often has to be complemented by the search for other sources of income. In this context, the response to the decreasing availability of fuelwood has been twofold:
(i) Use is made of dried crop residues, particularly tuver stalks
from farmlands and small twigs, etc. from around the fields in the case of
farmers having their own land/trees.
(ii) The collection of fuelwood (from the forest) is limited to two intense periods of the year (winter and summer) when agricultural work is relatively less time consuming.
Thus, women have been able to adopt strategies through which they can cope with the problem of decreasing fuelwood resources. In addition, the introduction of biogas has also helped to reduce the dependence of some families on fuelwood, which could mean a marginally greater availability of fuelwood for others.