Unleash Women’s Power: Neighborhood Groups in Kerala

By Father Edwin M. John – a submission to the UN Commission on the Status of Women

A massive experiment in the State of Kerala, India, points the way to a new political order in terms of global governance from below, to ensure empowerment of women,  in a wide-reaching and sustainable manner.

The experiment, Kudumbashree, has nearly 300,000 neighbourhood groups of women in poverty-risk, reaching nearly half the families of the State. The groups are federated at three levels of local governance. These groups of women-in-poverty-risk, put together, have a financial outlay bigger than that of any corporate house in the State. And due to such groups, in  a State where women were not encouraged to socialize much outside their homes, more women got elected to the local governance body than men, in the last two successive elections.

www.kudumbashree.org

The experiment that began with neighbourhood groups of Poor women, opened the way gradually to a new system of citizens’ participation as promulgated through Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), integrating not just the women and the poor, but every citizen. All citizens can inclusively participate through small-sized neighbourhood assemblies (neighbourhood sabhas) at the base, which link to ward sabhas at the second level, and to Panchayat council at the top. 

The fact that this could be done in Kerala, which though a State is bigger in population than 41 countries, gives us reason to think of the possibility of its wider or even global adaptation.

The factor that makes Kerala’s programme distinct is  neighborhoodization, supported by factors like smallification, multi-tier federation and convergence.

Unlike self-help groups elsewhere, in Kerala the groups are neighbourhood-based. Territorially organized, they could get everyone inclusively involved. This geographical territory-based approach meant also that the poor women could easily interface with local governance structures which too are territorially organized. Thus at every level of local governance women had an organized voice, a mechanism, to interact. ( Especially In developing countries, being neighbourhood-based gives added accessibility and advantage to women, as here women stay around in neighbourhoods more than men.)  

The insistence is also on the participating forums being small. The bigger a forum, the more the small voices get drowned and they go powerless and helpless.

We need a new political – and economic and social – order that builds on such factors. http://www.childrenparliament.in/Documents/bravenewworld.pdf

One such dream is represented by neighborocracy which is explained as neighbourhood-based sociocracy.

Neighborocracy envisions a world organized as neighbourhood parliaments of about thirty families each. These serve as neighbourhood governments with ministers to respond to the concerns of the neighbourhood and to respond on behalf of the neighbourhood to the concerns of the wider world.  These Neighbourhood Parliaments are federated at various governance levels like that of area/ward, local governance, sub-district, district, state, nation, international region, and the world, with ministers at each level. The elections are to be just from one level to the next. The whole process is to be guided by principles of Smallness, Numerical Uniformity, Subsidiarity, Recallability, Convergence, Consent-based Decision-making and Sociocratic Elections.

Principle of Smallness is to insist that the forums that start from the neighbourhood level and go upto national, international and global levels be so small that everyone could sit around and talk without a microphone.

Principle of Numerical Uniformity follows from the first. If the forums elected are to be small at every level, they can contain only a certain number of representatives from units immediately below. This will lead to a situation where there are no bigger and smaller countries and hence no border wars and hence no war at all.

Principle of  Subsidiarity insists that whatever could be decided upon at any subsidiary or low or decentralized level should be decided upon at that level, leading to a situation where most of the decisions are taken at the base level. 

Principle of Recallability, whereby people at any level can call back representatives elected to the level immediately above, becomes easy because, at every level, forums are small in size. This ensures that people hold power not just during the once-in-five year elections but on a day-to-day basis.

The successive governments of Kerala did a great job delegating to the neighbourhood-group-federations whatever could be routed through them. This gave them more and more reasons to come together and do things together. And the more the forums came together, the stronger and the more cohesive they became. And this approach is represented by the Principle of Convergence: let every activity, role and power converge as much as possible at neighbourhood forums and their federations.

When the decisions are majority-based as in democracy, people get divided. And there is a compulsion for the majority to project the minority or “opposition” in a bad light. In addition, due to the hugeness of election constituencies,  democracy often ends up as the rule of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. Against this, from Netherlands emerged Sociocracy with its insistence on small circles, double-linking, decision by consent (not consensus), and sociocratic elections. Every decision-making based on consent and every sociocratic election tends to leave groups more united and cohesive and glued.

Fortunately, the small-neighbourhood-based approach gains more and more acceptance. States and countries send delegates to Kerala to learn from the experience, and the Kerala government has opened a special training center for such needs.

Again a network of Inclusive Neighbourhood Children’s Parliaments, that is becoming increasingly global follows the above principles. They are being organized in schools and in residential neighbourhoods. Even when in schools, the units are not on the basis of the classes or grades the children study, but inclusively on the basis of the residential neighbourhoods they come from. Every child here becomes a minister. 17 such ministers in each unit of 30 children are for the  17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. There are schools with as many as forty units functioning in the same campus, meeting one hour every week meeting alternatively as territory-based neighbourhood parliament sessions and as theme-based meetings of the various ministries. The children get initiated this way for proactive global citizenship.www.childrenparliament.in;

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=children%27s%20parliament%20global&epa=SEARCH_BOX

All such initiatives give the hope that a new world of governance-from-below will not be very far in blossoming.

So our call to countries and women everywhere: start organizing your own neighbourhood as small-sized territory-based units. We will very soon have a world of women-led empowerment, justice and equality.

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