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.

Learning from Failure

July 31, 2019 – Our Learning Working Group organized it’s second special learning event of the year. Objective: To build a culture of sharing and learning from failure as well as apply some standardized tools to help along the way.

Recording of the call

10:00 am         Introduction, LWG co-chairs

Sia Nowrojee, 3D Program for Girls and Women and Matt Lineal, Nuru International

10:15 am Case Studies in Learning from Failure

  • From Community Participation to Community Leadership and Ownership of a Rural Women’s Organization in Western India: The Case Study of MASUM in Maharashtra State, Dr. Manisha Gupte, MASUM, Pune, India
  • Learning from Failure through Developmental Evaluation: FCF Cambodia, David Yamron, Search for Common Ground, Washington DC, USA
  • From Policy Change to Policy Institutionalization, Brett Weisel, Global Health Advocacy Incubator, Washington DC, USA

11:00 am Q&A

11:25 am Closing

Click here for speaker bios!

Capacity Development

2019-02-27 Special Learning Event

Full recording

This was the first Learning Session organized by the newly-formed CLD Learning Working Group, which evolved from the Locus Learning Working Group. Co-chairs: Matt Lineal (Nuru International) and Sia Nowrojee (3D Program for Girls and Women)

Brian Viani, Leadership & Training Strategic Advisor, Nuru International, From ‘Capacity Building’ to ‘Capacity Development’: Definitions and Approaches (slide deck below for download)

Smriti Lakhey, Chief Operating Officer, Root Change, ‘Self-Facilitated’ Capacity Development

Nurhan Kocaoglu, Senior Program Officer, Counterpart International, Recipient or Partner?

All Human Beings

The final post in our series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Photo: United Nations.

On December 10, 1948 the newly established General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR). No nation voted against it, although a few, like Saudi Arabia, abstained. That means today is the 70th anniversary of what is undoubtedly the most important document of the modern era, and expressed the aspirations of a world population still reeling from the horrors wrought by fascism during World War II.

The UDHR is a political document – hammered out over two years by a Commission ‘“made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee.”

The preamble begins, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,” (That paragraph refers to the “Four Freedoms” speech by President Roosevelt before the US entered World War II, of his vision for the Post-war world.)

If you could sum up the 16 Days of Activism in just 3 words, “freedom from fear” could be it. Not only do a huge proportion of women and girls fall victim to gender-based violence, all women and girls live in fear of it.

Many today argue (as they did in 1948) that Human Rights are not universal, but Western – and that the thought of gender equality is especially Western. But there is  rich literature from every region and culture demonstrating that these ideas have been held by spiritual leaders forever.

Article One begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It reminds many of the US Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Apparently in the drafting stage, Mrs. Roosevelt prefered using the language “All men.” So who  got it changed? It was Hansa Mehta of India.

Hansa Mehta

India is a nation where the status of women is exceptionally bad, and its Women’s Rights Movement goes back more than 150 years in its struggle for gender justice. Hansa Mehta was among the 15 women who were part of the constituent assembly that drafted India’s Constitution – (which, unlike the US Constitution, establishes Equal Rights for Women), and she served as president of the All India Women’s Conference in 1945-46 where she proposed a Charter of Women’s Rights.

The Nobel Prize-winning Economist Amartya Sen – a champion of women’s rights – tells the story that men in India frequently come up to him and argue “Our Women Don’t Think This Way!” Sen’s response is – “Well, then it’s about time they had the opportunity to do so!” Certainly, however, millions of Indian women have thought that way for a long time. Had Hansa Mehta not been one of them, its likely the forces of patriarchy would point to the UDHR as a document that reinforces their misogyny.

Halting Sexual Abuse of People with Disabilities

Ninth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Photo: The Hunger Project-Bangladesh

December 3 is the International Day for People with Disabilities. According to the Minnesota website DisabilityJustice.org, “People with disabilities are sexually assaulted at nearly three times the rate of people without disabilities.” The site reports that 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lives, and just 3% of those cases will be reported. Half ot these women have been assaulted more than 10 times. 50% of girls who are deaf have been sexually abused compared to 25% of girls who are hearing; 54% of boys who are deaf have been sexually abused in comparison to 10% of boys who are hearing.

At the beginning of 2018, NPR news began reporting on this “sexual assault epidemic no one talks about,” focusing on individuals with intellectual disabilities – where assault rates occur at 7 times the rate they do against people without disabilities – 12 times the rate for women.

The 2030 Agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 – make a global commitment to “leave no one behind.” Today, the United Nations is issuing its “UN Flagship Report on Disability and Development 2018 – Realizing the SDGs by, for and with persons with disabilities”.  The report highlights the growing number of good practices that can create a more inclusive society in which people with disabilities can live independently.

Independence could prove crucial for halting sexual abuse. NPR found that the predators attacking people with disabilities were often their caregivers. Most caregivers in institutions are loving people, but for someone who is a predator, the situation is ideal – with individuals under their care totally dependent.

The Movement for Community-led Development is made up of groups working to empower all people to be authors of their own development – including those living with disabilities. Several of its members have received the Disability Inclusion Award from InterAction, which is the association of International relief and development NGOs based in the US. For example:

  • Mercy Corps addresses the special needs of the 10% of people with disabilities among refugees crossing from Syria into Jordan. Here is a heartwarming story of their success in enabling a 15-year-old girl with severe physical disabilities to return to school.
  • World Vision has published this guide on Best Practices in Disability Inclusion. For example, they recognize that the ability to provide wheelchairs is only part of the solution for those who need them. “It takes community engagement to not only support service provision but also ensure inclusive societies and environments.” They have also used the Citizen Voice and Action social accountability tool to support people with disabilities in six countries to demand appropriate services.

Other Movement members have teamed up with organizations with special technical skills in the inclusion of people with disabilities. For example, CBM International works with The Hunger Project, Save the Children and others applying its Community-based Rehabilitation approach to disability inclusive community development.

While the situation of abuse of people with disabilities is heartbreaking, addressing it in the era of the SDGs is gaining more and more international focus. To learn more, see:

Community Action to End Modern Slavery

Part 8 for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Photo: iStock.com/Favor of God

December 2, 2018 is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. Modern-day slavery is appallingly widespread. According to the UN more than 40 million people are in forced labor, including 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors.

What can be done? In November 2016, a new legally binding Protocol by the International Labor Organization (ILO) designed to strengthen global efforts to eliminate forced labor, entered into force. A global campaign is underway – The 50 for Freedom campaign – which aims to persuade at least 50 countries to ratify the Forced Labor Protocol by the end of 2019. To date, 27 have done so – and their website invites you to help petition the leaders of the world.

The 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report by the US State Department highlights community action as an essential component of this global challenge. It states “National governments cannot do these things alone. Their commitments to this issue are more effectively realized in partnership with the communities that face it, including local authorities, NGOs and advocates, and individual community members who are often the eyes, ears, and hearts of the places they call home.”  The TIP report notes success stories in Nigeria, Nepal and in the US where local communities were key in intervening to halt trafficking.

During last September’s #JusticeForAll campaign, Holly Burkhalter of the International Justice Mission (IJM) published the example of the Released Bonded Laborers Associations (RBLAs). Organized in five districts of Tamil Nadu, India, RBLAs are made up of survivors of modern-day slavery in India. Although bonded labor is illegal in India, Burkhalter reports that 13.3 to 14.7 million people are literally slaving away in brick kilns, rice mills, textile factories and rock quarries across the country. Many have been transported hundreds or even thousands of miles from their homes by the traffickers – a strong barrier to their escape.

Burkhalter writes that the RBLAs “make an inestimable contribution to helping reintegrate newly released men, women and children into their home communities, which is essential for the restoration of people who may have been enslaved their entire lives.  The RBLAs, who have received training and support from International Justice Mission, the Madras School of Social Work, the Foundation for Sustainable Development (a grassroots association of scheduled tribes and castes) and others, help newly-released laborers to secure livelihood opportunities, enroll children in school, and link their communities to government services.”

Namati is an organization that trains “grassroots legal advocates” – sometimes called “barefoot lawyers” or “community paralegals.” It supports a network of organizations like IJM that share this approach.

Child sex slavery is perhaps the most horrific aspect of modern slavery, and illustrates how international interventions like the TIP report and local community advocacy can work together to make a difference. In the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, they tell the story of “Svay Pak, a Cambodian village that used to be one of the notorious places in the world for sex slavery. On Nick’s first visit, brothels there had seven- and eight-year-old girls for sale.” After the US State Department strongly criticized Cambodia in its TIP report – and IJM opened an office there, he reported seeing only 10% as many. “This is a sign,” they write, “that progress is possible.”

HIV/AIDS is Gender-based Violence

Part 7 for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

December 1, 2018 – World AIDS Day: In the 1980s, the first cases of AIDS were a shock to everyone. It took months for top researchers to understand it. In Africa, where the pandemic became most widespread, the campaign to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS forced both women and men in rural and urban communities to rethink gender roles and other traditions that had prevailed for thousands of years.

Gender fueling the spread of HIV. In Africa, while males do not necessarily have any more sexual partners in a lifetime than men in other regions, they tend to have them concurrently. And women were socially conditioned to not say “no” to sex. In addition, in some areas, sex was part of traditional rituals.

Communities take up the challenge. In such situations, and particularly in a largely rural society, mere “messaging” is never enough. Organizations such as those in the Movement for Community-led Development, needed to launch massive campaigns to provide accurate education about HIV/AIDS to grassroots community leaders – or “animators” – who in turn would educate all the members of the community.

Beyond the Facts: While having people know the facts is crucial, it has also been necessary to create spaces where community members can analyze their own situation – identify their own barriers to halting the spread of HIV (basically their own gender analysis) -and launching their own solutions. In some cases, community members created solutions that the NGO community organizers would have never imagined. Here are some examples from Malawi, which has a high infection rate:

  • One group of women complained that they needed a way to control the use of condoms themselves. The animators had no idea there were such things as female condoms, until they contacted the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and discovered such things did exist but “nobody wanted to use them.” The women were provided female condoms and – since they had asked for them – they felt they had “invented” them. They publicized them throughout their communities – spreading the word that “sex was better with them than with male condoms.”
  • In another village, there was a closely held tradition of cleansing the “spirit of death” from a home after a man had died, by having someone have sex with the widow – an obvious disaster when the man died of AIDS. The elders said “we have to remove the spirit of death” but concluded they could create a “new tradition” of having a married couple of that family have sex in the home.
  • Campaigns were held to promote voluntary testing and antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, which was widely successful but was not taking hold in one community, with no explanation. The community members carried out some very private interviews, and learned that the local health workers was not being confidential about test results. He was fired, and the community animators informed everyone that in the other communities there had been no problem with confidentiality, and trust was restored.

Living Positively: Initially, microfinance groups in Malawi were reluctant to loan to HIV-Positive people, on the assumption these people would not have long to live – despite the fact that ARVs were becoming widely available. To overcome this stigma, “Living Positive”with HIV support groups were established, and microfinance organizations reserved a special part of their capital for loans to those groups.

Investing in Community Health. The massive international effort to fight HIV/AIDS initially had the unfortunate side effect of pulling the already-scarce health professionals out of the community health system to focus on HIV/AIDS. Now, the world is coming to recognize that even “single disease” campaigns must intentionally focus on strengthening the overall community health system, and engage community members every step of the way.

Ownership and agency. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, whatever action we contemplate, we must think of the face of the poorest person we have ever seen, and ask ourselves whether the action we take will restore her to control over her own life and destiny. Applying this wisdom has proven invaluable in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa – it was proven again in the response to Ebola (link) and Malaria (link) – and it is a mandate we must apply to all development activities.

Denying Health Care is Violence

Third in a series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Photo: The Hunger Project – women’s march at the Bissiga epicenter.

There is a heartbreaking scene in Christy Turlington’s documentary No Woman, No Cry (2010) as a rural woman walks 12 miles to a birthing center, and is then turned away because she had not eaten and the clinic had no food for her.

Turlington served on the US Delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2012 and is the founder of Every Mother Counts. She has produced numerous documentaries on the lack of health care that currently leads to the needless death of hundreds of thousands of women each year.

If this isn’t gender-based violence, what is?

Fortunately, more and more countries are passing legislation ensuring universal, free access to safe childbirth and even some of the world’s poorest nations such as Niger and Ethiopia have trained tens of thousands of “front line” community health workers to reduce this egregious violation of women’s rights.

A key ingredient of Universal Health Coverage is for women in communities to know their rights and how to enforce them. An excellent example is at the Bissiga epicenter (a cluster of rural villages) in Burkina Faso. In 2016, the national government adopted a policy of free health care for pregnant women and children under five. The epicenter committee, trained by The Hunger Project, mobilized community members to further ensure awareness of this new policy, and women quickly began accessing these services.

However, in 2017, health center employees informed them that their funds had run out, and that if they wanted care they would have to pay for it. Community leaders contacted local health extension agents to assert the rights of women and children in their villages, and threatened to pursue the issue at the national level.

Thanks to empowered citizens willing to hold government accountable, they succeeded in halting what was essentially a demand for bribes by health agents. Women and children today exercise their rights to free basic health services.

Health is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…” Ensuring Universal Health Coverage, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, are targets of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Why tell this story today? Today marks two anniversaries that remind us that the quest for Universal Health Coverage is intimately tied to the quest to overcome patriarchy.

First: today Google’s home page “doodle” celebrates the birthday of Fe del Mundo, the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School and founder of the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines.

Second: it was three years ago today that a mass shooting took place at a Planned Parenthood Health Center in Colorado Springs, killing three people and injuring nine. Planned Parenthood’s 700 health centers provide health care to 2.8 million Americans, mostly poor. Some 28 million Americans still lack health insurance in the wealthiest country on earth.

On this, the third of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, we all need the courage and determination of Fe del Mundo and the women of Burkina Faso to ensure that the right to health is guaranteed.

Community Leadership to Halt Gender-based Violence

November 26 – Second in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.

How do women living in impoverished, deeply conservative rural communities fight gender-based violence, including child marriage? You can ask them!

My organization, The Hunger Project, like many others, builds the capacity of women to be the key change agents for ending hunger and poverty in their communities. Halting child marriage and domestic violence are usually these women’s highest priorities.

A few years back, members of our board sat down with community members and elected leaders in Betaga union in Bangladesh. Where a decade before, no women would attend such a public meeting, now they were clearly in the majority in the gathering. At their urging, the elected chairman had declared zero tolerance for domestic violence and child marriage. Some board members – lifelong Indian feminists – were skeptical. How do you handle this, they asked?

One woman stepped forward and explained: “Well, when a husband beats his wife, we go and speak to him and let him know this is a crime, and he could go to jail. If that doesn’t work, we have the chairman go and threaten him with jail, and make him publicly promise to never beat his wife again.” Then another stepped up and said, “Except one time, even that didn’t work, so we just bribed the police to beat him up!”

It is a sad comment on our stand for human rights that many people fail to consider child marriage a form of gender-based violence. It is, after all, rape. Early child-bearing carries a high risk of death for child and mother, and often leads to stunted physical and mental development. It almost always means an end to a girl’s education. Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world: 59% before age 18, 22% before age 15. How do these women stop it?

The women explained: “Many people know it is a crime, so they plan to do it in secret. But we listen to the gossip. If we hear about a marriage, we go and explain to the family why it is dangerous to their daughter and to their future grandchildren, and that it is against the law and we could have them sent to jail. If that doesn’t work, we have the chairman visit, and that usually works. But when we don’t hear about it, we know that it will happen on an auspicious day. We know about these days, so we watch carefully on those days, and if we see a wedding, we mobilize everyone and go and stop it.”

Many educated urbanites consider rural communities hopelessly backward, but this is not the case. Rural communities are “micro cultures” and – with leadership – traditions and norms can change surprisingly fast. Studies (link here) have shown how males come to respect women’s leadership once they are exposed to it. Another study (link here) has shown how trained rural grassroots women leaders can adopt very progressive gender attitudes and pass those on to others.

The message to all of us is – we need to invest in building the capacity of grassroots women leaders. Supporting another million women leaders could make all the difference in bringing gender-based violence to an end.

Change happens in communities, as people interact with community leaders that they trust. When women are those trusted leaders, change can be both rapid and lasting.  It’s in such revolutionary communities that one can experience the truth in author Arundhati Roy’s 2003 quote: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.