Lack of information and data which analyze and document women’s participation in people’s movements remains a grey area at a time when their visibility during mass actions is found to be continuously increasing. Clearly, women’s participation has been on the upswing, and the latest example of this is the fight against the Bhechraji-Mandal special investment region (SIR), in which women made a big difference in the fight against efforts by the Gujarat government to go in for large-scale land acquisition in 44-odd villages, involving 55,000 hecteares. Thanks to women’s intervention, the movement forced the Gujarat government to denotify the SIR’s in 36 villages, confining it to just eight villages of the region.
Women have similarly played an important role in the fight against the environmental destruction being cause to their respective regions by the Nirma cement plant near Mahua, the proposed nuclear power plant near Mithi Virdi, both in Bhavnagar district, and the Mundra special economic zone (SEZ) and port, in Kutch district.
Yet, the fact is, issues related with women’s participation and the hurdles they face in the process have remained elusive. Taking cognizance of this factor, a recent report, “Women’s Role and Leadership in People’s Movements in Gujarat: Voices from Grassroots”, prepared by two NGOs, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan and Utthan, working in Kutch and Bhavnagar districts, respectively, regrets that there exist few oral testimonies and narratives point to women’s participation, little has been done to address the gender issues and analyze them. Even then, the report underlines, over the last ten years, “several issue-based networks involving NGOs and other civil society actors have begun to focus on gender and governance, violence against women, food security and health emerged, creating a fairly enabling environment for engendering the development discourse and practices.” The result has been the formation of a state-level network of 23 organizations in 2003, the Working Group on Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), the only one of its kind in India.
It is against this backdrop that the two NGOs’ report has sought to understand how women’s issues are linked with their security and livelihood. In Mundra, Kutch district, entire households are involved in fishing. Here, nearly 5,000 women daily collect wood and fetch water from a distance, then sort and dry fish when the catch arrives, selling it in the market or house to house. Their major source of the traditional livelihood has now been affected by three types of industries – the multi-purpose port and the SEZ, power plants and metallurgical industries. Not without reason, large number of women began participation in the struggle against the “developmental” projects at Mundra. A similar situation developed in Mahua, where women protested against the Nirma cement plant in a reservoir. Here, extreme cases were reported of women local leaders facing persecution from company officials and cops.
Pointing out that “in all these people’s movements, women’s participation was evident”, the report underlines the need to figure out the level of awareness among women, and how do common issues affect them, directly or indirectly. “A prominent concern is the insecure environment for women if a company was set near their village”, the report says, quoting a local woman leader, Dhaniben Gujaria of Akhtaria village to say, “With the setting up of Nirma workstation, women were not able to move around freely within the village. They were forced to move around in the village till night to sell vegetables.” She gives the example of a “differently-abled girl, who was harassed by company officials”, as also “threats from unknown migrant workers roaming the village”, to point towards the type of insecure atmosphere that has come to stay because of the company’s intentions to set up the plant.
Women activists among the fishworkers movement in Mundra express similar fear. The report quotes Amiben Manjaliya of Ujjas Mahila Sangathan to say that “questions pertaining to women’s security are increasing with each passing day”, with “indecent behaviour” by company official becoming a major cause of concern. Hasina Kungara, involved in fishing for the last 15 years, is quoted as saying that “earlier girls and women could roam around freely from our village to the port, but nowadays, it is not possible to send girls alone.” A local fisherman Ibrahim Manjaliya has been quoted as saying that “company officials are found lying drunk on the fields posing a threat to women in our village.” This prevents women “from moving out of the house and sell vegetables.”
Apart from insecure living, women’s livelihood has been affected because of the “developmental” projects. Dhaniben Gujaria says, “Nirma has already seized a major part our dam-weir land and constructed a boundary line on the cattle grazing land affecting our livestock activities.” Jivuben Wala says, “Our land merged with the sea, making it saline and the entire environment was disturbed by the Nirma company.” Hajiyani Hashi Hajisaheb say, owing to Nirma’s activities, the sea gave “fewer fish.” Manguben Nirmalbhai adds, “The farmers were not able to do enough farming. There were 10 to 12 villages alongside the riverbank which were severely affected. It was destroying the land next to the dam weir. Human beings, cattle and land were not getting enough water”. As a result, “especially women were directly affected.” Only after the court ordered to suspend work for the Nirma plant that the women have sighed some relief, with people starting to access water regularly, including for irrigation and drinking water purposes.
Referring to Mundra, Amiben Manjaliya, an activist, says, along the coast it has become increasingly for women difficult to carry on fishing activities because of industrial activity all around. She adds, “Women now take smaller baskets to the market, and men have to go further into the sea in their small boats, dwarfed as they are by the big ships.” Jannatbai says, “We can see the towers of the new port in the distance, with our day’s catch getting smaller and smaller. We are being slowly pushed further from the sea. But the sea belongs to everyone.”
It is against this backdrop, says the report, that women’s collectives have begun to take shape in the areas of the study. These collectives are meant to address their specific concerns, providing them with exposure to and linkages with other issue-based organizations and forums. No doubt, all this helps increase women’s awareness and participation. Amiben first became involved in a savings committee, and slowly got involved in the issues concerning the village. She participated in a rally at Kundredi village against the rape of a Dalit girl. Ever since, she is associated with NGOs like Ujaas, Setu and Yusuf Meharali Centre in which her role is to mobilize women from nearby areas, spread awareness among them, and organizing workshops and rallies. She has taken up cases of violence against women as well as raised her voice against government officials.
Male agitators have begun to recognize the importance of including women in agitations. At certain places, women activists play “catalytic role” in people’s movements, whether it is Mundra or Mahua. Ibrahim Manjaliya of Mundra, says, “We are quite aware that traders and businessmen were exploiting us fishermen but we were not united yet. So, these businessmen were out in a way to control us… Earlier, we would go on our own to the district collector’s office to submit an application, and the collector often behaved very indecently. However, when we approached the collector by including women in our delegation, he behaved well, and immediately took our application. We then united and formed an organization.”
Issues addressed by women activists include redeeming fishing communities from the deep debts they were in for years. A survey in Mundra, for instance, revealed that 300 families in five fishing settlements were in debt to the tune of Rs 1 lakh each. This prompted women to start self-help groups with the help of several other NGOs. Credit facilities were extended to pay off debts. “The fisherfolk had no practice of savings, but the savings bank gave loans from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh in the name of women”, the report says. Yet, serious constraints exist to the participation of women’s activists in people’s movements from such quarters like family, community and village elders.
In fact, the report says, “There is not a single woman activist or leader who did not face opposition at some level or the other in playing a public role. This included physical threats from the company. The prevailing feudal social set up and varied forms that patriarchy assumed made women’s participation difficult, though it also points towards the significance of their assertions”. Aminaben Manjaliya says, “Taunts and sarcastic remarks from my relatives had a great influence on my husband. In the initial phase I faced many hurdles, particularly for denial of bribe money that company officials were offering to my family members.” Another activist, Aashiben Musa says, “Our participation in the agitation created a problem among our caste members as the caste was split into two, one supporting the company and the other the fishermen, the lay public. The latter was quite afraid of the political reach of the company’s officials and also feared for the security of family members.”
During focus group discussions, women activists pointed towards how they had to hide behind their family members if they wanted to go out of the house for agitation. “Difficulties arose in managing household chores, looking after children, attending meetings and also our income earning work, sorting fish. When women were equipped with information, in particular about the company, male family members and male members of society did not welcome it”, the report says. There were instanced when women started attending meetings, and they faced pressure from villagers, who threatened them to stop attending meetings. Vijuben says, “I had to defend myself against the villagers who used to come drunk in front of our house, burn our fields, and behave in an improper manner. My husband received threats from villagers. The villagers would boycott us during public gathers and my family members and also my husband began to ask me quit agitation.”
The report concludes, “Male perception of women’s role as being ‘supportive’ predominates. At the same time, in the course of the struggles, men leaders begin to recognize women’s mobilization capacity, their wider reach as well as women’s capacities in communicating strategies at household level. While apprehensions of repression by the state, police in particular, and anxiety that the police may enter the household, are genuine, perceiving women as standbys to continue the agitation when men are arrested is often viewed as strategic”. It wonders, “Does it also point to an underlying bias, viewing women as playing only a supportive role?”
The report quotes lbrahimbhai Manjaliya as saying, “The male members never wanted female members to bear any consequences related to the agitation. But then, to strengthen the agitation, women activists and leaders plunged into the movement, drawing in more women so as to have a greater impact on society and in the organization. Gradually, women were active members in public hearings, rallies, strikes. We never wanted the agitation to be weak. Female members were included so that they could carry on the agitation in case male members are locked up in jail. Earlier our committee did not have female members but then all realized that agitation will not be successful without women members.”
— Rajiv Shah