How Sheba George and her fellow activists prepare critical mass of women leaders

By Drishti Raj*

Women have been taught very early on in their lives to base their identity on everything else other than herself. Patriarchy teaches women to be a daughter, sister, wife and then a mother, and devoid her of become an individual with a sense of identity. Slowly and steadily, throughout her life, a woman learns that she is everyone else’s but herself. This belief is further reinforced by marriage which marks the transition of a woman from one social unit to another and she gives up her family name – a vital part of her identity till date- to take on her husband’s name. In India, this cultural belief that a woman is either a goddess to be worshiped or a precious family’s dhan to be controlled and protected is reinforced by films, rituals, music and other form of arts & tradition.

It is said that when you empower a woman, you empower a family and eventually the whole nation. For women to get empowered, it is critical for them to develop a strong sense of identity. Various civil society organizations and civil right activists have been working tirelessly at grassroot level with under represented women to achieve this goal. Ms. Sheba George is one of many such dedicated activists who has been working for 30+ years to ensure women don’t stay behind when the world is moving about equality and fair representation.

Work done by Sheba George in association with Civil Society Organizations

Sheba George has been the voice of women in movements like Women’s Movement of India, 1991 and Domestic Violence Act, 2002. She has worked with prominent people like Indira Jai Singh and Bhawari Devi. The lack of identity in women is a result of hundred of years of patriarchal conditioning, therefore, it can be a challenge to even make the women unlearn what they have conditioned to believe, let alone make them learn and develop a sense of identity away from their family. When asked about what approach they follow for this unlearning and learning process, she said preparing local leadership from their community itself is one of the key aspects. She said, “We used to conduct pedagogy workshops and real-life simulations with experts and professionals like paramedics, policy makers and psychologists to teach them laws and regulations, strategies to negotiate in various situations and other such knowledge transfer. What was interesting to see was that most of these women don’t even know each other names despite being coexisting in the same community for decades now. They address each other by their husband’s or children’s names. They are not even aware about the importance that a sense of identity and purpose holds in the life of an individual. The “I” factor is missing to a huge extent.”

Sheba and her fellow activists worked on preparing a critical mass of women leaders in each of these regions who are conscious of the law and are not afraid to go to the police man and law authorities to speak for themselves and other women. These women were trained to meet local politicians and represent the interests of their community. “What impressed us was that they became street-smart and learnt how to deal smartly with people in power themselves. This showcased their abilities and potential. These women learnt leadership by imitating men.”, Sheba said.

All of us have social currencies through which we navigate in our day-to-day life and build our place in the society. These currencies can be our skills, education, employment, wealth, position in authority or fame, which are also the source of power a person has in the society. However, most of these women don’t have any of these currencies, hence, the activists taught them their power, i.e., the people’s power or the power of women community. It is still a long journey from “I” to “we”. To teach these women their individual identity and their voice as a woman in a large community which is divided by people in power based on religion, caste, race, class, etc.

The role of government

Last 30 years of Civil Society Movement has contributed greatly to uplifting the underprivileged. It is not the work done by just the state and central government. When asked about the support the civil movement organizations received from the government, Sheba responded that with the current ruling part as the central government, it has become difficult for activists like her to be heard and respected. She said, “Earlier the government understood us and respected our work. We were considered someone who actually knows and understands the grassroot problems. Our feedback was heard and valued. They knew we are working for people and we are not reaping any personal benefits from it. All our capital accounts and income statements are accessible on public platforms. Had we chosen the path to take up a private job or establish our own practice, our market value right now would be a lot more than what we earn as civil right activists.” Advocacy has proven to have a crucial role in the policy making and administration in the past. A healthy relationship between the administrators and the civil society organizations will help both the government and the beneficiaries of the policies which are being made.

Sheba feels the task of women empowerment covers a broad spectrum. While the work being done so far is commendable there are still a lot of communities which need representation and empowerment. It is a long road but right voices and government support, the results can be very rewarding.

*IIM Ahmedabad | Post Graduate Programme in Management | Batch of 2021

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