Mahila Mandal is a non-governmental organisation based in Itkori, Jharkhand, which works with over 9000 women and 600 young girls through self help groups (SHGs) on issues related to domestic violence, and sexual and human rights. It has been associated with CREA through CREA’s Ibtida programme since 2002. Members of the organisation have also attended CREA’s trainings on gender and patriarchy, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA).
CREA conducted several group and individual discussions with the members of Mahila Mandal, as part of its monitoring and evaluation process. The members shared that the trainings have had a profound effect not just on their personal lives, but also on the functioning of their organisation as a whole and on their interaction with their community. Their individual and collective thoughts have changed regarding their work within the organisation, in the community, and at a personal level, in that they now view everything through the lens of women’s rights and related issues.
Ranju, a member of the Mahila Mandal, is a case in point.
Ranju lives in a village with her family—her husband, two sons, parents-in-law, and her husband’s elder brother’s daughter. Ranju completed her graduation after marriage. She is the first and, so far, the only working woman in the family. Her immediate family gives her a lot of love and respect. She takes all the major decisions in the family, as her husband, who is a driver by profession, is often away on work.
However, Ranju’s husband’s cousin disliked her and was jealous of the respect that she commanded from the family and the community. So, he started spreading rumours about her, cursing her, and calling her a witch, blaming her every time a child got sick or a cow gave less milk.
When Ranju found out about this, she was furious and decided not to let him get away with it. She immediately informed the village Panchayat (local self-governments at the village level) and the Head of Mahila Mandal about the situation. She wanted justice and her name cleared! “I now [after being associated with Mahila Mandal and attending CREA’s trainings] had the strength and conviction that I could and would fight for justice for myself, no matter what difficulties I might have to face.”
On Mahila Mandal’s advice, Ranju filed a FIR (First Information Report) with the local police station. When her husband’s cousin was given the notice following the FIR, he was shocked at the turn of events. He never imagined that an ordinary village woman would have the courage and knowledge, and support of the community to take the matter to this level. When he realised that both Ranju and her organisation had the strength and knowledge (to a large extent because of the two recent trainings they had received) to demand justice, he sought a compromise. He promised, in writing, that if the charges were dropped, he would never again harass Ranju (or any other woman). And, if he fails to keep this promise, the Panchayat could give him any penalty it deemed fit. Since then, he has kept his word.
This has been a major success story in the village and for Mahila Mandal. It proved that both the community and the women are now ready and capable of taking immediate and appropriate legal action against any sort of violence.
Another interesting story is that of Aarti.
Aarti got married when she was 18 years old. Her husband is the youngest among the three brothers and one sister. Her father-in-law had passed away years back. And, unfortunately, her mother-in-law died within nine months of Aarti’s marriage. This caused a rift in the family. She was even asked to cook her meals separately from the rest of the family. She had to do whatever the elders in her neighbourhood asked her to.
The only good thing was that after the demise of her mother-in-law, Aarti was made a member of Mahila Mandal. She joined the organisation in 2011. In 2012, she attended CREA’s training on gender and patriarchy. After this, she also attended CREA’s training on PWDVA. “I felt as if a blind could suddenly see”, says Aarti. She shared the following instance with us.
Aarti’s brother-in-law was the head of the family. Thus, he bore the expenses of her wedding and also gifted her some jewellery. However, soon, he made it clear to Aarti that he would take all the jewellery back at the time of his daughter’s wedding. And, Aarti had no qualms about it. She felt that it is his right to take back what he has given. Aarti had always been taught that all that she gets during her wedding and all that she brings with her belong to her husband and his family.
“After the CREA trainings, I learnt that the goods, jewellery, and money a woman gets from her in-laws during her wedding and brings with her are her property. Only she has the right to use them! If someone tries to take away or sell them, legal action can be taken against that person. I told these things to my brother-in-law. Since then, he has not asked me for the jewellery”, says Aarti.
She also shared that before the CREA trainings, she always felt that women are born to suffer and they have to face a lot of challenges in their lives. So, when she got pregnant, she was always worried whether she will give birth to a boy or a girl. And, she gave birth to a girl child. She shared that as soon as she got to know that, she started thinking of a second child—a boy, of course. After all, she had always been hearing that boys are better than girls; while boys run the house, girls are a burden. “I always thought that girls can never do what boys can. But, after the CREA trainings, I learnt that boys and girls are different only in their physical features, not in their abilities or capabilities. Now, I will be glad if my second child is also a girl or even if I do not have a second child”, says Aarti.
Aarti is now involved in all the decisions related to her household and agricultural land. With the help of Mahila Mandal, she plans get the property equally divided among the three brothers and sister, without any injustice to anyone.
Such stories of change have brought immense recognition to Mahila Mandal. The organisation is now responsible for liaising with the government (as the Suvidha Pradhata) regarding cases of domestic violence in the community. In the absence of any notified organisation to take up domestic violence cases in that district, the district court Judge asks Mahila Mandal to take up the role of service provider (a facility under PWDVA).
However, a lot remains undone. Although CREA’s trainings have informed the members of Mahila Mandal about the Act, its intricacies, and related issues, the organisation is facing some major challenges. These include the lack of knowledge among legal and government functionaries about the Act and its complexities, especially within the local context and situations, and non-adherence to the timelines stipulated by the Act.
Nevertheless, the members of Mahila Mandal, including Ranju and Aarti, clearly reflect the impact of CREA’s trainings on gender and patriarchy and the PWDVA. There has been a marked change in the thinking and mindset of the members of the organisation, from merely providing women and young girls information about their health and rights to taking on the responsibility of solving their issues and challenges, with a deeply ingrained feeling and sense of knowing that each of these women ‘belong’ to them. They now understand that domestic violence is not just about physical violence; rather it includes mental and emotional violence.
The thought processes and attitudes of the members of Mahila Mandal, as well as of the communities that they work and interact with, have undergone a sea change. They have gained immense self-confidence. And, they proclaim themselves to be totally “free of fear of any sort”. They have come to realise that they—as women, wives, mothers, and members of the community—are as important as, and equal to, their male counterparts; they are as strong mentally and emotionally. They now feel ‘capable’ of accessing and fighting for the rights of women.