© Sara Cameron Links | Terms and conditions
Originally produced for UNICEF
"Before, we were helpless. We hardly left our homes. We never spoke to strangers. We couldn't lift our heads. We hid our mouths when speaking and our heads under our saris when we were eating. We walked stooped over, our shoulders bent and our eyes on the ground. We were timid and terrified and believed that if we went outside the confines of our homes then we would become characterless."
Chandrakanti spoke these words in front of a room full of women from her village Chauhatta in West Champaran, Bihar. She stood straight as she spoke, making direct eye contact with me, behaviour that a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Even that gathering of women, all members of the mahila samiti (women's group) would have been inconceivable. In front of everyone, Chandrakanti imitated the way she used to walk, with her shoulders hunched, her face hidden and bowed. The room erupted with laughter and the underlying message was clear - they would never walk like that again.
West Champaran lies in the far north west of the State of Bihar in India. It is a place of flat wheat lands and thatched villages that are cut off by floods almost every monsoon season. The landless peasantry and tribal peoples like the Tharu and the Oraon are share-croppers who work the land for absentee landlords, taking only a small portion for their families. For much of the year the men, and sometimes whole families, migrate to work as brick-makers on clay-rich lands elsewhere in the state.
The family economy is cut close to the bone. The slightest additional burden such as a sudden illness or a daughter's marriage sends many families spiraling into even greater poverty and indebtedness to moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates, as high as 120% per annum. Villages that border jungle areas and the frontier with Nepal are also prey to dacoits who rape, murder, kidnap for ransom, and extort donations of rice and other commodities from peasant families.
Children worked long hours in the fields or in the home. Girls were regarded a as burden on family resources. A boy might be taken to see a doctor if he was sick, but girls rarely were. Most were married while still very young.
Some villages had primary schools but children of low caste families did not attend. In any case, teachers were frequently absent although they continued to draw salaries. Nurses were supposed to visit the villages to provide immunizations but they also rarely showed up. In some villages, water pumps had been installed but were not maintained. There was no system for monitoring services that the government had promised to provide, and most poor families were unaware that they had rights to receive them or that education, for example, was of any value.
The Convergent Community Action strategy was devised by the Government of India and UNICEF to address the situation of the nation's poorest and most excluded populations, such as those in West Champaran (COCA began in West Champaran in 1992 under the name Community Based Convergent Services). It aimed to reverse the prevailing top-down development approach by organizing and empowering women's groups, strengthening the Panchayat Raj or local government, and establishing a cooperative framework in which women's groups, the Panchayat Raj and the various sectors of the State could work together on community-specified plans-of-action. The approach drew strength from the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution which gave rights to communities to determine their own development path.
In 1992, implementation of CCA began in several Indian states, but from the beginning it faced major obstacles in Bihar. The legacies of an intensely feudal economic system, corruption, the power of the patriarchy, the submissiveness of women, the absence of participatory development processes and a heavy emphasis on top-down planning all provided significant challenges. While higher officials of the Indian administrative Service in Bihar were often enlightened about the advantages of community-driven development, the concept was foreign to many others in the extremely hierarchical administration, many of whom regarded it as a threat to their power and an insult to their status. In addition, there was no effective local government, since the Panchayat had been out of operation in Bihar for 22 years (elections were eventually held in April 2001 in Bihar). And, in the early phase of the programme, banks were sceptical about micro-credit and were reluctant to provide the group-loans that were necessary to fulfil economic aspects of the strategy.
Yet between 1994, when group formation got underway, and 2000, CCA in Bihar has brought major gains including freeing tens of thousands of families from dependence on moneylenders. More than 65,000 women in nine districts in Bihar and Jharkhand** have joined CCY self help groups. By the end of 2000, they had cumulative savings of more than eight million rupees (almost $200,000). Savings that were at first as small as Rs. 5 per week (about 20 US cents) have transformed family economies and, with access to group credit, have even led to the establishment of viable small businesses.
The self-help groups have also begun to break gender stereotypes, have raised the status of girls and women, put more girls into school, acted as a force to reduce early marriage and domestic violence and have helped to improve justice, education and health in their communities.
The alliance behind these achievements includes dedicated NGOs, enlightened government officials and determined executives of NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development). While operating from very different perspectives and with different mandates, these partners form a vanguard that struggles to transform an unwieldy and at times intransigent system, into one that is responsive to children, women and communities.
But the real success story of CCA lies with women themselves, and the enormous courage they have brought to their journey out of oppression into a force that is increasingly aware of its collective power to win justice and to fulfil their rights.
**In November 2000, the former State of Bihar was divided into the states of Bihar and Jharkhand. The capital of Jharkhand is Ranchi
Convergent Community Action (CCA) in Bihar and Jharkhand
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