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Une économie solidaire peut-elle être féministe ?

Christine Verschuur
Isabelle Guérin
Isabelle Hillenkamp

Solidarités, reproduction et production

Organising, gender, and solidarity: some reflections on Indian experience

Ratna M. Sudarshan

Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to acknowledge useful discussions with Prof A. Mathew and Dr Lalit Pande, and the help (...)

1This paper1 reflects on the role of organising efforts in creating feminist solidarity in a developing economy context i.e. in India. A solidarity economy is understood to be one that prioritises collective interest and solidarity over profit. It is thus entirely different from a neoliberal economy associated with a reduction of welfare benefits and an ever-increasing role of the market. In countries like India a neoliberalist stance since the 1980s has been characterised, not by a rolling back of the welfare state, but rather by a new development strategy that rejects both a command economy and import-substitution based industrialisation (Connell 2014). In a democratic society committed to economic development with increasing emphasis on market-based strategies, the presence of citizen groups that are grounded in solidarity (between generations, rich and poor, men and women, between territories), around causes that likely reflect local realities, could appear as an obstacle to change. However, solidarity groups have not, in general, questioned the need for development. The state has supported the formation of women’s groups seeing this as a strategy to ensure inclusion of the marginalised and to help in the implementation of constitutional commitments.

2In brief, this paper argues that the formation of women’s groups has been encouraged by the state (seeking to meet development goals – “growth with equity”), as well as supported by feminists (seeking gender equality and progressive modernisation), in the belief that both sets of goals are mutually reinforcing and follow the same pathways of change. Drawing on recent assessments of two large-scale programmes, it is then suggested that in actual practice, trajectories of change can differ from what was expected. We see that planned change is preferred by policy makers over unplanned changes, and that development goals dominate over feminist ones. A brief discussion of nongovernment initiatives suggests that these too grapple with similar difficulties in meeting gender equality goals along with development targets. This opens two related but distinct questions, one relating to the limits of what has been described as “State feminism”, and the second about the assumptions underlying the concept of “progressive modernity”.

3The first section provides a context for the discussion that follows and reviews briefly the development of feminist thinking in India as well as the widespread support for encouraging formation of women’s groups. The second section discusses two large-scale national government programmes that were built upon solidarity groups and that were expected to be transformative in their impact, as well as some non-government initiatives. The third section concludes with some reflections on the limitations of jointly addressing feminist and development aspirations.


4Feminist philosophy originating from the experience of Western countries has seen consciousness-raising of the individual and collective action for systemic change as the integral parts of a process of change towards equality and progressive modernity. One follows upon the other. The emergence of women’s collectives in India, however, has had a very different history from that of women’s groups or movements in the West. The Constitution guarantees rights to women far beyond those that are socially recognised. The implementation of these rights and the required negotiation within society then becomes the focus of much of women’s activism.

Gender equality and progressive modernisation

5One of the most striking facts about India is the simultaneous presence of several different world views, not only because of high levels of income inequality, but also because of the cultural, religious, geographic differences across regions. The debate on the extent to which there is a clear universality of women’s rights, or whether local cultural values need to be carefully negotiated, is far from over. Research suggests that there has been no wholesale or uncritical acceptance of what is understood as “progressive modernity” by women themselves (Belliappa 2013; Desai 2014a; Vijayakumar 2013). In the context of a traditional society with deep rooted gendered norms that is also engaged in a project of development and nation building, the meaning of “progressive modernity” is itself the subject of constant debate. Traditional gender norms continue to hold sway. As Desai (2014b) in a recent study concluded, “We see a growing assimilation with global culture through television and social media, but this seems to have little impact on social norms”. In a recent study of Hazara women in Afghanistan, Kabeer and Khan (2014) suggest that while on the surface little change may be evident, many different views about society and gendered roles have come to be present and some women, for example, use their resources to invest in a better/different future for their daughters, or in an “intergenerational pathway of empowerment”. What they do not find evidence of is the willingness to exercise greater collective voice in the community. Individual women negotiate in various ways within their homes and families, but the motivation to come together as a group possibly requires some further catalyst.

6The project of development implemented with a “feminist” perspective has tried to homogenise the many different world views into a shared thinking, drawing upon the Constitution and getting reflected in practical projects aiming at the achievement of national goals. There is a tendency, as noted in other countries too, to see women as housewives and mothers, recipients of welfare, while men are seen as household heads and productive agents, and this shapes the way in which women are brought into development policies and programmes (Kabeer 1994). When women’s productive roles are taken note of, this tends to be done in the context of poverty alleviation programmes. It is accepted that investing in women’s work is one strategy to take a household out of poverty. The approach to women’s empowerment in India as expressed in official programmes is similarly characterised by a sense of women as being primarily mothers, while also recognising that all poor women need to work. The term “economic development” places its focus on material aspects of wellbeing; but implicit within it is the idea of social change in the direction of gender equality and progressive modernisation. Modernisation itself is often taken to be a linear process of change with a shift away from social roles resting on ascriptive status to one where individually achieved status determines actions and decisions. Modernisation has also been associated with the liberating role of the market, seen as a space in which individuals were impersonally rewarded on the basis of objective results, and in which patronage networks or “ascribed” characteristics such as sex, caste or race did not influence the outcomes (Kabeer 1994). To ensure that women benefit from the potential of the market and modernisation, the favoured strategy was to enhance women’s access to the market, and see women as agents of development. Progressive modernity for women, interpreted within the development frame, can thus be measured in indicators of achieved status, market participation and public presence: education, employment, political participation, and so on. These in turn are all seen as creating pathways to empowerment. The fact that the underlying social reality of women’s lives (and people’s lives in general) continues to place an emphasis on traditional gendered norms and expectations, and that there is a persisting presence of ascribed status in observed outcomes, is only seen as a hurdle, a temporary constraint, in the process of change and modernisation, to be overcome by the use of law and persuasion, or small financial incentives that would influence behaviour.

Organising women as a strategy for change

7The beginning of a focused surge of activism for women’s equality is often dated to the publication in 1974 of the report Towards equality by the Commission on the Status of Women set up by the Government of India. The Committee had pointed to very low mobilisation of women by political parties as being a primary reason for their limited political impact. But there are other mobilisations. As Sharma and Sujaya note:,

Issues on which women have been traditionally mobilised by “social organisations” relate to their everyday life problems centering around family problems, personal laws, struggles for education, issues of work and wage, maternal and child health, etc which are seen as non-political issues, issues that come under the broad banner of social activity or even social welfare or social development… But, the myriad problems that women contend with in everyday life are related to the larger issue of gender discrimination, which is as much a political issue as it is a social one (Sharma and Sujaya 2012: xxxi).

8If the present “phase” of feminism is dated back to the 1970s, this is a period in which feminists placed considerable faith in the ability of development and feminism to progress in tandem. To meet the stated goals, it is necessary to bring about changes on a large scale, and working with the government enables scale. Thus recognition of the numerous forms of gender disparity in the 1970s was followed by many examples of joint action with government and feminists working together. A strategy that developed quite early was that of group formation. The presence of women’s collectives is very widespread in India as organising women into groups is a part of almost every initiative for women’s empowerment. For the government, such organising of women is a practical way to engage a large number of women and to fast-track the implementation of development projects. For feminists, formation of groups offers the possibility of collective action for change towards equality, by creating a sense of solidarity among women and enabling resistance to patriarchal structures. Women in many communities face high levels of mobility constraints imposed by traditional norms. Girls and women are not able to move about freely in public spaces on their own, however if they are part of a group there is less control and greater acceptability.

9Self-help groups (SHGs) are a mandatory part of various government schemes offering training or credit for women’s “empowerment”; several NGOs and membership-based organisations also organise women into self‑help groups as a first step usually with a focus on savings, credit and enterprise. SHGs continue to be at the core of programmes for women, despite increasing evidence of the complexity in evaluating outcomes (see for example Baily 2011; Guérin 2014; Guérin, Kumar and Agier 2013). Pre-dating the SHG model, similar collective women’s groups or sanghas were formed as the base for the Mahila Samakhya programme of “education for women’s equality”. The question is whether such groups, formed with economic, or educational, goals, display the active citizenship and political awareness associated with the idea of solidarity, as well as a commitment to equality and modernisation associated with the spirit of feminism. In her analysis of women’s groups Baily points out that while being part of a group gives strength, it also confers anonymity and allows men to feel that while a woman on her own cannot achieve much, as a group much more becomes possible (Baily 2011, 111). So collective organising is a practical way of drawing women out of their homes and developing the basis for any collective action, but may or may not be associated with a “feminist” consciousness.

10Feminist solidarity spaces have to find ways to negotiate both within society and with formal structures of governance. Women’s groups stand apart from broader citizen-based groups because of their central concern with issues that concern women in their daily lives, as well as their strategic ambitions. Women’s groups may be sub-sets of larger groups (such as women’s cells within a trade union), or may be largely independent with some degree of overlap of concerns with other groups (women workers seeking implementation of labour laws), or may be in opposition to other citizen-based groups (women making claims to traditionally male sites). When women’s collectives are present, then, one might assume the existence of “feminist solidarity” and expect to find evidence of collective action and engagement with patriarchal structures or institutions.

11The organising of women around practical needs does not mean that gender injustices are not recognised or contested (for some examples, see Kabeer, Sudarshan and Millward 2013). This paper looks at the experiences of some collective organisations of women to explore the question of whether such women’s solidarity groups achieve success in their dual objectives of furthering development and empowering women. Women’s collective initiatives have developed with a social, educational, political or economic focus. Whatever the stated and original goal and strategies, subsequent trajectories will be influenced by many factors; collectives may degenerate, disband, or develop into a sustained presence; goals may get narrowed or may expand into questioning the macro structures and ideologies of the economy. There are differences in experience between organising that is itself a matter of policy, or what could be called “policy-dictated organising”, and organically evolving collectives. Two well-known examples of women’s organising, self-help groups formed during the Literacy campaign, and women’s sanghas of the Mahila Samakhya programme, are briefly discussed below.

Women’s organising

The Literacy movement and formation of women self-help groups (1988‑1994)

  • 2 Personal communication
  • 3 Referring to processions used for mobilisation.

12The National Literacy Mission (NLM) was launched in 1988. It was conceived as having three phases, Total Literacy Campaigns (TLCs), a Post Literacy phase, and a Continuing Education phase. The first phase of the TLCs relied heavily on social mobilisation, that is, the voluntary involvement and support of all sections of society towards meeting the Mission goals. To enable these, several pre-existing activist groups (in particular the people’s science movement, which aims to popularise science) came together to form the Bhartiya Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), which itself became the umbrella for the literacy movement, providing energy and leadership. There was an overwhelming response from women. Women saw a status in being literate. Women might not ever have had the opportunity of schooling (while more of the illiterate men were school dropouts), the social mobilisation of the literacy campaign linked literacy to immediate needs, and there was a social acceptance of the programme. All factors combined to make women between 60-‑70 per cent of learners and volunteers (Sundararaman 1996). BGVS accordingly aligned its strategies to be in consonance with women’s needs. A core strategy was the formation of self-help groups, first formed within the literacy movement by the Mahalir Association for Literacy, Awareness and Rights (MALAR) in Kanyakumari and extended with BGVS support through other states. SHGs were seen as being crucial for sustained life-long learning. Each group included literate and non-literate women and was organised around both literacy and “self-help for livelihood” objectives. They were formed among the poorest women and could be successfully organised even against the background of communal conflict as in Dharmapuri; confirming, perhaps, that “[d]eprivation is a cementing factor for solidarity” (A. Mathew2). A large number of such groups were formed, many of which were formed as a result of the Samata Jatha of 1993, a jatha3 of women for education, equality and peace which reached out to over two hundred thousand women. Livelihood objectives were dominant and in some cases the thrift groups followed the formation of production co-operatives (Sundararaman 1996). With facilitation from BGVS volunteers, the groups discussed and mobilised to address a range of social issues, including alcoholism, education, health, and minimum wages. Monthly bulletins of discussion sessions were widely distributed.

  • 4 Arrack is a local alcohol brewed and sold locally.

13It has been pointed out that there was very little attention given to gender issues in the planning and design of the literacy campaign. The combination of information, consciousness raising cultural activities, group formation, and regular meetings, however, encouraged women’s organising, solidarity and political action. Perhaps the best known example is of the anti-arrack4 agitation in Andhra Pradesh (Mishra 2012; Dighe 2012). In the village of Doobagunte, Nellore district, two men died after a bout of drinking, and this triggered an agitation in the village led by the women, to stop arrack vending. Prior to this incident there had been a lot of discussions in the village on the evils of drinking, facilitated by NLM volunteers. News of the agitation spread across the state, helped by the fact that it became part of a post-literacy primer. The spread of the agitation was partly spontaneous, partly planned by a core of progressive NGO activists (Sundararaman 1996). There were agitations all over the state, which all opposition parties, voluntary organisations, women’s groups, etc, joined. The agitation started in a literacy centre in Nellore and forced the government of the day to go in for total prohibition on October 2, 1992. By the late 1990s however this decision was reversed by the new government which had favoured prohibition when out of office. Other examples of women taking bold strides include women learning karate for self-defense as an outcome of participation in the literacy campaign in Sivagangai and cycling for better mobility in Pudokottai.

14Ghosh (1997) in describing the experience in Nellore writes that “facilitative factors of a volunteer based and loosely structured programme provided the space to think and act freely”. Literacy became an opportunity to reflect collectively and use the organisational structure of the TLC for political action (Goetz 2004). At the same time, the spaces so created turned out to be transient: the entire literacy movement could only be described as “a brief flicker”, a “five year wonder” (Sundararaman 1996). Assertion by the deprived to get their rights was seen to be an integral part of the NLM and was initially tolerated by the government. However when social mobilisation led to people taking on wider economic or political issues, there was strong opposition from the government of the day. This led to removal of the NGO activists or transfer of district officials. For example, mobilisation by volunteers meant that people were able to access local facilities without having to go through political brokers, simply by asserting their rights with the support of the group. This was observed especially in some of the states in South India. As Sundararaman puts it:

The fact that volunteers would do mobilisational work – which till then needed money or influence of the patrons – and the people could get services on their own – which was their right but so far had needed mediation by political brokers – was a threat that could not be tolerated. It was not a political party that was threatened or was threatening. It was a way of doing politics that was threatened and that was threatening. (Sundararaman 1996: 1195).

  • 5 A. Mathew and others during the colloquium on “Evaluation with special focus on educational program (...)

15Regular evaluations were carried out of the programme. However these evaluations came to focus more and more on literacy outcomes as narrowly defined or the 3Rs – reading, writing, arithmetic. Qualitative aspects, in particular the social mobilisation taking place and its impacts, were missed. The success of the effort was judged by the increase in number of persons who were literate. As a result the other outcomes that were also an impact of mobilisation were missed and devalued5. Moreover the view that came to prevail was that the focus needs to be on schooling for all, so that the “stock” of illiterates does not keep on growing. With no great commitment to adult education, and the with‑drawal of funds from the BGVS movement (starting in 1996‑1997, and fully in 2000), the experiment ended. The failure to provide funds on a regular basis for the Continuing Education programme meant that the transformatory potential of the programme was kept in check. Pruning the wings of the BGVS and the TLC, so to say, could be seen as a way in which the state kept control over what could have become a radical churning within society.

Mahila Samakhya (MS) and women’s sanghas

16The MS programme was started in 1989, so that it developed in parallel with the NLM. Unlike the latter however MS continues to receive funds and is an accepted component of the package of education programmes of the central government. The MS programme was visualised as a programme of “education for women’s equality”. It brought together feminist experts and the education bureaucracy to provide the frame within which the programme could develop. Feminist movements have to confront deep-rooted patriarchal social norms, and the MS architects believed that a progressive state is an ally in the change process. It was believed that the collaboration between bureaucrats and feminists could create a “State feminism” with no compromises on basic principles on either side. Reflecting the feminist understanding of empowerment as a process “with no short-cuts and no predetermined routes”, the MS project document talks of a “journey without maps” (Menon‑Sen 2012).

17MS started as a pilot project in three states, and has since been expanded. It is now operational in ten states. The programme was developed on the understanding that education plays a central role in empowering women to achieve equality and is housed in the Education Department. MS societies have been set up at state level, and the programme staff consists of women recruited for this work, and who are not career civil servants. A National Resource Group plays an advisory role and seeks to support the programme as well as strengthen the feminist understanding of the programme team. Thus MS is a government programme that works very closely with women activists at field level as well as at the national advisory level. Programme activists help to mobilise women from marginalised groups in the village and bring them together as members of groups known as sanghas. Village level sanghas are federated into larger networks. According to the programme agenda, “[t]he Mahila Sangha or Mahila Samooh is the focal point in each village, that will provide the space where women can meet, be together, and begin the process of reflecting, asking questions, speaking fearlessly, thinking, analysing and above all feeling confident to articulate their needs through this collective” (Government of India 2013). Each group would have a small number of women as members. Once women had articulated their needs and aspirations, the programme could respond to these with a range of interventions. These included training on gender, legal literacy, learning centres for young children, residential centres for out of school girls and young women, and many others.

18The project document stated that women and women’s groups would set the “pace, priorities, form and content” of project activities.

19In evaluating the experience of Mahila Samakhya after twenty years, Menon-Sen (2012) finds that there have been many small changes in particular contexts or as she puts it, “songs of change in a minor key”. These include confronting abusive husbands; negotiating with the family to be allowed to work outside the home; keeping daughters in school. MS has made some impact on the education sector:

Access to education has been a major area of intervention for sanghas in all states. Apart from enhancement of enrolment rates in most if not all areas where it is working, there is little doubt that MS has made a significant difference to the quality of education and the functioning of schools. It has definitely created spaces for girls education within the system, although it is not certain to what extent these spaces can be sustained without constant surveillance and interventions by sanghas. (Menon-Sen 2012, 458)

20MS has piloted initiatives subsequently replicated in mainstream education programmes, such as accelerated learning in residential schools for dropout girls.

21However, over the years, the expectation that MS will help to fulfil education goals appears to have become stronger than the more elusive aims of facilitating open-ended journeys taken by women. It had been expected that women would seek education for themselves and their children, as they came to recognise the role it could play in many diverse aspects of life. But this process came to be seen as too slow.

22At a macro level, this solidarity network has possibly not led to systemic changes within the education system that impact the understanding of gender issues, although the programme has contributed to new administrative modalities that are used more widely now (Ramachandran 2013). Unfortunately, despite its “progressive feminist aspirations”, the routine management tasks of allocating and monitoring budgets and work plans have led to the “strait jacketing of a women’s empowerment programme into a linear and reductionist expansion course typical to government approaches” (Gurumurthy and Batliwala 2012, 462). Menon-Sen finds that sanghas that have been able to challenge and influence informal institutions (such as women’s families and traditional bodies such as caste panchayats) and even the informal/local fringe elements or formal institutions in their immediate environment (such as local schools or local panchayats), have hesitated or floundered in their engagements with formal institutions (Menon-Sen 2012).

23MS has been described as “a radical feminist strategy within quasi-state organizational forms” (Gurumurthy and Batliwala 2012, 457). Another researcher suggests that

[T]he “idea” itself makes visible the “solidarity” network that is politically invested in the product-technology, especially its success in rural marketplaces. Education as a producttechnology can co-exist with micro-finance as another product-technology because both are important modalities of governing the poor with their consent within a political democracy. (Sharma 2011, 127)

24MS feminists have had to resolve the difficult question of how far the programme has been “a middleman for the government” or “a middleman for the women” (Sharma 2011, 168).

25The experience of MS suggests that even though there has been the creation of spaces for solidarity by the programme, this has been matched by the imposition of administrative controls, guidelines, and expectations that limit the possibility of transformative change. The programme is ever more strongly linked to other educational programmes and encouraged to enhance the synergy between them, thus diluting the other and the feminist goals of MS.

26Both the literacy mission and the Mahila Samkhya programme sought to build a synergy between volunteers/activists/NGOs and the government. While NLM was not a woman-focused programme, some of its biggest successes came about as a result of women’s mobilisation and action. MS, which is a woman‑focused programme, hoped to build a structure where feminist activists could have enough space within a national government programme to bring about empowerment of women on a large scale. It is being argued here that the development imperative (of literacy and education in the examples discussed here) translates into clear targets for state departments, who seek linear progression towards meeting these targets; while feminist goals of individual and collective consciousness raising are rarely, if ever, met by linear trajectories of change.

Non-government women’s groups

27The examples discussed above are large in scale as a result of their being supported by the State as national programmes. The question that might be asked is whether other forms of organising that are wholly independent of the ongoing government programmes have a different experience with the difficult articulation of both a development agenda and feminist aspirations. Briefly, what is suggested here is that non-government initiatives have to grapple with this issue in much the same way, albeit their area of operation may be much smaller. The difference is that they may have greater flexibility in pursuing a feminist agenda, but this does require an explicit recognition that slow and meandering trajectories of change are acceptable, on the part of both the mobilisers as well as the funders of such initiatives. Self-help groups are a popular strategy of mobilisation among NGOs. Among those that are larger in scale and well established, PRADAN, a voluntary organisation that works in more than five thousand villages across seven of the poorest states in India, describes itself as one of the pioneers in the promotion of self-help groups in India, having formed its first SHG in Alwar, Rajasthan, in 1987 and as on March 2013, PRADAN worked with 18,736 SHGs across 7 states.6 Generally, the primary focus of SHGs remains savings, credit, and livelihood initiatives, although other interventions may also be made to support activities of SHGs and hence address wider issues. PRADAN, for example, is implementing a project in partnership with Jagori and UN Women for women’s empowerment through the medium of SHG mobilisation7. Among the globally known examples of organising women is SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a trade union registered in 1972, working now in thirteen states, and having as its members poor, self-employed women workers who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses. While SEWA members are part of a wide range of activities, SHGs are formed by SEWA to enable livelihood security. In both cases, spaces of solidarity have surely emerged; in the case of PRADAN the development (livelihood) focus, so far, has been dominant; SEWA’s analysis of women’s needs is contextual and pragmatic and there is considerable evidence of SEWA organising having been able to improve economic, health and other outcomes.

  • 8

28Within a village there can be several SHGs as each one has between 10-20 members. There are many axes of difference within a village – caste, class, religion, occupation – and bringing together women whose life experiences are very different is not easy. It is necessary to find a common concern around which women can come together despite other differences. Two organisations that have developed village level women’s groups in two different contexts are the Uttarakhand Mahila Parishad (UMP) in Uttarakhand8, an informal federation of over 400 village women’s groups in hill districts of Uttarakhand, and Sneha in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, which brings together women from coastal fishing communities (Kabeer, Sudarshan and Milwards 2013). By forming village level women’s groups, a solidarity space is created that is premised on mediating differences resulting from class, caste, or other axes of difference among the women in the village and building a common approach to resource management and other needs. In the case of the UMP, village level organising is possible because of the relatively small size of villages (population being in a few hundreds) and the relatively strong community bonds (encouraged for example by land distribution being more equitable in the hilly areas). These village level groups are connected through a network which provides the possibility of communication and support much beyond what any single group could provide – the decision of the UMP to put forward a candidate in the State Assembly elections is an example of this. The experience of the older and more experienced of these groups suggests that there is no male opposition to activities clearly bringing common benefit – such as better protection of forests – but conflict emerges when women question decisions taken by men for example on the use of land for a road versus grazing. Looking specifically at the issue of feminist enquiry and whether critique of dominant patriarchy is emerging, what we do see is the emergence of questioning and of negotiations, not necessarily or always reflected in changed forms of behaviour or decisions. This experience draws attention to the fact that feminist organising needs space and time to negotiate within society (for more on the UMP experience, see Pande 2013; Sharma and Sudarshan 2010). There can be no quick leaps to gender equality in contexts where deeply entrenched social norms need to change. Small changes such as “a woman’s group making efforts to tackle superstitious practices which harm the health of a new-born could begin by re-examining a traditional custom such as the one that prohibits the mother from breast feeding the baby until every family member has come home in the evening” (Sudarshan and Sharma 2012, 311).

29This very brief discussion of non-government initiatives brings out some parallels with the government programmes, in that “development” or meeting practical daily needs is an intrinsic part of these initiatives. Mobilising women is also integral to the strategies followed. However letting women set the pace of change and identify their own priorities requires, in practice, being willing to accept setbacks as groups may collapse, facing local resistances and conflicts, and not measuring success by the usual indicators (how many women educated, working, in active politics). The greater the control of pre-specified project log frames and budgets on the actions of these initiatives, the weaker are likely to be the feminist empowerment outcomes.


30Cornwall and Coelho (2007) suggest that there is a “participatory sphere” created by spaces that are situated at the interface between state and society which hold out promise of a different kind of interface of citizens with policy processes. People can exercise political agency only when they see themselves as citizens able to influence political discourse and action, rather than clients or beneficiaries of analysis done by others, and these new spaces offer the opportunity for creating a sense of citizenship by letting people acquire skills of active participation. Self-help groups in the literacy movement, as much as women’s sanghas and federations, could be seen as examples of a new “participatory sphere” created by state actions. In both cases, however, any largescale transformative potential of the original idea has been constrained into inaction. This is not surprising, as government-initiated organising efforts are intended to strengthen women’s presence in the economy and polity as it exists; any confrontation or questioning of these frameworks, even if it emerges, would be entirely coincidental, and is not anticipated by the programme.

31To a limited extent, citizen solidarity groups do have the potential to influence public policies, assuming that there is present both an active citizenship and what might be called responsive politics or the ability of those in power to listen and not repress critique. It could be suggested that the brand of state feminism that developed hoped to create a form of “rightful resistance” (O’Brien 2013) where marginalised groups, especially women, are able to draw upon elite allies (feminists) and the government (committed to implement constitutional rights) in order to combat local oppressions – such as unequal wages, violence against women, child marriage, corruption, caste discrimination, access to entitlements under government programmes – leading to a stronger presence within education, and deeper understanding and commitment to gender issues across mainstream institutions. Because these claims are against rights enshrined in the Constitution, it is a within-system reform, not a revolution or transformation.

32In practice, the development objectives (improve education indicators) have proved far stronger in the case of Mahila Samakhya than the feminist one of letting women articulate issues and choose their own trajectories of change (and perhaps, coming to education only after addressing violence). In the case of the literacy campaigns, the political clashes overtook the developmental objective (literacy) leading eventually to an end of the experiment. In both the examples discussed above, it is poor women who have been organised into groups, facilitated by persons themselves coming from a different class (as defined by education, income, work, and/or geographic location). Adding to this the conviction of project managers that within a period of a few years, groups can sustain themselves and do not need further hand holding, the result is only a transient interaction with the women. This is not enough for a sustained change in individual consciousness, leave alone building a sustained collective – it may be enough to impart information about particular projects or activities.

33Women’s collectives can develop and create spaces for feminist solidarity, even in a context of poverty, geographic remoteness and embedded patriarchy. The message of the above examples is not that mobilising women is not required or is unsuccessful: it is, rather, that solidarity that is embedded in development programming finds itself guided into the development objectives over-riding other concerns. Women’s groups do seek to find ways to negotiate within society. If there is limited evidence of groups going beyond this to challenge formal structures, this may also be the result of women themselves setting boundaries to their actions. There are underlying assumptions of the ways in which “feminist” solidarity will play out, expectations about linear progression towards modernisation that do not match the observed reality. Feminist groups need to be able to progress slowly, to meander, to deal with reverse movements and backlash, and to determine what progression is relevant and suitable to each context. Not all groups are equipped to manage and facilitate such processes. Through trial and error, given enough time, and given a minimal facilitation to ensure that questions stay alive, the process of negotiation within society would yield results. Attempting to match this to development programming appears destined to failure.


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1 I would like to acknowledge useful discussions with Prof A. Mathew and Dr Lalit Pande, and the helpful comments of Isabelle Guérin, Christine Verschuur and Isabelle Hillenkamp, with all usual disclaimers.

2 Personal communication

3 Referring to processions used for mobilisation.

4 Arrack is a local alcohol brewed and sold locally.

5 A. Mathew and others during the colloquium on “Evaluation with special focus on educational programmes and incorporating a gender and equity lens” held at National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi, May 27, 2014.





Ratna M. Sudarshan is currently Fellow at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi; she was Director, Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST), New Delhi, from 2003-2011; and Principal Economist at National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi, prior to this. Her research interests include women in the informal economy, gender and education; research and policy linkage; gender and evaluation.


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