Alcohol addiction is one of the leading causes of squandered income in the impoverished communities of Madurai, India, where an estimated 60% of men from poor households are problem drinkers. It also is a major contributor to the rampant domestic violence that confronts women and girls already struggling to lift themselves out of poverty.
No woman can work if she is battered or broken. Violence, or the threat of violence, blocks a woman’s ability to overcome poverty. Everywhere WomenStrong International works, we join our Consortium members in efforts to create safer lives for women and girls.
So in late June, women in Madurai took to the streets for a protest and rally organized by Sellur Vattara Kalanjiam, one of several federations of Self-Help Groups established in poor neighborhoods by the Dhan Foundation as part of WomenStrong Madurai.
Women protested government ownership of “alcohol shops” or liquor stores, which are ubiquitous throughout the city and far more numerous than schools.
It was a colorful march of saris and flowers but intensely serious in its goals. The frittering away of scarce money on liquor by poorly-paid day laborers who are fathers and husbands undercuts the ability of mothers to buy food for their families, pay school fees, repair leaky roofs and keep sewage from seeping through the floor.
The march and rally were part of a broader “De-Addiction” campaign launched several months earlier, with a workshop designed to understand the level of alcoholism in the region and its consequences on families. A rally after the march extended the efforts at awareness-building around addiction, as well as provided a venue for women to learn about financial savings resources and keeping daughters in school while sharing an afternoon of entertainment.
Campaign activities have already created a plan for a treatment program, identified resources to be mobilized and distributed responsibilities. Over the next five years, the campaign aims to create awareness, bring more heavy drinkers into treatment and reduce the overall prevalence of alcoholism.
In taking on the government and its profitable liquor stores, the women showed tremendous courage. But their strategy avoided blame and criticism, opting instead for an approach based in love and common interests, such as concern for the future of children. Many women brought their children to the rally.
Women in Madurai want to preserve their family’s income to reach practical, achievable, short-term goals, such as paying their children’s school fees and putting food on the table. They believe these are goals their husbands and other men share, so the campaign strategy appeals to men, based on shared hopes and dreams.
Likewise, the women took government to task for its control of liquor store revenues, rather than for failure to provide safe water, streets, sanitation, schools, public space or healthcare.
Workshops held around the time of the march helped raise awareness of women’s legal rights and the rights of girls and boys to an education. The meetings also enabled the women to set their own short-term priorities.
Both the march and the meetings reflected the philosophy of the Dhan Foundation, founded on the Gandhian principles of justice and satyagraha, or leadership. Over the last 30 years, both in the Madurai region and elsewhere in India, the Dhan Foundation has relied on the integrity and strength of communities to chart their own paths toward self-empowerment and improvement.
In this case, the women from the slums of Madurai knew exactly what they wanted to achieve: a significant reduction in domestic violence and an increase in available household income. They knew how to get there: with a “de-addiction” program to reduce the number of alcoholics, through lending policies that support the families of addicted men, via addiction education and counseling for students, children and families, and in partnership with NGOs and government ministries. The women also knew how to begin: with a peaceful, powerful and beautiful march of strong and determined women and their daughters.