August 29, 2015
One of the first sights greeting me as I arrived in downtown Madurai on a recent steamy summer day was the image of some 450 beautifully sari’d women carrying elaborately decorated flower pots on their heads, marching through the streets to decry alcoholism and to call out government and politicians for their ownership of the city’s ubiquitous “alcohol shops.”
There are more “alcohol shops,” or liquor stores, than schools in this part of town, the women told me. The shops are also located near the schools, where even 13-year-olds can buy hard liquor. The widespread alcohol abuse, the women claim, is fueling the rampant domestic violence in their impoverished community and the “income leakage” in their households – that is, the deleterious frittering away of a daily laborer’s hard-earned income.
I was struck by the women’s boldness in taking on the power elite by shaming them for their ongoing financial interest in a market that only harms people, but I shouldn’t have been surprised: this “De-Addiction Procession” was part of a campaign that cuts to the heart of the women’s own work — that is, the healthful, forward-looking management and upkeep of their families. The deflection of their husbands’ meager salaries to sustain the men’s seemingly soothing addiction translates directly for these women into their inability to purchase and prepare nutritious foods, pay their children’s school fees, repair the leaky roof and keep the sewage from seeping through the floor.
The protest was organized by the Sellur Vattara Kalanjiam, a federation of Self-Help Groups established within many poor neighborhoods, in partnership with WomenStrong International Consortium member Dhan Foundation, a veteran development organization founded on Gandhian principles of justice and satyagraha, or leadership, and relying on the integrity and social capital within communities to chart their own deliberate paths toward self-empowerment. Dhan has been working with under-resourced urban and rural populations both in the Madurai region and all over India these last 30 years, partnering with local and national government whenever doing so holds promise for improving the lives of India’s poor. Through savings programs that enable the largely women-led “Self-Help Groups” to afford healthful meals, safe dwellings and access to recent goods and services, families gradually are able to pay for health insurance, life insurance and incremental housing upgrades.
Although the egregious abuse experienced by the women and their families was a key reason for the women’s anti-addiction march, when we met together with Self-Help Group members and Dhan staffers in workshops during the days to follow, the women initially shied away from identifying “ending domestic violence” as a top priority. We wondered why – was their reticence due to deeply rooted cultural norms or taboos? Had we trespassed beyond what was appropriate for outsiders to question? After all, the women, and Dhan’s male staff members, as well, all agreed that the current “epidemic” of alcoholism is a serious obstacle to development in these communities.
Little by little, I came to understand that I had missed the point. I had underestimated both the genius of these women’s advocacy and Dhan Foundation’s practiced ability to magnify the power of their voices.
The things these women had planned to finance with the income now lost to liquor are all highly practical, reasonable short-term goals, readily achievable, with the modest means afforded them by their husbands’ wages; presumably, these were things the men, too, would want for their children. The women know well that it is far easier, in their intra-familial negotiations, to start from common ground – what every family would naturally aspire to – rather than to come on strong about the dangers and costs of addiction, which might be perceived as criticizing a male provider’s private indulgences, weakness of character or failure to take care of his family. The same thinking informs the women’s going after government and local politicians on this point: it might be more effective to hit them only on their insistence on continuing to own and control the revenues of the alcohol shops, rather than on their failure to deliver safe or navigable streets, safe water, safe toilets and sanitation, decent schools and health facilities and even the most modest green or public space – all the things, in other words, that the public sector is charged to deliver.
By the end of the week’s workshops, after numerous small group discussions, participants listed “women’s awareness of their legal rights” and “families’ awareness of the girls’ and boys’ rights to an education” as among their primary achievable short-term priorities. Perhaps the language and thrust of the workshops had led them to speak in such comparatively abstract terms; in any case, it became clear in the course of our work together that we all shared the same goals, premised on the same underlying values. Yet their strategy, and activism, was already far more focused: one step at a time, in the Gandhian practice, where, as this master of conscience and constructive humanitarian action once wrote, “the mode of fight and the choice of tactics… are determined according to the exigencies of the situation.”
Often when rights-based development initiatives come from afar, professing to know what is needed on the ground, they run into brick walls as they intone about justice and equal rights. The women of Sellur Vattara Kalanjiam and the Dhan Foundation know far better how, step by step, to achieve their desired objectives: in this case, as a start, attaining a significant reduction in domestic violence and increase in available household income to benefit families — all critical components of a robust rights-based agenda. These women of the slums of Madurai and their partners know what is needed, and, often, how best to get there. Our job, at WSI and other partner organizations, is to help them to do so, providing technical and financial assistance along the way, sharing their stories broadly and, most importantly, learning from their brilliant example in ways that can benefit other, similarly bold women in similar settings worldwide.