On the onset of spring, during the months of January and February 2005, defying cold winter waves, threats from left wing extremists; every village in the remote districts of Chhattisgarh celebrated to enjoy the charm of the power of self-rule; to rule their native village government. After the state was born in 2000, the state witnessed it’s first ever election to local government bodies. For many illiterate, semi-literate women, it was a dream comes true to fight through contest, paste pictures and file nomination papers, address rallies and gatherings and speak at the occasions.
As head of CARE, an international charity and managing largest nutrition, health and HIV-AIDS programme, I was determined to make Mitanin, grass root volunteers, peer educators, nutrition and HIV counsellor, care and support workers; all the marginalised women and girls to change leaders. It was a mission for me to demonstrate and empower future generation. These illiterate women, girls and sex workers used to visit homes to speared health and nutrition messages, bring left outs and drop outs to village Anganwari Centres and ensure rightful share of free dalia (broken wheat) from Anganwaris.
Our mission during this opportune moment of first local government election in the state was to inculcate and inspire these women to fight election. To begin with, I shared my ideas with close associates and friends in the government. Mobilising these often reluctant but committed women across the state needed partners and stakeholders, networks and alliances.
It was easy to convince either these women or my organisation and government counterparts. I met senior secretaries in the government of Chhattisgarh. Everyone in private appreciated the idea and encouraged me to go ahead with my mission. There was no open support and everyone was afraid of their political masters and election commission. After much debates and discourse, some people supported.
The state election commission gave a mandate. It was mainstreamed with pre-election voter awareness campaign of PRIA and many others. In each district, the members of RAN (Resource Agency Network) established and nurtured for years worked in tandem to make this campaign truly meaningful for the poor tribal and marginalised women and girls. Small grass root activists, volunteers and people’s networks joined the movement. The move was apolitical and mandate was to move a political process; a citizen’s effort to strengthen grass root democracy.
It was not easy to break the barriers, myths and misconceptions and be mobile and go out of four walls. Their unheard voices and unspoken words never scribbled down but their courage and conviction made them to move on to create an island of excellence.
“Just filing my nomination format the collectorate was a victory for me,” says Sunita, a sex worker in Raipur who had often been brought to that building as an accused. Then the final results were out – a complete victory; a moment of celebration. Out of 70,000 women and children that we supported to contest election in more than 9000 Panchayats and 15 urban local bodies; almost 10,000 women and children got elected. There was a buzz in the media and I was eventually nominated for the India innovation award. In a state wide survey conducted by CARE in 2006, the malnutrition over five year period reduced by 20%, the record in the country. This truly satisfied me as a development worker to take this mission forward to many places and countries.