“Unless we play our role, we cannot help solve these problems,” Sunita Devi firmly said. A member of a self help group (SHG) in the Madhubani district of Bihar, Sunita Devi is a Dalit woman in one of the poorest regions in India.
Dalits are considered the lowest caste in Hindu society, and formerly were referred to as untouchables. Yet, despite being both Dalit and a woman, she recently ran in the election to be the head (or mukhya) of her village, because she wants to improve the wellbeing of her community. She realized the important role of women in local governance when she joined the self help group in her village.
The story of Sunita shows the tangible impact of LWR’s work with Church’s Auxilliary for Social Action (CASA) in securing the rights and entitlements of 2,500 Dalit women in 50 villages in Bihar.
Historically, participation of Dalit women in the government of Madhubani has been negligible. They are discriminated against because they are seen as illiterate, depressed and “untouchable”. Most often these women are just involved in domestic chores and miss their participation in any community activities. As a result, they do not know that they have rights that they can claim.
LWR, together with CASA, helped these Dalit women form self help groups. Through trainings on leadership and local governance, the members have increased their awareness of government provisions and have been encouraged to participate in community activities —just like Sunita. They are learning about the local government (panchayat) and their role in it.
“The group becomes a venue for coming together, sharing issues, and learning new knowledge,” shared Ringko Devi, another SHG member.
For these women, joining the SHG means being able to have a voice in their local government. Their involvement in micro-planning for their village gives them a chance to identify community issues and prioritize their needs. They have become part of the decision-making process, which was not the case before the project.
“Women are important voices when it comes to discussing the wellbeing of people in the village. Women should participate; we are eligible,” Rina Devi, another SHG member, added.
“Participation is necessary for women’s development. It is an opportunity to develop ourselves,” Sunita stressed.
Although she lost the recent election, Sunita and the rest of the Dalit women in her village are still willing to speak their minds — with or without a political title.