How writing the words ‘wheat, sugar and kerosene’ changed the lives of marginalised women

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Leaders on leadership

Rachita Vora & Smarinita Shetty

15 August 2018

For three decades, Sujata Khandekar has led CORO [Community of Resource Organisations]. At the forefront of Indian grassroots activism, it has a remarkable track record in community development.

She also co-founded the fellowship programme, a collaboration between CORO and Leaders' Quest.

This article was originally featured on India Development Review. You can find it here

How did your journey with CORO start?

In 1988 the Government of India launched its National Literacy Mission, targeting people aged 15-35 years. CORO was formed a year later, to mobilise marginalised people to solve their adult literacy issues. Many CORO founders came from privileged backgrounds; employed and well-educated, we were, in many ways, ‘outsiders’.

As a junior engineer in the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, I was deputed to CORO by the Government of Maharashtra. I joined as the volunteer representative from Stree Mukti Sanghatana, which worked on women’s empowerment, and Yuva Shakti Pratishthan, which fought for low-cost, clean food for all.

Tell us about the early years at CORO.

Literacy-related work was a big teacher, personally and organisationally. Coming from a middle class, Brahmin background, I had a stereotypical understanding of low income communities. One either hates these people or pities their conditions, but there’s never a sense of connectedness with them.

In my mind, I had gone to the community to help. The ‘I’ was prominent. But through CORO, I learnt about life, human nature, social structures, and social change. My work has since impacted the way I perceive, feel, think, express, connect, and analyse; and I had to work a lot on myself over the years.

Organisationally, the work taught us why and when interventions become relevant to people’s lives, why and how people ‘own’ processes of development, and what it means to be participatory.

Why did CORO’s work become women-centric?

Women from the community were largely non-literate; unlike men, they admitted it. Many of CORO’s founders came from the women’s movement, and women from the community pushed us, by bringing us their issues, almost demanding solutions. They spoke about everything: the violence inflicted on them, health issues, unsafe and unclean toilets.

I remember early on, when I saw a woman being beaten by a drunk husband, I thought, “why isn’t she walking out of this marriage?” Through my immersion in CORO I began to understand that such alternatives didn’t exist for these women. The ‘cure’ in their case was ‘costlier than the ailment’.

Was that a turning point for you?

There were many turning points, but I remember two in the early 1990s. The first was when CORO helped the community access the public distribution system.

Most government-licensed ration shops are run by private shop-owners, and many are protected by the local mafia and political parties. They wield a lot of power. Women in Chembur-Trombay (Mumbai) had many grievances and felt helpless because there was no redressal mechanism.

We realised that every ration shop was required by law to have a complaint book, which could be accessed at any time by its customers. Within 15 days of any complaint being lodged, the designated officer had to report back on action taken. This process involved literacy (writing a complaint needs writing skills), so we saw this as an opportunity.

The women had 24 types of grievances (quality of commodities, mechanisms for obtaining them, shop-owner behaviour etc). We set aside the government-issued literacy kits and designed our own. Our first lesson was how to write wheat – gehu. Then sugar, then kerosene, and so on. We structured our literacy programme around this kit, and mobilised women to go in groups and lodge complaints. What came next was magical.

When women, en masse, started writing complaints, shop owners began pleading with them to rescind them. They even offered a 15-day advance of kerosene supply, in exchange. This was pivotal. It made women realise their power, and the power of their words. All of a sudden, literacy didn’t seem so irrelevant.

"It made women realise their power, and the power of their words. All of a sudden, literacy didn’t seem so irrelevant."

The second turning point came when CORO was struggling financially. With no funding in sight, I held a meeting with our community organisers (all women) and told them to join other organisations (because CORO could no longer pay them the INR 1,200 [approx $17] we offered as honorarium, and most of these women were the sole family earners). I assured them that if CORO received any funding, they would be invited to re-join. And I admitted my inadequacy as CORO’s leader.

The next morning my doorbell rang at 8 am. There stood Sagar More, one of CORO’s community organisers, and her husband, who handed me INR 20,000 [approx $290] in cash. “Sagar told me about your meeting”, he said. “I have this money and I think CORO needs it. You can pay it back it when you receive funds”. The couple had sold a small piece of land in their village to build pucca (brick) walls for their hut, which was made of tin sheets with holes everywhere. This was the money they gave us. Thankfully, CORO got funding a few months later, and in the interim, our team worked for free.

Both of these experiences encouraged CORO to keep going. It also taught me what grassroots work entails, and clarified some key lessons.

People will only actively and emotionally participate in an intervention if it’s relevant to their lives and their strengths.

The notion that ‘poor people are lazy and don’t want to change’ is false. They want to change, but don’t know how. They need information and hand-holding. We gave women tools and words; they fought for their rights.

Community people don’t act out of fear and helplessness. They gather courage by coming together. Collective risk is possible and incredibly powerful, because nobody’s fighting alone.

We realised the value of building ownership of social change. The initiative for change has to come from within – within a person and within the community. The mental shift from being a victim to being a changemaker is crucial. Enhancing inner strength (of person or community) is more important than external or material support.

Can you speak about ‘organic leadership’ at CORO?

People have stayed with CORO because our programme is homegrown – designed and implemented by the grassroots. This makes our impact sustainable and different.

Today, nearly every CORO team member is from the community. Mahendra Rokade, a 1989 volunteer, is now our Programme Director. Pallavi Palav, our 1992 accounts assistant, is Board of Trustees Treasurer. Mumtaz Shaikh, who joined CORO in 2000 because of her struggle against domestic violence, featured in the BBC list of the 100 most influential women in 2015.

This loyalty made us ask: why aren’t people at the grassroots recognised as leaders?

As a result, we launched a year-long fellowship programme to develop community leadership. This taught us some fundamental lessons about identity and empowerment.

In marginalised communities, people are discriminated against on the basis of caste, class and gender. It’s difficult when people accept discrimination or oppression as part of their ‘fate’. Socialisation teaches us: ’Things won’t change for me; I can’t express myself or resist. My existence has no meaning. I accept my fate’. This leads to a fractured sense of identity, despair and helplessness.

But when identity is triggered and people feel worthy, they believe they can effect change.

We have three premises:

Our sense of identity is linked to empowerment, and this isn’t only true for women. Empowerment is about recognising our ‘power within’, and being comfortable with our identity. Unless we recognise our disempowerment, we can’t embark on an empowerment journey (which requires reflection, patience, and process). Unfortunately, today’s obsession with measuring outputs, means we tend to equate empowerment with proxy indicators. For instance, how many women are in SHGs [self-help groups], how many are accessing healthcare, how many girls are in school? This data does not actually indicate empowerment. (To measure empowerment, we need to look at internal identity factors.)

Solidarity is the biggest asset of marginalised people. Individuals alone cannot make a difference; together, they can. We saw this when we helped people access their rights.

We need strong, close-to-home ecosystems, to change our immediate environment. Our fellowship uses critical reflection to act on the ‘inner’ space, then helps people understand their own context. It’s a simple trick: keep asking ‘why?’ to every answer, until you get to the root of the problem. By doing this, CORO fellows build their closest ecosystem (in the family, organisation and community).

Where is CORO’s grassroots leadership programme today?

Our fellowship programme was built in collaboration with Leaders' Quest and 250+ grassroots organisations. We’ve run it in Maharashtra for the last 10 years, and Rajasthan for the last three. We’ve also had a cohort in Delhi. We’ve involved more than 1,300 grassroots leaders.

After the fellowship year, our leaders, their mentors and organisations, collectively initiate community campaigns (incubated by CORO). Mumbai fellows launched the much-publicised Right to Pee campaign for clean, safe, free public urinals for women. In Vidarbha the campaign is about community forest rights; in Marathwada it’s about single women’s rights; in western Maharashtra it’s about water-related interventions in drought-prone villages.

All of these campaigns are led by grassroots leaders, 68% of whom are women – with a majority from ‘low caste’, tribal, Muslim, and disadvantaged communities.

What’s next for CORO?

We are keen to use our grassroots leadership experience to found a national grassroots academy. This will shift power towards the people – primarily in leadership and organisation/knowledge building.

Now that we have a proven mechanism for building grassroots leadership and issue-specific community change, the next frontier for us is thought leadership that comes from the grassroots.

We’ve made incredible progress since 1989, but for CORO – and our exceptional grassroots leaders – the journey is just beginning….