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Legal empowerment for the women of West Bengal

One-day village meetings were used to engage with women from marginalised communities (© Swadhina)
One-day village meetings were used to engage with women from marginalised communities
© Swadhina

Women's contribution to agricultural production and food security in the developing world is fundamental. Yet despite their key role in feeding the planet, women's lack of control over land and other natural resources severely compromises their farming output. In the context of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, the importance of empowering women farmers to maximise their farm productivity could never be greater. Yet despite much progress in the creation of legal guarantees for women's equal rights to property and inheritance of land, in practice women continue to be widely discriminated against, with their legal rights often not enforced. Reasons for this include customary practices and perceptions concerning women's status in the household and community, a lack of awareness among women of their rights combined with lower levels of literacy and education, and poor access to legal services.

In 2010 and 2011, the International Land Coalition (ILC) supported five community-based projects that aimed to promote the legal empowerment of rural women and address the issues hindering them. In West Bengal, the civil society organisation Swadhina (self reliant) worked to enhance legal awareness and a sense of gender justice among women from tribal and marginalised rural communities. Lack of control over land among women, inheritance rights that excluded women from accessing land, and violence against single women landowners, often as a result of property disputes, are typical of the area.

Accessing and informing women

In raising awareness of women's legal rights, Swadhina faced two major challenges. Firstly, women in the communities had very little participation in public spheres: their place was very much seen as in the home, so actually engaging with them was difficult. In response, Swadhina attempted to engage with the whole community, women and men, through one-day village meetings and three-day 'Earth festivals', which celebrated the contribution of women in agricultural production. In both the meetings and the festivals, men came to take an active role, discussing alongside women and helping to organise the festival events. This collaboration was a good basis for improving the understanding of gender justice issues among both men and women, and for gaining support for women's engagement with other project activities.

Local, non-legalistic language was used to produce posters (© Swadhina)
Local, non-legalistic language was used to produce posters
© Swadhina

A second challenge was women's low levels of literacy, which meant that conveying information had to be much more creative than simply handing out print material. Translation into local, non-legalistic language, for production of posters and booklets was one strategy, but the project team also made use of cartoon books, songs and street theatre, and a short, local language film, to convey messages about women's empowerment and land rights.

Beyond community activities, awareness-raising at other levels was also important. In a first project phase, a district seminar was arranged, and in a second phase this was extended to a four-day, state level advocacy meeting on gender justice, in order to promote policy change. The meeting identified a number of important issues, including: the need to publicise free legal aid facilities already available to women; the importance of including basic legal education within school curricula; the need to support and promote joint land titling for married couples and protection of widow's rights.

Literacy and leadership skills

Awareness-raising alone, however, was not thought to be sufficient to bring about change. Capacity-building, including literacy skills, was also key to the initiative. For many women, learning to sign their own name was a vital first step in claiming their rights as citizens. Fourteen 'signature camps' were organised, training over 350 women. An intensive programme of literacy and empowerment classes was developed, attended by 150 women on three days per week during the second year of the project. Achieving functional literacy was felt to be vital to empowerment, not only for the ability to deal with official documents, but also in boosting women's self-confidence.

Over 350 women attended 'signature camps', a first step towards literacy (© Swadhina)
Over 350 women attended 'signature camps', a first step towards literacy
© Swadhina

Bridging gaps between communities and the authorities was a common challenge for the ILC projects. In West Bengal, several existing women's committees were restructured and five new ones were created, meeting once a month. Leadership training for 54 committee members was carried out by legal experts, social scientists and women's rights activists. The committees have begun to act as a strong base for women and a means of representation with local authorities. Under the project, a district level advisory group on women and law was also created, and proved valuable in explaining legal issues in an accessible, interactive way, and giving the women from the communities the chance to meet with people in positions of influence. "There is a lot of misconception and inhibition in the minds of women about taking up legal recourses," says Kankana Ganguly, a legal advocate and member of the advisory committee. "But instead of saying 'let things go on as they are', we need to make efforts to ensure that they get justice. As lawyers it is also our duty to reach out to those in need."

The work in West Bengal has made important progress in initiating discussion of women's legal rights at community, district and state levels, and improving the confidence and capacity of women themselves to have those rights recognised. Land tenure issues are normally complex, however, so empowerment activities need to go beyond ensuring that women have title to land or supporting individual land claims. Consolidating these rights and building on them so that women can use their land productively and sustainably are also essential, if their livelihoods are ultimately to be improved.

Date published: March 2013

 

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The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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