Indian women holding candles

LATUR, India (WOMENSENEWS)–At the time of the earthquake in India’s Maharashtra state just over a decade ago, Sunita Madole lived in Chincholi village with her husband, two-month-old daughter and extended family.

When their house collapsed that Septembernight, her husband was killed and she was trapped in the debris. Their baby wasunconscious and appeared dead. Although her in-laws did not attempt to rescue her, someneighbors saved Madole’s life by pulling her out of the rubble. Then she discovered that her child, too, had survived.

Since her husband’s family did not want a widowed daughter-in-law on their hands, her parents took her and her baby back to their village, Ambulga. Luckily for Madole, this was one of the villages where a post-earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation program was ready to involve women in turning disaster into an opportunity for empowerment and development.

Women’s Collective Takes the Lead

The earthquake, measuring approximately 6.3 on the Richter scale, killed over 7,500 people and injured at least 16,000 others. It left more than 50 villages in ruins and about 30,000 houses totally destroyed. In another 1,300 earthquake-affected villages, 200,000 houses required repair and strengthening.

About 500 homes were damaged in Ambulga, but the village had the advantage of a pre-existing Mahila Mandal, or women’s collective, that was revitalized after the earthquake to help local villagers rebuild their lives and homes. The collective had been initiated by one villager, Kantabai Patil, as a memorial to her young daughter, who had died under tragic and suspicious circumstances in her marital home in another nearby village in 1991.

The collective was recruited into the reconstruction effort by Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a Mumbai-based nongovernmental organization entrusted with the task of ensuring community participation in the earthquake rehabilitation and launched by the Maharashtra government with the support of international agencies.

In many development programs worldwide, women’s involvement has proved highly effective for galvanizing a community and reconstruction efforts. The earthquake rehabilitation program in Ambulga and the surrounding area was based on this idea. As a first step, the program helped raise awareness among women about their rights and government entitlements at community meetings just for women. The women were also provided with basic training in simple, low-cost earthquake-resistant building technology.

Having a Say

Soon women in Ambulga and other villages began to demand that the financial aid provided to families by the government be deposited in joint bank accounts so that they, too, could have a say in how the money would be spent. They also began to supervise the construction of their new homes and, in the process, reduced the endemic corrupt building practices that often compromise safety.

Women’s confidence grew as they learned to monitor public works and interact with the government. Before long they began to turn their attention to other aspects of village life. For instance, finding that truancy by teachers in local schools was often responsible for poor academic performance by students, groups of women began regular school visits to ensure that the staff did their jobs.

Similarly, in response to the increased availability and consumption of alcohol in the area after the earthquake, resulting a rise in domestic violence, women in several villages, including Ambulga, campaigned to shut down local liquor shops.

Encouraged by their earthquake reconstruction program, women in the area also began to set up savings and credit groups to manage their money and invest in longer-term employment opportunities. Madole along with other local women set up Ambulga’s first savings and credit group.

Despite the small monthly contributions made by each woman (the rupee equivalent of approximately 50 cents), the groups were soon able to advance modest loans with which members began small businesses ranging from trading in bangles or saris to running small flour mills or tea-shops.

It was an initial loan from her savings and credit group that helped Madole to earn a living from ironing clothes. Later, she invested her savings in a sewing machine to increase her work capacity.

An International Model

When local elections were announced in 1997, the newly empowered women of Ambulga successfully fielded a member of the collective for the post of village head, which happened to be reserved for a female candidate that year. A constitutional amendment reserving one-third of the seats in institutions of local self-government for women was passed by the Indian Parliament in 1992.

In 1999, other local Mahila Mandals and savings and credit groups, like the ones started by Patil and Madole, came together to form the Sakhi Federation, which helped local women to pool resources in order to provide better financial services and promote enterprise development. The federation used its collective strength to tackle social problems such as domestic violence and address women’s issues in the local government.

“We kept moving forward and never looked back,” explained Patil.

After an even more powerful, widespread and devastating earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, hit the neighboring state of Gujarat in January 2001, women belonging to the Sakhi Federation traveled to the area to share what they had learned through their own experiences.

Motivated by fellow earthquake survivors from Maharashtra, women in two districts of Gujarat began to get involved in reconstruction, savings and credit, water supply and other essential aspects of the rehabilitation process.

International exchanges had begun even earlier in the wake of the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey with Swayam Shikshan Prayog partnering with the Istanbul-based Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work to help women become more actively involved in earthquake rehabilitation in Turkey.

The communication has continued between Indian and Turkish women. Now, the word is spreading. Turkish women are planning to visit women in Bam, Iran, which was struck by a devastating earthquake late last year.

“The key lesson from these experiences is to listen to women’s groups and give them a central role in matters that affect their lives,” says Prema Gopalan, director of Swayam Shikshan Prayog.

Last September, Sunita Madole was one of more than 4,500 women from nearly 800 villages in the earthquake-hit regions of three Indian states who gathered in the town of Latur to observe the 10th anniversary of the 1993 earthquake.

“Women should not stay at home and be dependent on anyone. We must stand on our own feet,” she told the gathering, to loud applause.

Madole also acknowledged that she could not have done it on her own: “I gained the strength to get on with my life because of my association with fellow village women.”

Ammu Joseph is a journalist and media-watcher now based in Bangalore. She has been a journalist for 26 years, writing freelance since 1988, mainly on issues relating to gender, children, human development and the media.

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