Women Leadership School: Empowering women at grassroots level
Economic and social development is an essential goal for a society. The progress on rural development initiatives in the country depends on how well these programs reach the grassroots level. Community participation, which is inclusive, can pave the way for the sustainability of rural development efforts. Even though women make up over half of India's population, they are usually excluded from social participation. However, effective local participation cannot be accomplished without the fair representation and participation of women, since they are fundamental stakeholders in the development process.
Today there are many NGOs that are working to bring positive change to Indian society, encouraging women in learning and helping them to become empowered. One such unique model called the Women’s Leadership School (WLS) has been developed by a Gurugram-based NGO, S M Sehgal Foundation. Registered as a charitable trust in India since 1999, the NGO is presently working in 1,348 villages across 11 states.
WLS training sessions are designed around gender equity, confidence building, and encouraging women's participation in local institutions, among others. The sessions at WLS help to create thousands of women leaders at the grassroots who are keen to develop their villages and improve their well-being. In this, women leaders of diverse villages are trained in a common platform and encouraged to address problems of the village collectively.
In the words of Debika Goswami, Senior Program Lead, Local Participation & Sustainability, S M Sehgal Foundation, “The concept of a Women’s Leadership School (WLS) was developed to identify and foster the capacities of women community leaders so that they are empowered at individual and collective levels to participate effectively in matters of village development. WLS is a capacity-building and collective-action platform for rural women, including active community members, women elected representatives in local institutions like gram panchayats, members of self-help groups, and frontline health workers like Anganwadi and ASHA."
At WLS, women learn about themselves, gender equity, confidence development, engagement in local institutions such as gram sabha, gram panchayat, and school management committees, as well as community monitoring. Women leaders are equipped with information and skills to participate in the functioning of local institutions and government programmes through a year-long training based on the "learning by doing" concept.
The process of transforming women’s leadership from an individual to a collective level is a complex one and should be done in different stages. The WLS sessions are accordingly designed. The initial four sessions are focused on knowing each other and building a perspective of village development, detailed understanding of the gram panchayat (village council), creating self-awareness, strength among women and also enhancing self-confidence and public speaking skills. Post these initial sessions, the next four are designed on conflict resolution and taking a stand for themselves, understanding women’s roles and relations in the family and community, the Gram Sabha, and gram panchayat development. The last four sessions emphasize engaging women in collectives and self-help groups and contributing to panchayat development plans, and enabling women leaders to activate the school management committees, adopt nutrition and healthy lifestyle, and effectively monitor the implementation of government programs.
Ranjana Devi, an active member of the WLS in Bajitpur block, Motipur, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, was refused rations by the PDS because she did not have a ration card. She had previously been tricked by a broker charging a fee to get a ration card for Rs. 800. In the year 2018, Ranjana Devi enrolled in the WLS and brought up her issue that she didn't have a ration card. She learned all the required details about the ration card during a session and applied for it through the proper sources. She received her ration card after two months, and no fees were required at any point. Finally, after getting a ration card, she is availing benefits on the card by getting 5 kg of food grains per family member. Ranjana also assisted her neighbours in getting ration cards in the block.
(Women Leader- Ranjana Devi)
There have been many such stories of empowerment, among which also is of Kamlesh from Chhapera village, Haryana. Village Chhapera is about 10 km from the headquarters of Nuh district in Haryana. As everywhere, life comes to a standstill in the absence of electricity, and such was the case in Chhapera. There was no electricity here for about 10 days due to a fault with the transformer in the village. This was also affecting the children who were not able to study properly. The community here complained to the government official in charge of electricity multiple times, but this proved to be in vain. Kamlesh, a member of the gram panchayat regularly attended the project’s training sessions, and in one of these sessions, she raised the issue of the electricity problem in the village. She was provided with the phone number of the Executive Engineer of the electricity department and mobilizing her fellow WLS members, she together approached the department. As a result, the official-in-charge got the transformer fixed the very next day and 40 families got back their electricity.
“These schools have provided local means of engaging women community members to learn about various provisions of government programs that go a long way in helping them become well-informed citizens who can take on leadership roles to improve their lives and their communities,” concludes Debika.