In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
WHY’S CLIMATE JUSTICE A FEMINIST ISSUE – INTERVIEW WITH HARSHITA JHA
Harshita Jha is a feminist social work practitioner who works on strengthening rural women’s participation in local governance. She is a State Project Coordinator for Kudumbashree-National Resource Organisation in Assam, India who work at the grassroots level with women across the country. Harshita is a powerful public speaker who gives regular talks and training on women’s political empowerment. She holds a master’s in social work and was a significant student-body-led political leader during university holding the position of first female treasurer for the Student Union of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Harshita speaks to Wen about the experiences of rural women-led community participation for poverty eradication, how this work intersects with climate action, and why the localisation of issues and contextualisation is crucial, particularly for the global south.
Harshita, thank you so much for meeting with me today, please could you tell me a bit about yourself, your work and how you became involved?
I would start by introducing myself. I’m Harshita, I’m from India, Bihar. My background is in social work and I did a master’s in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. My thesis focused on women’s political participation and I wanted to understand how women participate in local self-governance. In India, there’s a huge importance placed on decentralisation (of power); it’s in the Constitution (1). But how does it work out on the ground? That’s what I wanted to learn.
Women have ideas, they want to learn and have an opportunity to participate in self-governance. Familial and societal structures in India restrict them from participating in the full sense, and their active citizenship is restricted because of how the society is structured. When I finished my master’s, I was looking forward to working on political participation. I came across this organisation I’m working for currently where their emphasis is how women’s political participation can help them raise their demands using local self-governance institutions as a platform, and as a result, help poverty eradication.
“I think it’s important for first world countries to understand what equity and equality means for global South, and how we want to overcome our challenges with our restrictions like poverty and a societal culture that restricts so much of our work as women”
Photo credit: Kudumbashree NRO
Can you say more about what rural women’s political participation looks like, and what the strengths are of working in this way on poverty alleviation?
National Rural Livelihood Mission is a poverty alleviation project implemented by the Ministry of Rural Development under which there is a women’s collective that we form at different levels (2). The primary level is self-help groups, where we have a group of 10 women and then it’s federated at different levels. The focus is then to strengthen the partnership between the collectives and poverty eradication through partnership of elected representatives at the local self-government level. The most important stakeholder is our elected representatives of local self-government, which is the Panchayati Raj of India.
In Kerala, they have implemented decentralisation very well and that helped them achieve a hundred percent literacy, one of only a few states in India. That helped the women and marginalised communities to come together to talk about their development. So, that was recognised as a national model and the Ministry for Rural Development of India decided to spread it across the country. So, we now work in different parts of India, keeping in mind the model we’ve learned in Kerala, taking it to different parts of the country, and contextualising it based on the local self-government there.
We found one of the most important activities we’ve been doing as part of this project is a social security scheme in India called Mahama Gandhi, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It’s an act to provide a hundred days of employment to everybody and anybody who’s interested to work. If we are unemployed and place a demand to work, the government is supposed to give us work within 15 days. There is a particular honour that you get and most of this work is based on natural resource management.
The implementation of this scheme was core to our project because the budget is made at the local, grassroots level. It’s not something that the central government decides. The planning, budgeting, everything, happens at the local level. So the women and the local community, they decide if we need a community pond, they decide on the area, width, height, and propose for its planning and budgeting for this financial year. So the core of that scheme was very participatory and also very important in India’s context for climate action because the kind of work being done is plantation, renovation of community ponds, new community ponds, wherever water scarcity is there – women are demanding [improvements] and engaging themselves.
Women’s collective member engaging in land development work under MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme). Credit: Harshita Jha
Then, the structure of that scheme is that the community participates in the labour. Suppose I am one person and I’ve placed a demand for a community pond, 10 other women are with me. All 10 of us will be part of the planning; where, what, how much? And the making of it. It’s beautiful to see women working for what they want by themselves. It’s empowering to see that understanding coming from women that “we need this; and that is why”. Nobody other than rural women understands what they need the most. Their taking charge has been the most empowering part.
SHG members meeting to discuss social issues in their village, Assam India. Credit: Harshita Jha
“Nobody other than rural women understands what they need the most”
Could you share more about the women’s collective and self-help groups?
The self help group came from an understanding of how to include women in development because, in India, women were not part of development. For the longest time after independence, they were not even seen as a voter bank or active citizens. The self help group’s idea was to help them build themselves into active citizens and for them to participate in the governance process in the truest sense, not just being a passive beneficiary, which has always been the government’s idea of women – beneficiaries. You know, that women just need to be provided with, were just receivers of something from the government. The idea of self-help groups emerged from the fact that women need to work towards their own development.
There are a lot of Indian academic feminists who have written about how and why these women’s collectives are also operating from very patriarchal norms where women are thought of as someone who will obey. So you put them into a collective and then ask them to be part of government policies and programs.
How I see it is very different. Where women did not have the opportunity to participate in any public activity, now they have a purpose – and that purpose is also something that’s validated by their family – because they have been benefiting from it. So, the women’s collective brought some really radical changes in their lives if we are speaking about social structures.
If you look at their participation in public activities, their visibility in public spaces…that has been very, very revolutionary after the emergence of these women’s collectives. Women’s collectives are engaging in microfinance, engaging in creating livelihoods for themselves. They are engaging in everything and anything that is being run by the government for rural India. All the schemes and policies in India for rural parts have women’s collectives at its forefront. There’s a huge, huge number of women.
They see it as a benefit that, if this women’s collective is happy, if they are part of these programs, maybe in turn will get votes. This is how the government sees it, but we social workers see their participation.
Weekly self-help group (SHG) meeting. Credit: Harshita Jha
“the women’s collective brought some really radical changes in their lives if we are speaking about social structures”
So, they have been made into active citizens both in their own and the government’s eyes as voters, and I’m sure there is more?
So, if I was supposed to go out of my house in a village in India, I need to have a purpose to tell my family. Women loitering around for no purpose is not allowed. So, when this purpose is validated by something that’s part of the government then families are happy. With the microfinance and livelihood aspect, it’s increasing the income of the family. “Okay, these women take two hours away from their household work and they’re participating in something which is helping our family”, is their understanding. But these women, what they’re doing coming together as a collective is making decisions, participating in social development activities and a lot of learning processes which are making them more aware, more gender-sensitive, and more inclusive.
There is an understanding amongst the women in these collectives, that maybe we belong to a different class, caste or ethnicity but as women, we all have similar problems. And that is the agenda of making an inclusive society being fulfilled! In rural India, you cannot imagine otherwise women from different castes sitting together. But, these collectives have their own guidelines and principles that you cannot be discriminatory towards the other members of your self-help group. That has brought them together and the kind of solidarity they have towards each other and the way that they interact is a really very interesting thing to see and be a part of.
“All the schemes and policies in India for rural parts have women’s collectives at its forefront. There’s a huge, huge number of women”
Women’s collective participating in Gram Sabha (a people’s forum mandated by the constitution of India where people discuss issues of local governance and development) in Assam, India. Credit: Harshita Jha
If a self-help group member has taken a loan, the other nine members of the group encourage them to use it towards something productive. A woman would come and tell them, “I used this money and I bought a goat, and now I’m milking the goat. You can also do it”. They are getting ideas from each other and they’re understanding that their problems are similar. Maybe the solutions to it could be different because the scale and the context could be different. But they’re having so many similar issues to fight for together. It’s a beautiful process how they are extending solidarity towards each other.
Self help group women with NRO mentors, photo credit: Kudumbashree NRO
Self help group women with NRO mentors, photo credit: Kudumbashree NRO
“The idea of the self-help group emerged from the fact that women need to work towards their own development”
Have you seen any participation around climate action and is there much awareness of climate change within the groups?
I can give the context of the annual planning for local self-government. The local self government has an annual action plan and a budget that comes from the state. Planning happens every year and what we had seen for the past 20, 22 years of decentralisation is that in this planning, women were left out. When women are part of these planning processes, we have seen that activities related to climate action and awareness of climate change have always been one of their important agendas.
Assam is a state with annual floods and women know that they have been the ones most affected by it, and their children. So that has been part of their agenda. They ask elected representatives, what are their plans for the flood? What are the kind of steps that they’re taking? If the flood has already happened, then post-flood, what are the activities they are planning to do? These are the questions that they are raising in public platforms where elected representatives are accountable.
Women have also been part of the rescue and relief drive because collectives have outreach to almost all households and knowledge of the locality. So they understand, in this village we have 15 pregnant women. So in the situation of flood, these pregnant women would need to be provided with these particular things. In our village, there are a thousand households; we know that 600 plus households have children of a particular age group. They’re part of the action as well. They help the elected representatives to reach out to these households in the times of flood, in the times of drought for other parts of the country.
They have also tried to initiate activities like reusing products, recycling products, using public platforms and telling [people] how they can cut down on the use of plastic and [to help around] restoring natural resources in their villages. All of these things they’re taking to public discussions, which were not part of the public discussions before, but with their participation [they are] because they’re not talking about just themselves, they’re talking about the whole community and communities’ interest. They might not be using the kind of language that we use when they are telling all the households in the village to curb the use of plastic, [or] use the water judiciously. They don’t necessarily understand that all of these small steps are actually part of the climate action that we’ve been talking about in global platforms.
It has been my experience that we feel like women are not aware, and we need to spread awareness and we tell them, “climate action is important”. I think that is a wrong approach and assumption many development professionals in Indian contexts are making. When you go to the grassroots level, you know that these are their issues. The understanding and knowledge they have should never be undermined.
Photo credit: Kudumbashree NRO
That’s wonderful to hear what is happening on the ground. For COP27’s day for gender, what do you feel is most important to come out of this day?
I think one of the most important things is that we need to understand what is actually happening across the world. I think instances that exist across the country, across the globe, and learning from these strategies and using them as best practices. Spreading and sharing this knowledge with other communities and then helping them to contextualise it would be more important. Women in India, you know, there has been a Chipko movement where women were protecting the forest by hugging the trees when deforestation was happening. All of those were organic movements.
Opportunities are very important. If women from rural parts of India or any other South Asian or African countries are given the opportunity or platform to tell the world what nature is to them, how they nurture and preserve natural resources – that would be learning for the world. I think then it would be more concrete. We wouldn’t be telling people, this is how we understand gender sensitive strategies. We should look around in the world and see what they [women] are practising and give those practices a voice in these global platforms so that we all can learn from each other.
How does your position as a grassroots, feminist social work practitioner inform your understanding what women’s equality and climate justice could look like?
I think when we talk about our location, for me, someone who is working in the global south as a social worker, we should understand various advantages and disadvantages that we have based on our social location. There are certain privileges that I also come with, right? With the kind of education and the access that I’ve had. When I understand those privileges and the access that I’ve had, I try to understand what is the definition of equity for the community that I’m working with? How do they understand equality? And then try to mould my work accordingly.
With climate action or global climate change work per se, I think it is important for the first world countries to understand what actual equity and equality means for the global South, and how we want to overcome our challenges, with our restrictions like poverty and a societal culture that restricts so much of our work as women.
If I have to talk about my individual journey, it’s been overwhelming. As a woman who is unmarried working towards development in rural India, travelling across the village alone, something like that is not common in the place that I was working in, and I was looked at like an alien. So, I’ve had my own journey that way but to work towards something with a particular community you have to mould your work on how they want it.
If we look at the emissions happening in urban parts, the rural community is not contributing in that [same] way and their consumption has always been sustainable. They consume each and every part of any fruit or vegetable we might just throw away, from leaf to stem to shoot. There has to be differentiation. It has to be contextualised, the localisation of activities, understanding of issues and solutions. In an Indian context, urban and rural differentials. In a global context, north and south. First world and ‘third world’ countries have to be differentially treated, and only then we can talk about equity in a real sense.
Photo credit: Roberto Sorin on Unsplash
Photo credit: Harshita Jha
Thank you. That’s a really interesting perspective. Just finally, is there anything else you would like to share?
As I told you, my journey of working as a social worker in India has been overwhelming. You would see that I dress a certain way when I go to work. I might be comfortable wearing a t-shirt and jeans to work but then they [the community] might not be comfortable around me. They will not see me as one of them. A lot of my colleagues, friends, and other fellow feminists are sometimes advising me not to change that. But, I’ve understood that it is important for them to feel that I’m one of them and not an outsider who’s just come because of a certain education that I have. I want them to see me as someone who wants to work with them towards what their goals are and not having any individual agenda.
If we are not accepted, anything that we do is not valued within the community, and the community cannot change its practices overnight. So, now when they see that there is a woman, who is unmarried, of a particular age, traveling across the village alone by herself at any time of the day, it’s also encouraging. You know, maybe we can also try it. One of the most important things that’s also been part of our work is exposure of women to all kinds of institutions in the villages. We organise women’s collectives exposure visits to police stations, schools, where their elected representatives sit. Many of them had not seen which school their children go to.
Now they know about these institutions and they can access them. Many are still not allowed to go alone to many places but as a collective, when they go, the family also doesn’t put a question mark. So, that’s how the collective has been a strength. In them coming together as a collective, it’s also easier for them to question elected representatives. And that’s why I think the political participation of women is core development, even climate action, because it’s very difficult to work on climate action or development individually. It’s important that we are not scattered and we come together and work together for a better future.
I think that’s a lovely place to end. Thank you so much for sharing your time and perspectives with me today, Harshita.
Women’s collective orientation meeting on their role in local-development. Credit: Harshita Jha
Louise Turner is an MSc Environmental Governance student at The University of Manchester and volunteer at Wen.
(1) India has a heritage of more than 2000 years of Local Governance, with the rural local self-government constitutionally approved in 1992 by 73rd Amendment guaranteeing citizens the right to participate in local self-governance (Kudumbashree NRO).
Local elected, governing bodies called the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have 33% reserved political seats for women but many women are unaware of this right.
(2) To give an idea of scale, Harshita’s organisation works with 30,000 women’s self help groups (collectives) which is over 300,000 women across the entire country.