ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Women's Empowerment as International Showbiz

The high profile colourful encounter between the visiting US president and articulate village women of Niala papers over the story of how a vibrant women's development programme in the state has been systematically destroyed.

“Chet sake to chet zamana ayo chetano ro!” So ran the words of a song sung by women in their meeting with Clinton on March 23. This song about women’s awareness and women’s empowerment was a symbol of the erstwhile Women’s Development Programme (WDP) of Rajasthan – which was slowly killed by successive governments of Rajasthan. WDP, as it is popularly known, was a pioneering programme that focused on empowering women by enhancing their self- esteem, self-confidence and their collective and individual bargaining power. After the UNICEF support came to an end in 1992 (the year sathin Bhanwari Bai was abused and raped) the government of Rajasthan left no stone unturned to dilute and negate the empowering potential of the programme. What is left today is a pale shadow of what was once hailed as a breakthrough in women’s development in India. Yet, the Rajasthan government felt no hesitation in resurrecting memories of the programme – just for half a day – for the benefit of Clinton. The cruellest cut of all is that it was reduced to yet another showpiece, a song and dance affair. An American journalist covering the Clinton visit remarked that many of the women in Niala village did not look like village women at all! And worse, it was a tourist show of Rajasthani women in their “wonderful colours and sensuality”. Another remarked about the anchor and the not-so-rural women who danced. One heard more jokes about this show and it seems to have triggered little debate on the women’s situation in Rajasthan. It was an embarrassing encounter.

In 1983 a group of women researchers and activists were encouraged by the government of Rajasthan to evolve an approach that would bring together both the positive and negative experiences of women’s groups. This culminated in the formulation of a programme that marked a departure from the conventional welfare approach to women’s development. “The broad aim of the WDP is to operationalise the policy frame for women’s development. In doing so it takes note of the fact that most government schemes are not accessible to women due to lack of receiving mechanisms and that it is possible to create such mechanisms through flexible and diversified structures backed by effective participation of women as the grass roots level. The WDP also takes note of the fact that for too long men have been entrusted the responsibilities of women’s development – in the family, government and society – and that a decisive shift is necessary in order to entrust these responsibilities to women at all levels. Yet another aspect of the broad aims of the WDP is the need to encourage and create agencies, groups and individuals to articulate concern towards indignities and discrimination against women. In this sense, the principal aim of the WDP is to empower women through communication of information, education and training to enable them to recognise and improve their social and economic status” (GoR note 1984).

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