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WE have just been informed that Mahila Samakhya – Education for Women’s Equality, a women’s empowerment programme of the Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India has just received a ‘Honourable Mention’ in the 2001 UNESCO Noma Literacy Award. This is indeed an honour for a programme that has worked steadily and silently for over twelve years on women’s empowerment and education.

Way back in 1988-89 Mahila Samakhya was launched with Dutch support in ten districts of Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. It has since expanded to around 50 districts in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. During the formative years the legitimacy of Mahila Samakhya as an education programme was often debated. The project was initiated with the conviction that that education can indeed be a decisive intervention towards women’s equality. The overall goal was to create circumstances to enable women to better understand their predicament, to move from a state of abject disempowerment towards a situation in which they can determine their own lives and influence their environment, and simultaneously create for themselves and their family an educational opportunity which serves the process of their development. Within this framework, the specific objectives of Mahila Samakhya are:

a) Enhance the self-image and self-confidence of women.

b) Enable them to recognize the worth of their contribution to society and the economy.

c) Create an environment where women demand knowledge and information; thus empowering them to play a positive role in their own development and the development of society.

d) Women’s awareness and perception of their role in family and society coupled with a determination to participate in decision-making processes will almost always lead them to demand education for themselves and their children. This in turn will create an effective vocal demand for educational facilities in the concerned villages. In an environment where this demand is articulated in a structured manner, specific inputs will be designed and introduced in order to meet their educational needs.

e) Provide women with the necessary support structures to create time in their lives for education.

f) Create informal educational structures, which respect women’s pace and rhythm of learning, given the multiple demands of household, and changing agricultural seasons.

g) Build mechanisms that enable adolescent girls working in their homes, in agriculture and in the formal and informal sector, to get an opportunity for formal education (through residential/condensed educational programmes of Mahila Shikshan Kendra).

h) Revitalize the existing educational structure and build mechanisms to ensure that women monitor their own education and the education of their children.

The twelve-year journey since its inception has not been easy. While the value of Mahila Samakhya in education is now formally recognised by the government and the larger education community (including donors), it continues to struggle to survive. While this award has been announced, the Mahila Samakhya team – from those located in GOI to the functionaries in state, district and sub-district levels are under suspense. There is yet no word from GOI or the Planning Commission about the continuation of this unique programme in the Tenth Five-year Plan. External funding by the Royal Netherlands Government comes to an end in March 2002. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan document also makes a honourable mention of the project, this is yet to be backed up with any concrete proposal for continuation.

When the Honourable President of India formally congratulates Mahila Samakhya on 8 September 2001, workers down the line are earnestly hoping for an announcement about its survival. It remains to be seen whether the UNESCO Noma Literacy Award tugs the conscience of our administrators and political leaders to take a quick decision.

As the founder director of this programme and a member of the National Resource Group, this award is indeed heart-warming. The initial years were difficult and this acknowledgement is indeed a recognition of the contribution of hundreds of women across the country. Will the Government of India sit up and do something about the future of Mahila Samakhya?

Vimala Ramachandran