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UN Women: Good Practice Example
Dalit Women's Livelihoods Accountability Initiative, India

Expanding Rural Women's Access to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act/scheme (MNREGA/S)

In India men and women have equal constitutional rights, which are safeguarded by various legislative regulations and promoted through different welfare measures and ratification of international conventions. Despite these, women, specifically those who are particularly marginalized, are still lagging much behind men, especially in exercising the provisions made in legal frameworks such as Policies and Conventions, Acts and the Constitution. This is the case, for example, with regards to Dalit women's ability to claim their rights as provided by specific policies and laws such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act/scheme (MNREGA/S) of 2005. This Act ensures 100 days' paid employment to each rural household per year within a periphery of five kilometres of the applicants' residence with 33% reservation for women at equal wage between men and women. If the requested employment is not provided by the duty bearers within 15 days of the demand to work, the Act includes a provision that the applicant can claim for unemployment allowance. Similarly, the Act also includes a provision for safe worksite facilities such as providing drinking water, shade, childcare and healthcare to workers.

The MNREGA Act represents a partnership scheme between the Federal, State and local government. It is a path breaking Act, which legalised the right to work for the first time in India; it guarantees job security for unorganized sector in the rural areas and is a rights-based demand driven Act. This means that the work is given when work is demanded. However, many of the people in rural areas, specifically the most needy Dalit communities and more specifically the Dalit women and scheduled castes were found not to be demanding the work due to lack of knowledge about the provisions of the Act and unaware of information about how to claim the entitlements.

Therefore, in order to remedy this lack of knowledge of their entitlements and basic rights and subsequently to increase Dalit women's access to claim paid employment, the programme entitled "Dalit Women's Livelihoods Accountability Initiative (DWLAI)" and funded under the Gender Equality Fund. Since 2009, it is implemented jointly by the local NGO Gender at Work in partnership with Dalit Sthree Sakthi (DSS) through Mitra Service Society (MSS) (its legal holder) directly in partnership with five other local partner organisations in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. DWLAI is working with Dalit women or women of scheduled castes who face triple discrimination of gender, caste and class: they are women, they are of the Dalit caste and they represent the poorest sectors of society. Dalit women represent a large number of women working in the informal and unorganized sector of society have had no organised voice within MNREGA discourses, nor did they have a constituency within civil society that could systematically and consistently push their demands. The DWLAI sought to improve their economic and political conditions by increasing their capacity to claim rights to employment provided by the MNREGA, and by introducing their priorities into the policy's design of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, thus bringing the perspectives of Dalit women into social accountability mechanisms and processes. The direct beneficiaries of the programme are 14,174 Dalit women and women from the scheduled castes.

Impact and Results on Dalit Women's Access to Decent Paid Employment

About 8,000 Dalit women were reached with awareness raising activities. As a result of which, Dalit women have gained knowledge about the MNREGA entitlements. During the focus group discussions organized for the mid-term review in end 2011, all of the Dalit women who participated in the discussions knew that the MNREGA entitlements include 100 days work and that women are entitled to get the work. Almost 94% knew about the wage rates. Dalit women's participation in MNREGA activities as worker, in Panchayat for planning work and as supervisor of work—mate has greatly increased. In 2009, their participation in work was 2,811 in all eight districts of the DWLAI programme. Now the number has reached 14,174. Dalit women are now unionised and have a collective voice to get their demands met. Between 2009 and 2011, there has been almost 49% increase in the Unions and 95% increase in the membership of Dalit women in the Unions. The unions are the vehicle for capacity building, access to information, collective actions for claiming their rights related to MNREGA entitlements as well as fighting against social, political and gender discriminations. The Dalit women are visible, have gained respects and are recognised now a force which cannot be ignored in development.

Impact and Results on the Attitude of MNREGA Officials towards the Dalit Women

Duty bearers are more aware about the concerns and needs of Dalit women after participation in DWLAI activities, including orientation of elected Panchayat officials with village level data through seminar and public hearing, participation in special meetings organised by DWLAI with them, and participation in public hearing organised involving both duty bearers and right holder target groups who participated in large numbers in these seminars. The newspaper reports highlighting the cause of Dalit women and the collective voice of Dalit women through union made the duty bearers more aware about the strengths, concerns and needs of Dalit women. The Dalit women have also acknowledged the changed behaviors of the duty bearers towards them.

Impact and Regards on Household Level Decision-Making Pattern

In the focus group discussions, the Dalit women told that they get more respect at home as they started earning. They can decide whether to go for work, participate in meeting at local level, and where to spend money earned through wages of their work. The key to the decision regarding the use of money is the bank account in their name which every one of the respondents mentioned. Generally, the wage is used for household expenses such as buying food items, clothes, and other necessities. It is also used in school expenses of children as mentioned by some Dalit women. In some places the money is used also for participation in saving scheme. The Dalit women informed that there is a less domination, more respect and more equality at home than before. This change denotes that the Dalit women are more empowered at home than before the programme.

Key Factors of Success

The programme combines:

  • A strong accountability framework which consists of empowerment of Dalit women right holders to claim MNREGA entitlements, and capacity strengthening of duty bearers to effectively deliver better services to right holders, the Dalit women.
  • An empowerment framework, focusing on: improving status of the Dalit women with access to information on MNREGA entitlements; enforcing their rights by creating a framework where they can express their demands for paid jobs and engage in dialogue mechanisms with government officials for policy responsiveness and transformative change; strengthening their agency through organisational skills to build constituencies and demand their rights.