Self-Help Groups are helping women find a voice in India's tribal communities

Vinitika Lal

2017-18 Visiting Atlantic Fellow

“Everybody should be equal. They have taken birth from the same womb. We push the boy forward and pull the girl back - obviously, she will remain at the back.”


The above is an excerpt from one of the life history interviews with Saraswati (whose name has been changed to protect identity), a member of the Gond people - one of India’s largest tribal communities.

Saraswati is a Gond woman who never went to school. She was married at the age of 12 because her family could not afford to look after her. She later discovered that her husband had another wife and she refused to live with the man. Instead she stayed with her family, doing all the chores until she was 17 and was sent to live with a relative for a couple of weeks. At some point, another family acquainted to them, took her away, promising to bring her back soon. She was never sent back. She was raped and abused, and when she asked to be sent back home, the man refused and threatened to kill her.

Saraswati escaped one night after she was brutally beaten. She reached home covered in blood, sick and pregnant. Her struggle for survival as a single woman with a child continues. To have a rightful ownership of land and access to rights for her child are some of her core struggles today.


The position of tribal communities in Indian society

The Adivasi - or tribal communities - make up around 8.6% of India’s population. They are characterised by multiple and intersecting inequalities. They are the poorest group in India and increasingly concentrated in the lowest rank of the income distribution. They are among the most socially marginalised, considered to be ‘outside’ Indian society and stereotyped as lazy, alcoholic, and dirty. They live in remote forested areas in Central and North East India and have been systematically bypassed by social services. Moreover, their lack of political voice means that they have been steadily displaced from the land and forests which have traditionally provided their livelihoods by infrastructure development, mining, forest regulations and industrialisation.

PRADAN has been working with women from the poorest communities in the poorest states of India since 1983, organising them into self-help groups in order to support one another and take collective action to demand their rights from their communities and government. Since the early 1990s, the government of India has made it possible to link these NGO-organised self-help groups with poverty lending by the country’s nationalized rural banks. More recently, the Indian state has adopted the self-help group approach as a centerpiece of its National Rural Livelihoods Mission to address rural poverty.


Life within the Gonds

PRADAN and III at LSE are carrying out a research project that will focus on the Gonds, exploring the experience of poverty, inequality, social discrimination and political voice. Our project has so far carried out a number of focus groups and individual interviews with men and women, some in villages where PRADAN is active and others where the government-led National Rural Livelihoods Mission is active.

We find that, though marginalised by India’s dominant communities, the Gond themselves take great pride in their social identity, believing that they are one of the first inhabitants of the planet, tracing their ancestry to the Gondwanaland tectonic plates. This sense of a Gond identity as being ‘the first of nations’ is interwoven with an identity of ‘place’, as belonging to the Bastar region where they live and where people’s livelihoods are bound up with forests and land.

The community is not, however, internally homogenous. Rather the Gond community itself is characterised by inequalities of wealth, income, social connections, and political voice.

It is also characterised by immense gender inequality.

Through our interviews, we are finding that not only does the community have its own forms of governance, but as its interactions with the rest of society increase, it has recently written down the rules and norms that had previously existed as a tacit, taken-for-granted, aspect of the community’s culture, meaning that it now has its own written constitution.

These rules and norms bestow authority on older and wealthier Gond men whose function within the social (Samajik) forum is to uphold the Gond way of life, including their values and beliefs. Men also dominate in the two other forums in which important decisions are made and access to resources determined: the village (Sarvjanik) forum and the government (Shasaniya) forum. Women are further relegated to the margins of public decision-making as they are subject to the authority of senior men within their own families.



Challenging their status

While these different forums generally operate alongside with each other, their occasional contradictions offer opportunities for women like Saraswati to challenge their subordinate status. One example is the contradiction between government edicts about equal rights to ancestral property for both men and women and the social norms against women claiming rights to their ancestral land.

Membership of self-help groups and various government programs offer similar spaces for women to find ways to participate in public affairs in a way denied by their community and village forums. Saraswati mentions her joining a Self Help Group as one of the key turning points in her journey of finding her own voice and speaking up. 

Our project is interested in exploring how poverty, inequality, social discrimination and political voice is experienced by differently positioned members of the Gond community. We especially want to know how women’s participation in self-help groups has made a difference to their lives and contributed to their notion of, and capacity to create, social change.

Additionally, we are hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how this community reconstitutes itself in the face of a simultaneously hostile and enabling environment. How do sections of these marginalised communities speak about their situation? And what specifically is it that PRADAN and the Government offer that makes change happen?

We will synthesise findings from our interviews and surveys and take them back to the communities to include their feedback, and to reflect collectively on what the implications are for the future policies of both PRADAN and the government.


The importance of intersectionality

We believe the findings from this research will make a meaningful contribution to a review of the current understanding of the key issues in the community, and that this will help to create more effective interventions to address inequality in India’s extremely marginalised communities. We believe it will highlight the significance of considering intersectionality (ie. the idea that different forms of inequality overlap and affect one another) when crafting solutions.

We believe that through creating a better understanding of how the core issues intersect, we can find effective solutions to give women greater access to representation and power in these very difficult environments.

We hope that as their access to power grows, so fewer Gond women suffer the brutal situation that Saraswati found herself in.

We will share updates on our research as the project progresses.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.