Moving toward gender equity in India

Oxfam and its partners have undertaken research in areas of South India affected by the tsunami, in order to build gender equality into both Oxfam programs and to share learning and best practices with other humanitarian agencies.

In a spacious, well-lit room in the village of Veerapandian Pattinam, a young woman named Selvakani sets up a job on a printing press.
After two rounds of training followed by two years of hands-on experience, she handles the tools and equipment with ease ”“ cleaning and installing rollers, positioning the image plate, and running off a stack of flyers, somehow managing to keep her sari clean throughout.

Selvakani learned her trade from the Anawim Trust, a rural development organization in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She prefers this work to the alternative ”“ agricultural labor ”“ and with job offers at printing companies beginning to roll in, she has given herself a foothold in a relatively secure and well-paid line of work.

Breaking stereotypes

"Training women in non-traditional skills breaks stereotypes and can enhance women's self-esteem,” explains gender researcher Chaman Pincha. “It helps them earn better wages and, over time, helps them achieve positions of leadership."

In June 2006, Pincha and a team of independent researchers undertook a study ”“ initiated and funded by Oxfam, and managed by Anawim Trust ”“ to help document how gender affected the experiences of tsunami survivors, how tsunami aid providers have integrated gender sensitivity into their programs, and what impact those programs have had.

Collaborating with a group of ten non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that share the goal of ensuring gender equity in aid delivery, the research team spoke to tsunami survivors in 45 villages in the districts of Kanniyakumari, Cuddalore, and Nagapattinam.

The field work revealed aid efforts that had missed the mark, but Chaman and her team put greater attention on practices that can serve as models for NGOs responding to future disasters.

“It was unfortunate that for the sake of avoiding bias, we couldn't hold focus groups in the areas where Anawim Trust works," says Pincha, "because a number of their programs reflect the best practices that emerged from the study."

Gaining respect

For example, in one successful joint venture with Anawim Trust, three self-help groups of Dalit women in Senthilveethi have come to own 15 fishing boats, which they rent out to local fishermen. The women say boat ownership has had a big impact on their lives.

"Earlier we used to work as laborers, but now we are the owners of boats," said Devika, who like many people here goes by only one name. "Now men are working in our boats. And we have confidence that we can own more."

"Now the other boat owners respect us as owners," added Maragatham, another self-help group member.

The police, too, are paying more attention to the rights of these women. "In the past, the police didn't respect us. They ignored our complaints," said Muthulascmi, an elderly member of a self-help group. But when a motor from one of their boats was stolen, the police responded quickly. "We got it back immediately."

And with past experience fresh in their minds, the women have taken steps to right some old wrongs. "We feel that we treat our laborers better than we used to be treated," said Maragatham. "Laborers now prefer to work with us because we always give them their fair share."

The gender study is one of several that Oxfam has carried out in the wake of the tsunami. "By undertaking studies that draw out the experience and perspective of community members and combining that with the knowledge that aid providers have to offer,” says Russell Miles, Oxfam's Tsunami Research Program Manager, “we hope to strengthen not only Oxfam programs but also those of the aid community as a whole."

Source: Oxfam America
Pictures: Marie Banu Jawahar
Originally published: April 2007