A tiny bamboo footbridge, precariously resting on wooden pillars and stretching over a swollen creek connects the Durganagar village with the rest of Narayanpur Gram Panchayat in West Bengal’s South 24 Praganas district. Just across the bridge, a narrow dirt lane bordered by mangroves on one side and paddy fields and fish ponds on the other, leads to a small thatch-roofed wall-less shed – the community meeting place. Here a group of fisher women greet me with gleeful smiles and warmth.
“Welcome to our village dada,” says one of the women introducing herself as Sarbani Barman. The 35-year-old mother of two is the president of the village women’s group they formed in 2013 – the Durganagar Marine Fisherwomen’s Collective.
“We were 35 members when we set up this groups. Now we have 45 members. We began with fishing but we have also ventured into farming and vegetable cultivation. The last three years have been life changing for all of us,” she says pointing out to the nearby fishpond the group had taken on lease in 2013.
“The first year was not good for us. We lost all our fish due to flooding. We had invested around Rs 14,000, ” says Devjani Jana, treasurer of the collective. “But it did not deter us from continuing our efforts.”
“We incurred loss financially. But we actually gained a lot. We became more organised, and our desire and efforts to become economically independent have increased. Our collective gave us new identities – women entrepreneurs. We are now recognised as fisherwomen as well,” Sarabani says proudly.
The women’s collective facilitated by Digambarpur Angikar, an ally of ActionAid India, collectivising the women in the villages, channelling their efforts towards a better life, in which they can enjoy rights, access entitlements, pursue gainful livelihood and live with dignity.
Not just in Durganagar, women’s collectives have been created in Sunderbans area of West Bengal under the Strengthening Women’s Collectives (SWC) project supported by European Commission. These 20 groups have received a series of capacity building trainings for awareness and skill development and at the same time they have received technological support and financial support so as to ensure better, diversified and sustainable livelihood opportunities.
“When women have equal access to and control over their incomes, it contributes hugely towards their social and economic empowerment – not just in their households but also in their communities,” says Ashok Nayak, programme manager at ActionAid India’s West Bengal Regional Office. “We can see a lot of change among them [the women]. Be it their level of awareness, their confidence or the ‘never-give-up’ attitude. There has been a lot of transformation happened in the past three years,” he adds.
But their journey to becoming businesswomen was not a smooth one. The women had to face a lot of derision from within the society. They were often ridiculed by the men for coming out of their kitchens and doing business.
“Initially, my husband was not very supportive of me joining the group. According to him, women should take care of home and it is the men who should work and earn a living,” says Monika Jana, secretary of Dariknagar Women Fishers’ Cooperative – a collective set up in Dariknagar village in the same Gram Panchayat (GP).
“People in our village didn’t like us forming a collective and doing business. They taunted us, heckled us and even tried to break our group. We are not even allowed use of the community hall to store our stuff. It is only recently they started recognising us as women with substance,” she adds.
Fellow member Anima Das, adds, “Since they did not give us a place to store our material – including fishing nets, water pump and fodder – we requested the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) people to allow us their one-room building for this purpose. They agreed. But few drunkard men continued to create noise outside disturbing our meetings. We went to the police, but they did not even help us.” “These incidents were actually the manifestations of male ego. Initially, they were not in a state of mind to accept that women can also do business and earn a livelihood for their families. It’s only when the collectives started earning, the community started giving them some respect,” notes Suman of Digambarpur Angikar which also imparted gender training to the spouses of the group members.
Monika’s husband Sankar Jana who runs a grocery shop is now proud for his wife and her collective. “She was very shy and afraid of talking to strangers. Now, she is looking after a group business venture and bringing home some extra income. More importantly, she is now a confident and empowered woman who takes all the important decisions for our family. I am very happy and I support her fully,” he says.
Similar is the story of Moumita Maiti of Debnagar village. She is the treasurer of Debanagar Marine Fisherwomen’s Cooperative Society – a 72-member group that has become more popular than any local government body. “The gender training we (both men and women) received from Angikar has changed out viewpoint. Although it is very difficult for men to shed the patriarchal mindset entirely, they are now changing. They have started respecting us and have slowly accepting that women are also equal citizens of the society,” says the Moumita while giving a helping hand to her mother-in-law in sorting out the ropes they made of rice straw.
Sibhurani Kar, the secretary of the group, adds that the trainings also helped women to come out of their family thresholds and take leadership not only in their business ventures but also try find solutions to social issues. “We have so far prevented three child marriages which was a normal practice in this region so far. In several cases of domestic violence, we interfered and solved the matter. We even took help of police in one matter,” she informs.
The transformation among the women, Sibhurani says, is because of the coming together of the women in the village. “Had we not been together, we would not have made this difference to our lives.” “Our efforts have changed our lives. Now we feel equal stakeholders of our families and of the society. This is a great sense of pride and contentment,” adds Moumita.
The collectives may not have earned huge financial profits for the women, but being active in the groups have certainly transformed the women into individuals who have improved their own standard of living and enhanced their ability to negotiate relationships and resolve issues that impact lives of women in general.