Visit to some gonogobeshona groups in the Hunger Project in Rangpur and Gaibandha-by Md. Anisur Rahman (26-28 May 2007)

Gonogobeshona in the Hunger project started in this area following participation in 2005 of 45 of its “Ujjibaks”1 in a three-day PAR workshop at Nilfamari given by Development Research Centre ) DRC. headed by Dr. Lenin Azad. More than 25 gonogobeshona groups have reportedly been formed in Rangpur following this workshop. The groups have been formed by voluntary ‘animators’ mobilized by the ‘ujjibaks’ who attended the PAR workshop. They do not keep contact with the DRC animators who are paid workers of the Centre purportedly working to promote DRC’s specific ‘ideology’.

Of these gonogobeshona (henceforth gg) groups, most are female groups with four male groups only. The reason of greater female interest in gonogobeshona is perhaps the greater sense of oppression for dual economic and cultural reasons, and less time spent in work by the women outside the household which facilitates their getting together.

The Chairman of the Kolkond Union Parishad, an Awami Leaguer, one of the more enlightened ones I have met, has himself taken the “ujjibak” training and is actively supporting the gonogobeshona groups in his Union, visiting them, encouraging them, advising them (sometimes over-advising, I was told, not unexpectedly as he is not indoctrinated in the philosophy of PAR!).

gg group in a ‘char’ area

The first gg group I visited was in a ‘char’, an island in Kolkond union where the inhabitants are constantly chased by the river eroding its bank breaking into their inhabitation and dislocating them, besides posing a great risk to their children disappearing suddenly if unattended. Most inhabitants are acutely income-poor; but still the basic ‘poverty’ of an unsettled and precarious life chased by the river affects all irrespective of income, and forges a solidarity to face this struggle together. A male leader of moderate means from the community became an ujjibak and attended the PAR workshop, after which he has initiated formation of an all-female gg group about one year old with 33/34 members. The group has started a saving fund

to help its members at times of dire distress, putting in taka 10/- per week each. Discussion on what can be done with the group fund, who amongst them need help from the fund most, the terms at which help is to be given, seemed to be the principal subject of discussion in the weekly group meetings. The sense of ‘gonogobeshona’ as a collective exploration of problems of all kinds affecting their lives has not yet taken root, and the male ‘animator’/ujjibak did much of the talking with us despite my repeated effort to stop him and let others speak. When stimulated some women showed potentials for leadership, and inspiring fighting spirit to face their hazardous life. They have accepted their life itself as one of constant hazard, fighting which, shifting their abodes from one place to another as the river breaks into their habitation and dislocates them, being the very meaning of life for them. No development theory is relevant for them, except perhaps improving their access to medical facilities in need, and any assistance that can be given toward their children’s education, besides giving them courage to keep fighting with the river, and the group formation is helping in this fight. The Hunger Project will do well to try calm the enthusiasm of the male animator/uzzibak to do most of the talking (and thinking) himself and stimulate democratization of the discussions and growth of leadership from among the women members of the group as well as wider participation in the group’s deliberations.

20 women from 4 gg groups

Back from the island we sat with 20 women who came from four gg groups in uttar kolkonda. Mostly low-income, with a few belonging to lower-middle class one of whom served us lunch in her house of moderate amenities.

Relatively recent gg groups, formed about two months back after they attended an “initiative fair” of a large number of gg groups end of last February. After formation of one group others followed and formed theirs. The respective groups have formed their organizations with a President, Secretary and Cashier in each. First activity the starting of group saving funds. They are in a planning phase, doing ‘gobeshona’ on what they will do with their savings and what other activities to initiate. Ideas include bulk purchase of rice when price is low, to sell when price goes up; the proceeds will help bring up their children; lend money from saving to members in need, with thinking of 50 % interest for business loans and no interest for distress loans; acquire sanitary latrines; have better medical care. Vocal about stopping child marriage and dowry. Will put collective pressure on local hospital for proper supply of medicines.

Following suggestion of the Union Council Chairman one group is starting a cooperative consumer store. The Chairman saw this model in Kerala in a visit there a couple of years back. All members of the group will buy from this store. One member of the group will manage the store and will keep

one-third of the profit. The rest of the profit will go to the group fund. An innovative idea that will both raise the group income as well as reduce the members’ expenses for essential consumables – poverty can be reduced both by increasing incomes and reducing expenses, a strategy generally missed in poverty alleviation discussions. The cooperative store was to start the following day. Its experience should be followed with great interest, and if successful the example will deserve to be spread to other low-income groups across the country.

Only a few of those present talked and others appeared shy, suggesting domination of a few in group discussions and decision making. Natural to start with, but wider participation should be actively encouraged with concern for development of personality and articulation of all. The office bearers have been elected for five years, and when questioned the idea of permanency of leadership was not seen to be considered undesirable. Again, understandable as an initial awareness when they have come together for the first time under positive leadership chosen by themselves. But the development of awareness toward broadening leadership skills and of wider sharing of responsibilities is important. I left this question with them, suggesting also that they could think of strategies toward development of leadership potentials of others like “today so and so, though not an office bearer of the organisation, will conduct our gg sesssion”.

The Union Council Chairman joined us in the discussion, and I was impressed by his very positive and supportive attitude toward gonogobeshona and group formation of the disadvantaged people.

An older group in south Kolkond

A women’s gg group of 40 members, 2 ½ years old. Organized. Saving at the rate of 5 Taka per member per week. Lending to members for small business like paddy husking, ‘pitha’ (rice cake). Weekly repayment (“kisti”) like the NGOs, but if some one gets into difficulty then the group discusses with her and relaxes repayment schedule – e.g. a loanee’s son got sick six months after taking loan, and the group allowed her to defer payment of kisti

for six months – kind of humane handling of repayments unheard of in the NGO-Grameen-micro-lending system.

The leader (President) of this group, interestingly, a member of the Union Council, a middle class woman.

The group has been very active resisting oppression on women. A husband used to beat his wife and took a second wife. This further increased beating of the first wife keeping her ill-fed as well. The group intervened and forced the husband to keep the two wives separate from each other ensuring care for the first wife. They have stopped three child marriages and one second marriage of a husband, and such instances are now stopping by themselves out of fear of resistance from the group. They are mobilizing against divorce and “hillah” (the fundamentalist practice of forcing a verbally divorced wife to take another “husband” for a night before the original husband takes her back). Internal harmony in the families is increasing with greater civil dialogues and less quarrels, abuse-hurling and beating. Wife-abuses are reported to the group which sends emissaries to the offending husband who admits mistake.

A new dimension of group activity – groups arrange for care of expectant mothers that husbands do not take care of such as arranging for blood group recording and taking body weight and blood pressure.

I raised the question in this group also of the need to develop alternative leadership, to which the leader of the group responded positively. A number of the group members other than the leader herself were quite vocal –the group is of course relatively older.

Another group in north kolkond

Fourteen months old group. 60 members with 59 women and one male. The male member, who initiated the group formation, is the President. Sub- groups in four paras (hamlets). 5 taka a week saving. Loans are given to members from group fund with the consent of the sub-group of the concerned para which supervises the loan and advises handling of repayment if the borrower gets into difficulty – as against the practice, as they said, of Grameen, BRAC and other NGOs to “come and shout in case of failure to pay kisti in time”.

They resist child marriage and dowry. A latest incident was a husband who married 10 years back without dowry and was now demanding dowry – the group went to the husband and pressured him to drop his demand. Now child marriage and dowry have virtually ceased as a result of the group’s vigilance. And status of the women in the family has risen.

I raised the question why the single male member was the President. It appeared that the decision had been taken impulsively as the male member had initiated the group formation, and no one raised the question of some woman member taking over from him. Some said that they had decided to change the President – this did not appear to be very convincing. I suggested that they should discuss this seriously in their group meeting in the presence of the male President without dishonouring him, and he should also agree to step down if he is committed to women’s empowerment.

a gg group in bharatkhali union, Gaibangha

Formed by a woman leader W from the very disadvantaged class who attended a PAR workshop in Nilfamari taken there by a local NGO three years back. Upon returning she shared her experience with other women of disadvantaged classes which resulted in the formation of a gg group of 25 women. W is exceptionally smart and courageous and smartly shook hands with me, the first such greeting from a woman gonogobeshok I got in this visit.

The group has the usual organizational structure and saving programme with 5 taka per week contribution per member. It meets once every week. W explained the objective of the group as empowerment of the members, wiping out all weaknesses and gaining maximum strength. They insure that government distribution of relief blankets is fair; there is no child marriage in the union; school teachers take their teaching duties seriously; elimination of dowry and physical oppression on women; practice of family planning among the women. They say they have become a “mukti fouj” (freedom squad). They have organized a “mothers’ assembly” against child marriage.

W keeps a mobile phone and phones the Union Council Chairman and the Police Station to stop cases of child marriage and other oppressions if local action by the group cannot tackle them. The chairman and police respect her for her outspokenness and courage and her appeal to law, and intervene when she phones them. One noteworthy achievement beside other more

usual types: 20-25 youth boys of the area kidnapped and brought a girl from Dhaka and were about to assault her when W mobilized women and rescued the girl under intimation to the police and Chairman, and the girl was given in marriage to a local boy to save her honour. W said she was scared if she could hold out.

W talked of the need for women to come out of their homes to overcome their shyness. She was outspoken against the hadith (life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad), saying that adherence to hadith will mean continuation of oppression on women – instead it is necessary to follow the Law, adding that following the hadith the moulanas are going for multiple wives and oppressing them.

The group has motivated and assisted women in 8/10 nearby villages to form their own gg groups and have given them, in their words, “training” to form and run gg groups.

W sometimes talked vigorously herself, sometimes she was absolutely quiet letting others talk. A number of others were quite vocal. The group of course is one of the oldest among gg groups, but obviously W has also helped other members to overcome their ‘shyness’ and encouraged development of their articulation and assertion.

Seeing the group more advanced than the others I visited, I invited it to take their “gobeshona” one step forward by way of initiating organized research (inquiry) on specific issues like collecting case histories on various instances of oppression on women, to develop their own organized knowledge as well for presenting such information to the wider society and authorities. The discussion converged to the suggestion that a high school going girl from among the group may undertake a systematic study of cases of oppression on women in the locality by means of a house-to-house survey. The girl I suggested agreed to do so over the coming months. Her study may thereafter be discussed in the group before finalizing. We should eagerly await the study, and hope that the Hunger Project will give necessary encouragement and facilities for the study by way of providing the girl with a pencil and notebook and visiting her from time to time to give her encouragement to complete the task and thus make a contribution to taking gg to a higher level in the country.

Meeting leaders of a number of gg groups

My last session was with leaders of about ten gg groups who assembled to meet me. W was also there, quiet unless specifically addressed to. A number of them also belonged to groups under a local NGO, “X”, which was talked of as being sympathetic to gg and against micro-credit type of lending.

When reporting to me of their activities I found them rather mixed up as between activities under the NGO with which they were associated from before they formed gg groups, and of their activities as gg groups. They also seemed more eager than the other gg groups I had met, to have “advice” from me, and this looked like an influence of “NGO culture”. I refused to give any advice, and challenged them to seek answers to their questions themselves. They also talked in languages like “we are the leaves and Hunger [Project] is the tree, our strength” (NGO-influenced thinking again!). To this I disagreed sharply and asked them to think of themselves as the main strength.

The discussion veered to the coming election of the Union Council and I asked if they were thinking of electing someone from among them to the Council, even to become the Chairman. Sadly, they replied in the negative, saying that they would stay out of the Union Council and would make demands to it, and that if they went in they could get corrupt! I disagreed sharply again – if they were not willing to take responsibility themselves they would continue to be exploited. There was uneasiness among them to what I was saying. I turned at W who had been quiet all along with her head bowed down. She shook her head firmly and said that they must capture the Union Council and they should work toward it. The others then slowly started repeating her, but obviously they lacked independent and clear thinking on this question.

overall reflections

The sample of gg groups under the Hunger Project that I visited is on the whole rather encouraging. A special feature of these groups is that they are not being ‘animated’ by any paid cadre whether from outside or from amongst them, so that the question of their sustaining depends on their internal dynamics and strength only. Apparently, their successes in stopping oppression on women plus the saving funds under their own control being used as a social security are strengthening their solidarity and contributing to sustaining their organisations and gonogobeshona discourses. However, the Hunger Project is in a position to influence their course and development as

these groups are growing under the ‘umbrella’ of this project. Assuming a commitment to empowerment of the disadvantaged the Hunger Project staff and ujjibaks who are being created in its programme may seek to collect their thoughts toward helping to advance the empowerment content of the gg groups and the overall gg movement it is promoting without imposing itself in any way upon the autonomy of the groups and the movement. This can be done by way of suggesting elements of advanced culture of gonogobeshona. Some such elements have been touched upon in presenting my experiences with groups that I visited , viz., widening the participatory culture in the groups and improving the articulation of individual group members, seeking to develop alternative leaderships so as to reduce dependence on a single set of leadership as well as broadening the leadership spectrum of the groups; seeking to foster a cautious attitude toward relation with NGOs rather than conceptually mixing up grouping under an NGO and self-grouping for gonogobeshona and self-empowerment; and guiding the groups toward higher forms of gonogobeshona by way of more systematic collective social inquiry rather than the present dialogical form of collective discussion only (examples of such higher forms of systematic collective inquiry by the disadvantaged abound in the PAR literature with which the concerned staff of Hunger project may wish to get familiar and which they may wish to bring to the attention of ujjibaks overseeing the gg groups as well). Attempt needs to be made also to generate greater clarity among the gg groups about the broader perspective of their movement in terms of the power balance in the society -i.e. the question of pressure group activities versus aiming to share or take over power at higher levels of social/national administration.

On such questions I have discerned a view among some animator quarters that it is not the function of external animators to raise such questions – they should only seek to stimulate the gg groups to get together and deliberate anything they want by themselves. This is an unfortunate position that denies the gg groups the benefit of interacting with knowledge, thinking and experience of others. The disadvantaged people have the right to access knowledge, thinking and experience of any quarter anywhere in the world to consider for their own development without being dominated by them. In this respect what is needed is not withholding such knowledge, thinking and experience from them but to be sensitive as to when these may be introduced to them for their consideration and in what manner, so as not to alienate or overpower them with apparent ‘superior’ wisdom but to help them develop their own position on concerned issues in full consideration of external

knowledge on the issues. On this task the words of Kahlil gibran on the ‘teacher’ (our word: the ‘animator’) cannot be surpassed:

“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.

If he [the teacher/animator] is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” (The Prophet, on Teaching).

To develop the proper sensitivity on this question so as to judge the ‘threshold’ of the people’s mind for acquainting them with relevant outside wisdom and experience is the most important challenge for the (external) animator, on which his/her success in promoting true empowerment of the disadvantaged, developing their indigenous knowledge as well as absorbing and recreating knowledge generated elsewhere, depends.

In their bid to self-empowerment, struggle against oppression and assertion of their rights including right to rule over their own destiny, promotion of literacy is a very important need for enhancing their capability in many directions. For most disadvantaged people lack of literacy will remain a major handicap both for performing tasks they may be capable, if literate, of performing at their own levels as well as at higher levels that they may aim to capture, and also to communicate with and participate in a modern world of letters instead of ‘thumb-signing’ away their power and possessions. The gg movement will remain essentially handicapped unless the average ‘capability’ of the gonogobeshoks is raised by adult literacy measures. This I suggest should be seriously taken up by any ‘parent’ organisation which is seeking to promote gg of disadvantaged people.

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