3.6 Participating in local government, the nation and the world 16
3.7 Cultural groups 17
4. NIJERA KORI STAFF 17
4.1 Collective Living 19
4.2 Child spaces in the central office 21
4.3 Democracy 22
5. REFLECTIONS 23
Annex – methodology and schedule……………………………………… …25
Providing services to poor people can only be a short term solution to the symptoms of poverty, and fails to address the causes. Instead, poor people must become aware of their rights and gain the collective strength to fight for these and to challenge social injustice. This is the Nijera Kori (NK) philosophy. NK has for over twenty years been organising poor and landless people into activist groups. Members and groups support each other to fight for the rights to which they are legally entitled, such as free education and medical care, access to the legal system, and land allotted under land reform schemes. They are given no financial support, but pool their own savings and undertake collective economic enterprises such as farming or small business. Opposition has been intense from local elites and religious fundamentalists who are now on the rise. Three NK landless activists have been killed during the twenty year struggle, the most recent in 2000. Nevertheless the landless groups continue, and in some areas have reached a critical mass and achieved genuine changes.
NK sees women and men as oppressed by the same economic system and as needing to work together to challenge both gender and other inequalities. NK programme organisers live collectively in subcentres in the villages, with women and men sharing decision making and housework responsibilities practising equality in their own lives. This is a radical challenge to a society where most people have no option other than to live in marriages and extended families, and where shame is associated with interactions between women and men. Women living and working without male guardians become agents for change and role models for other women. At the same time, in part because of the collective living arrangements, there are only half as many female as male staff. In response NK is making special efforts to recruit women.
Along with the philosophy of working together, is the recognition that separate spaces are needed to foster women’s confidence and leadership. Landless people’s groups are single sex, and trainings are alternately single and mixed sex at different levels. On elected bodies, seats are reserved for women if a minimum number of women are not otherwise elected. More landless women’s groups have been organised than men’s, because women have more time in the day time, are less likely to migrate, and are more oppressed so may be more willing to take the risk of organising. Groups challenge exploitation from both outside and inside the family and community including such problems as domestic violence and dowry.
There are important lessons to learn from NK. Mainstreaming of gender, and separate spaces for women are both needed. Cultures must be changed, and decades of time invested. Values of human rights and equality need to be applied consistently throughout both programme and internal practices. Even then, some challenges and inequalities will remain. At the same time, these strategies will open possibilities for amazing and tangible progress.
We are building a new society
– Achhiron Begum, landless woman activist in Shaghata
After the famine of 1974, many destitute rural women made their way to the cities in search of food and work. Some women activists in Dhaka trained some of these women in food processing so they were able to generate income. Gradually this activity coalesced into an organisation called ‘Nijera Kori’ which means in English ‘We do it ourselves’. In 1980, a disillusionment with the service provision approach of many NGOs brought about a shift in Nijera Kori (henceforth NK) to its current focus. Service provision and microcredit were seen to foster dependency and to address only the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty. Instead NK adopted a strategy of raising awareness of rights and helping people develop the collective strength to demand these rights and challenge injustice.
NK now organises poor rural people into activist groups, as part of a larger elected organisation. Members and groups support each other to fight for their rights. They are given no financial support, but pool their own savings, and undertake collective economic enterprises such as farming or small business.
In a few areas, such as Shaghata, where NK groups have been organised for over two decades, a critical mass has been reached. In these areas, a new society is being built from the grassroots up. Poor people are succeeding in gaining access to the land, wages, schooling, medical and legal services to which they are entitled by law but which they have so far been denied. Through their collective strength they are overcoming the immediate opposition from local elites, religious fundamentalists, and government administration. They are also changing their own behaviours - intervening when men beat their wives, and arranging dowry free marriages between each other’s children.
The new society is not only an aim of the programme. Staff also live out this new society ‘practising equality’ in their own lives. In Bangladesh marriage is virtually an obligation, and divorce means social and economic death for most women. Outside marriage and the family, contact between women and men is often restricted. However, instead of living with spouses in the extended family, NK programme organisers live collectively in subcentres, with women and men sharing living space, decision making and household tasks. While most staff are married, they spend at least 10 months a year in subcentres rather than with their families, although children under ten may join them in the subcentres. This provides a radical alternative to family lifestyles. Many staff and their partners and families experience this as a big sacrifice of family life. However, collective living arrangements are also described in highly positive terms, and for some, particularly those with difficult relations with their spouses, or situations of divorce or violence from husbands, NK provides vital security and freedom.
Participatory democracy is part of the organisation’s philosophy and function. Poor people’s groups elect group leaders and representatives to form committees at village and higher levels. Staff also elect their representatives and higher levels of leadership.
A revolutionary vision of collective and democratic struggle for human rights and equality binds the groups and the staff into a consistent whole.
This case study explores the NK approach to gender. The following section 2 outlines the gender strategy. Section 3 describes the core NK activity, organising landless groups, and considers the gender aspects of these. Section 4 looks at gender implications of human resource practices in the organisation. Finally, section 5 reflects on lessons to be learned from NK.