Group members are supported with training2. Training includes some aspects of how to organise and practical skills, but a large part focuses on analysing causes of poverty, and class exploitation, drawing heavily on examples from participants’ own realm of experience. All levels of training include modules and discussions of women and women’s rights.
Training is at different levels, alternately single and mixed sex, the logic being that women need separate spaces to gain confidence, but at the same time women and men need to learn to interact. Men need to learn to respect women, and women to assert themselves with men.
Advanced (4 days) – women and men together – after a few years of group membership
Higher selection (5 days) – separate
Higher (10 days) mixed – for highest level group leaders
Higher selection training deals with broader national and international issues, which women have less opportunity to engage with and less confidence in, so once again this training is separate.
In addition to this core training, special courses are run on leadership development, joint production and management, rights and access to information, paralegal, and sustainable development training.
The main activities of groups consist of: mobilising to claim rights for both women and men; resolving local conflicts, including family conflicts from which women often suffer most; undertaking a collective economic enterprises; fostering an identification with and participation in local, national and international issues.
3.3 Claiming rights from state and society
Once the organisation is strong enough, groups mobilise around their human rights. These include the following rights which are guaranteed by national law but in practice rarely implemented.
Possession of ‘khas’ land and water bodies allotted to landless people under land reform policies
Minimum wages for a day’s labour
Medical treatment which should be free in government hospitals but is often poor quality or totally denied to poor people
Police stations and courts accepting cases filed by poor people, which they usually refuse
Opposition has been fierce from local elites, religious fundamentalists, government administration, and shrimp business managers, sometimes working together to obstruct group actions. Three group members have even been killed during the struggles, Korunamoyee Sarder in 1990, Kachmoti Begum in 1998, and Joynal Abedin in 2000. In part due to this kind of courage and willingness to take risks, significant achievements have been made. For example, from March 2002- March 2003, 562 group members regained 229,72 acres of khas agricultural land by defeating illegal usurpers, a more than 10% increase over the previous year. Khas land deeds are in the name of both women and men family members. Most group members’ children now go to school, and the groups have established schools in areas where government education facilities are not available.
Rights entitled under Islamic law are also demanded. For example under Islamic law, women are entitled to a share of inheritance if her husband or father dies, which is half that to which sons are entitled. However, women are often denied even this share. Group members have organised shalishes – customary village justice hearings - to enforce this right.
Campaigns are also run against injustice including: violence against women; commercial export oriented shrimp aquaculture which destroys’ people’s land and the benefits from which are denied to poor people; and globalisation’s negative impacts on the rural poor.
Campaigns have also been run for higher wages for women. Women are typically paid less than men, however this has been a difficult issue to tackle, as some women fear if they ask for equal wages with men, men will be employed in preference to them. Unemployment is a problem, and agricultural producers do not necessarily have high profit margins. Nevertheless, NK staff are encouraging groups to discuss this issue, and in some cases NK groups have mobilised successfully for higher wages for women.
Fighting for higher wages for women
In one village in Palashbari several groups, 13 men’s groups and 7 women’s groups are organised. Most of the women are domestic labourers, working for richer families in the household, including processing agricultural products and tending livestock. They work from sunrise to sunset during the harvest season, and previously received for this labour a little breakfast, a small bowl of rice with water for lunch, and one kilogram of rice per day, which is not enough to feed their families. Through group discussions and training they realised they were exploited. Out of their common problem arose a common idea to do something about it. They learnt that the law specifies that minimum return for a day’s labour is three and a half kilograms of rice or cash equivalent. The 13 women’s groups and 7 men’s groups in their village in 2001 got together and demanded from employers two kilograms of rice and two meals per day, less than their legal entitlement, but they thought a more realistic demand. Employers refused, so they went on strike and refused to work. People came from elsewhere to take up their jobs, but the group members put them off saying (in the words of one women’s group member) ‘this is our place. It is our right to work here. We won’t allow anyone else to work here. We’re poor, you are poor. Don’t fight us.’ This was effective, and after a period, when crops were getting rotten, the employers called them in and conceded to their demand. This has also had a positive effect on surrounding villages where the day’s wage for such work has also been increased. Men supported them, because if women’s wage is raised, this helps the whole family, and because most of their husbands are also group members. However, they say the employers are resentful, and still lack respect for them (story as told by one women’s group of Palashbari).
Until last year in Shaghata women agricultural labourers earned 30 taka/day as opposed to the 40 taka men received. Rahima, union committee member, said this isn’t fair as women in fact work as hard as men, and don’t take the smoking break that men take. This became an issue after she and others went to meetings and trainings on labour-wage exploitation. This inequality was discussed in group, training, and Thana, Forum and Union committee meetings. All agreed that both women and men would stop work and demand an equal wage of 40 taka for both women and men. Men supported the action because a higher wage for women is good for the whole family, and also this could stop women undercutting them in the labour market. In early 2004, they went on strike and prevented outside labourers from taking up the work. Because the organisation is strong they were able to do this, and landowners unlike on previous occasions did not threaten violence, knowing the strength of the organisation. Instead the landowners bargained with the organisation, and finally agreed on 35 taka/day for women (story as told by Rahima, NK Thana committee member).