NK provides no financial or material resources to the groups. NK sees microcredit loans as fostering dependency, and amounting to another kind of exploitation akin to money lending, where people pay high interest, get into debt, and usually fail to prosper. Instead, group members themselves pool savings, each individual contributing one or two taka a week (about one or two pence), although savings may stop in times of hardship. With this money they undertaking collective economic enterprises, most often buying or leasing land for agriculture or undertaking small business. Savings are also used for fisheries, livestock, rickshaws, or to lend to group members in times of need. Enterprises may be undertaken by one group, or several groups together, and are managed by committees selected by group members. One male group member in Shaghata described their position as agricultural labourers: ‘We are creators of wealth but have no control over it’. Through collective enterprises they regain control and reap the benefits of the wealth they produce.
In one year a total of 578 groups undertook new joint economic activities and earned a profit totalling over 4 million taka (Annual Report 2002-2003). However, of these 578 groups, 356 were male and 222 female. Women’s groups savings and group economic activities are smaller and fewer than those of men’s groups. Women’s groups are less inclined to buy land, but NK is encouraging them to do so.
3.6 Participating in local government, the nation and the world
NK sees local, national and global exploitation as linked, such as the growing strength of the Muslim fundamentalists locally feeding off imperialist actions globally. NK allies with global campaigns for example against the export shrimp market.
In training and meetings group members discuss national and international issues which affect them, sometimes looking at a particular news item brought by a literate member of the group or NK staff. To build a larger awareness group members celebrate a number of local, national and international days. National days include those celebrating Bengali language, independence day, commemorating a minority woman who died in the struggle for independence against the British, commemorating a national woman’s rights activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain4. International days include international women’s day, and international labour day. Through learning about the history of such celebrations, group members come to see themselves as engaged with and having a right to participate in and claim their due from the nation and the world. This engagement with the public realm and national and international affairs is particularly new for women.
Group members encourage each other to stand for local elections. In local government elections at union level from 2002-2003 111 male group members, and 77 female group members contested elections, of which 44 men and 40 women were elected (annual report 2002-2003). In one year a total of 387 group members, 338 men and 49 women were elected to 179 school management committees (annual report 2002-2003). These posts are important in that school management committees can ensure access to school for poor children. Although fewer women than men are elected, the number has increased since the previous rounds of elections.
One aim of NK aim is to change culture – to forge a progressive Bengali culture in the face of exploitation, and in the face of influences from dominant external cultures – both from the west but more immediately from Hindi pop culture from Bollywood and the like. Song and drama and song are a powerful tool in constructing this new culture. Drama audiences report reactions of pain, hatred and realisation and often discuss the content (source: interview with Shaghata cultural team leader Naiser Ali). Dramas end with an appeal to the audience: ‘See what is happening! What will we do now? You sit silently but we need to struggle!’
Drama on oppression of women
Nurjahan divorced and so returned to her father’s house. She was then ostracised by her community as a divorced woman. The leader of the village, an old man already married with children and grandchildren, decided he wanted to take her as a third wife. Nurjahan refused, and later married a young man. The village leader then persuaded the mullah to issue a fatwa against Nourhahan saying they should punish her. Villagers buried her up to her neck and stoned her until she was unconscious while her crying parents looked on. Nurjahan killed herself that night. This was a real story reported in the newspaper in the early 1990s. It was made into a drama by the landless cultural group.
Talent in performance is the criteria for membership of the cultural groups, which are selected by committees from landless group members locally, to perform for each other. Teams have been men only, due to the perception of women performers as being close to sex workers and fair game for harassment. However, as from last year drama groups have started trying to recruit women. Of a total of 611 team members, there are now 61 women. The practice in some areas has been to recruit only married women, often wives of men in the team, as it is thought that once married, husbands may stop their wives participating, so it is not worth investing the considerable time training unmarried women. This may be a mistake, and one of the reasons that cultural teams still include very few women. It also seems that in some cases attitudes by male cultural team leaders may be somewhat of a barrier, one stating that the lack of women is not such a problem as ‘there are very few women’s roles to play in their dramas anyway’.
4. NIJERA KORI STAFF
The staff set-up echoes the organisation of landless groups. A weekly staff meeting is held which, like landless group meetings, opens and closes with a mass song, covers both theoretical and practical issues, and has the same system of mutual reporting and accountability. As in the village, staff children pop in and out during the meeting and are shooed away. Like group members, staff have extensive opportunities for discussion and training, including on exploitation of women.
Staff also perform dramas in trainings and workshops, and a central cultural team is selected from the staff according to talent. At central level, the team became men only as the current perception of women performers has meant the amount of sexual harassment was insurmountable for women travelling the country as performers.
Views on gender relations are considered in recruitment interviews. Terms of reference, and criteria for evaluation for all staff also include attention to work on women’s exploitation, for which everyone is responsible.
One constraint NK has been unable to overcome is to reach greater parity of numbers of male and female staff. There are almost twice as many men as women staff.
Numbers of male and female staff
Total NK staff
(figures as of December 2003)
There are also fewer women than men in middle level management. Reasons include: lack of security and the related lesser freedom of movement for women; staff living in distant and remote areas in basic living conditions which lack privacy; requirement to live away from families. Previously staff lived with poor families, which was even more inhibiting for women. Many unmarried women join, but leave once married due to family opposition. Also, more senior women may leave once their children grow older as there are no good schools in NK areas. Staff at central office surmise that even in the most feminist and liberated households of NK staff women take more responsibility for children’s education.
Attempts to increase numbers of women staff at all levels include: recruitment advertisements specifically for women; reserved seats for women in management committees; and more suited living centres. NK does not want to buy land if they can avoid it, but in some cases have decided it’s worth it to be able to build a better living facility if they have the budget. A longer term strategy is to continue work on changing the world so women can have more say in the family and be more mobile, and security becomes less of a problem.
Staff contribute 1% of their salary to a solidarity fund for legal aid or medical treatment for group members. To remain close to those they work in living standard, their wages are low relative to other NGOs, which has sometimes proved a problem for retaining staff.
This consistency of values between staff and programme is further reflected in the collective living arrangements, accommodation of women’s family burdens, and the democratic structure of the organisation.