- The Mahila Samakhya programme was launched in 1988 to pursue the objectives of the National Policy on Education, 1986.
- The National Policy on Education, 1986 recognised that the empowerment of women is possibly the most critical pre-condition for the participation of girls and women in the educational process.
It recognised that education can be an effective tool for women’s empowerment, the parameters of which are:
- enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence of women;
- building a positive image of women by recognizing their contribution to the society, polity and the economy;
- developing ability to think critically;
- fostering decision making and action through collective processes;
- enabling women to make informed choices in areas like education, employment and health (especially reproductive health);
- ensuring equal participation in developmental processes;
- providing information, knowledge and skill for economic independence;
- enhancing access to legal literacy and information relating to their rights and entitlements in society with a view to enhance their participation on an equal footing in all areas.
- It stood out for its different approach. Bringing both central and respective state governments to the table, it also included and consulted women’s groups and voluntary organisations.
- Its aim was to work in areas where female literacy was low, and to innovate in bridging the gender gap in literacy.
- Rather than just focusing on literacy, it took a cue from the National Policy on Education 1986 that had stated that “education will be used as an agent for basic change in the status of women.” To do this, sanghas or collectives of the poorest and most marginalised women were formed with the help of local voluntary organisations.
- Through these sanghas, the women received not just basic literacy skills but also learned how to get information about their rights and entitlements, what to do about employment, legal literacy and health (including reproductive health). The sangha members were viewed as “active agents in their empowerment” rather than passive recipients of welfare or charity.
- National evaluation by the Ravi J Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in November 2014, done at the behest of the central government, is largely positive
- The 2014 evaluation records the very real changes that had come into the lives of sangha women both in the public arena and in their private spaces.
- At the time of last year’s review, the programme had grown from the initial pilot in 1989 to one spread over 130 districts in 11 states, 679 blocks/mandals and with a presence in 44,446 villages. There were 55,402 sanghas with over half the members from the lowest castes. Altogether there were well over 14 lakh women members of sanghas organised into 325 federations.
- Of these, around five lakh women were in savings and credit groups (21,825) and the programme also innovated through its Mahila Shikshan Kendras and Nari Adalats (women’s courts).
- The programme is also credited with preparing women to participate in panchayati raj institutions. Over the years, 30,390 sangha members had contested panchayati raj elections and 12,905 were elected.
- The evaluation concluded that, “[the] approach to empowerment, which begins by addressing multiple modes of discrimination first has heldMS [Mahila Samakhya] in good stead.”
The central government however decided to stop funding the programme from March 2016. Without these funds, although some parts of the programme could still survive, it would be scaled down drastically, ultimately leading to its closure. Academics, women’s activists and others have expressed disquiet at the impending closure of this innovative and globally acknowledged women’s empowerment programme