- WIN News, Wntr, 2000

WORKING WOMEN'S FORUM: President: Ms. Jaya Arunachalam

"Poverty- especially poor women in the developing world - features prominently on the agenda of development experts and practitioners. Certain problems of the 'working poor' need to be addressed critically at a time when the poor are made to pay a heavy price towards globalization and liberalization efforts. Their struggles are compounded in spite of working hard to earn a livelihood. This is because of the dual pressure of unfavourable living and working conditions.

The women living in poverty face several burdens in their living and working conditions. They have to eke out a living, with little or no trading/occupational skills as most of it is unskilled work, fetching only paltry earnings. Lack of access to credit or other opportunities for productive employment are yet other constraints in their work effort and thus they remain enmeshed in the vicious cycle of poverty, indebtedness and powerlessness.


The emergence of an all women workers union known as National Union of Working Women is the result of an effort to address all these issues, realizing that the problems of poverty, unemployment, poor health, oppressive working conditions, child labor and lack of awareness/consciousness are all interwoven. The Working Women's Forum, an organization of poor women that was initiated by Ms. Jaya Arunachalam in 1978, started the Notional Union of Working Women (NUWW) in 1982.

Because the vital contributions of women workers in the unorganized sector is not recognised, these workers do not get a place in any of the national statistics. Because of exclusion from the planning process itself there has always been a lack of social/labor legislations for this segment of the work force. Their labor is considered disposable, therefore, they are paid low and discriminatory wages. With no lob security or even a permanent employer their earnings are meagre and insufficient. The intense poverty is the direct precursor to child labor. Children become vital contributors to family income even at an early age. Most of the children are pledged for a few thousand rupees by unscrupulous employers and money lenders and are pushed into a life of bondedness and slavery.

Today the NUWW's strategy of delivering access to credit to poor women workers of the informal sector through its cooperative banking venture has relieved thousands of women from the clutches of money lenders and the consequent debt burden. Thousands of child laborers have been redeemed from lifetime bondedness and are today being educated at the NUWW's child labor rehabilitation centres. The credit available has also enabled women to begin an enterprise of their own thus generating employment potential. Vocational and skill training centres provide adolescent girls with technical skills to make better job opportunities available to them.

NUWW's constant lobbying with the power structures has successfully brought about increases in wages of some of the workers like the beedi rolling women. In the case of the lace artisans in Andhra Pradesh, the clout provided by NUWW has helped women to overcome the exploitative market forces. In other instances, such as the silk weavers of Kanchipuram, the women weavers who up to now were not considered productive workers are now recognized on par with their male counterparts and are today eligible to benefit from government schemes for pension and provident fund.

The reproductive and child health programme of the NUWW and its leadership training programme has raised women's awareness to deal with reproductive health problems as well as other gender issues and concerns. The mobilization and unionization of NUWW has generated power for its members which they have been successfully able to exercise to lobby and pressure bureaucracies and decision makers.

Women have fought issues such as equal wages, better civic amenities like water, electricity, drainage facilities, closing down liquor shops and access to a burial ground. In order to successfully achieve this social mobilization and social action all that the NUWW has done was to channelize the one power available namely the rich human resource potential. Through its success the NUWW has disproved popular misconceptions that the poor are only a burden to a nation's economy and its growth, and demonstrated that if given the right opportunities they can become a power to reckon with.

Though the union derives its strength from the group dynamism and group solidarity of its members, the merit of individual resilience cannot be underestimated. Independently each woman at the NUWW is a vibrant force with ability to survive and alleviate her own miseries against great odds. It is this strength of each individual that is manifested forcefully in the collective. NUWW has gathered momentum over the years and became a mass movement.

The credit of the growth and spread of WWF goes to its members alone. From a modest membership of 800 women, WWF has grown in strength and size to 450,000 women and has extended its operation to 15 different branches in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Each time the growth was implemented with the same success transcending barriers of caste, religion, ethnicity and language. This was possible due to the initiative and commitment of the grassroot women of the forum.

Each branch has an independent history but the one feature they share is the leadership that women demonstrated initiating each of these ventures. In Adiramapattinam and Dindigul, semiliterate and illiterate grassroot women spearheaded teams to mobilize rural women in remote and backward areas. The Vellore branch owes its origin to the vision of a member of the organization who was instrumental in unionizing the Beedi rollers along trade lines and relieved the home based women workers from the exploitation of middlemen and suppliers.

The achievements of the WWF/N UWW were given credit when agencies like ILO recognized the forum as a successful movement. At their behest NUWW organized the exploited lace artisans in the East and West Godavari Districts. The women in the forum accepting the new challenge and yet again proved that their experiment could be effectively replicated in another state too.

The shining success of the participatory approach of the forum's programmes came through in the history of the Bidar branch in Karnataka. A large government programme to improve the quality of life of the rural women and children had failed because of the government's top down approach. WWF stepped in to take over and today promotes many non farm occupations in the drought prone area.

NUWW constantly crusades against socio cultural and traditional practices that subjugate and victimize women. Two such practices that are still in vogue are female infanticide and the Devadasi system. In the Dharmapuri district where new born girls are killed by their own mothers the practice has overtime become accepted as a tradition. NUWW is combating this evil by an integrated approach of delivering health and credit services. They are sensitizing and raising the awareness of the women to the issue of human rights and the girl child's right to survival.

In the Bellary district of Karnataka girl children are dedicated to a mother goddess only to become victims of exploitation/prostitution. Because of the forum's intervention many of the women have been rescued from this exploitation and have been rehabilitated, educated and saved from the practice."

WWF Membership 567,653
Number of Loans 632,185
Outstanding Loans 50,006,119
Number of groups 73,859
Micro Credit in Numbers 218,853
Loan Amount Disbursed 396,580,000
Areas covered under credit services 1,003 Slums and 2,768 Villages
Coverage by Health Programs 161,879,300
No of infertility cases referred: 1,668
No. of STD/HIV cases referred: 1,117
Social Security Coverage 40,733
Default Rate 1.03%

The women in the union have effectively led their own struggles, initiated strategies for their betterment and have also implemented them with utmost efficiency. The WWF / NUWW is today a living testimony to the reality that development can indeed be the choice of the poor.

Women in the Forum are today the proud posessors of a unique legacy, a legacy which they have themselves created and which they will carry forth through their own conviction and efforts."

UN WIRE (Sept. 30, 1999): http://www.unfoundation.org
For the majority of India's 400 million women, the chances of becoming a political leader are incredibly slim. Yet as the BBC reports "one government initiative may now be changing that for good. Nearly five years ago, the Indian government passed legislation reserving seats for women on panchayats - village councils - which rule on every important decision in village political life. Once the sole preserve of men, panchayats now have women members and leaders, who are beginning to challenge feudal traditions and change the way councils run.

Barjinder Kaur, a head of a 20-member village council said: 'At first it seemed as if the government had made this law just to pay lip service to women's rights. But now even the illiterate women in our village are becoming more aware - they are ready to take action on issues.

Panchayats across India are consulted for advice ranging from education, health to employment. At the Institute of Development and Communication, researchers who have been studying women's participation in village politics in Punjab say many women are still afraid to challenge practices such as wife beating and dowry deaths. And many women's families oppose their political activities - some have even been the target of violent attacks. In large parts of rural Punjab, literacy levels for women remain lower than 20%

Besides poor literacy levels, 'the feminization of poverty is noticeable almost all over India,' according to a UN Development Report. Female farmers in Northern India work nearly 3,500 hours per year, almost three times that of men. And female political analysts say basic things women care about are ignored by politicians."

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