Rights over needs
Rumina Sethi

Grass-roots NGOs by Women for Women: The Driving Force of Development in India.
Femida Handy, Meenaz Kassam, Suzanne Feeney and Bhagyashree Ranade. Sage, New Delhi. Pages 236. Rs 320.

Grass-roots NGOs by Women for Women: The Driving Force of Development in IndiaFeminist studies have grown at such a pace in the last three decades that the connection between grassroots activity and theory is well nigh lost. Jargon-ridden gender studies departments at universities can scarcely accommodate the real struggles of women, their frustrations, their marginalised status at home and in the public space and their changing relationships with a rapidly mushrooming global world.

Much of postmodernist thinking tends to discount the world of "things" in favour of "words". To advocate the latter exclusively is to lose touch with the political reality of feminism. We have to grapple today not only with the intellectual history of women but also with their very site of enunciation, location and audience.

Although Indian feminism has witnessed all kinds of liberal, leftist and radical feminist positions, the women question must seriously be addressed in the study of formal politics. There has to be a fundamental transformation of the definition of the word "political" in this custom-ridden society so that many of the activities undertaken by women can be included.

This book studies twenty women who initiated grass-root NGOs in Pune, Maharashtra. The approach of the four authors (one among them lives in Pune) is rigorous. Information about the NGOs is collected from interviews and the data is validated by visiting the sites for case studies. Grass-roots NGOs primarily probes into the entrepreneurial spirit, the issues and the challenges encountered by small-scale NGO founders, who, not surprisingly, turn out to be feminists. The policies governing the organisations are women-centric.

Non-governmental agencies and organisations work on the premise of "no-profit" and hence, are believed to be beneficial to the poor and the oppressed. The government also often works through them to enable public policy to reach the masses. The NGOs in India range from large, national and multi-layered groups like SEWA, CRY, Asha and so on to the lesser known young organisations on shoestring budgets. It is the latter that reach remote pockets of women’s oppression and the "engines behind development efforts around the world."

While many books study the subjugation of women in general, few have researched the organisations that reach out to them or document their narratives, especially when it comes to small women-led NGOs. This book attempts to study the organisational structures, programmes, methodology and effects of women-led small-scale grass-root movements and creates a body of literature.

Although the study is intensive, a few instances can scarcely stand for a country as diverse as India; neither can women-centred NGOs outline the functioning of other marginalised sections of Indian society. Despite the drawbacks, particular insights can sometimes be used to make broad but sound generalisations and these can be extended to male-focused organisations.

What the NGOs accomplish in the lives of ordinary women is more than just the protection against patriarchy or providing employment/ education to the poor. The NGOs should be the energising and empowering agents that attempt to transform women’s lives by recognising the significance of their rights over needs, leading them from the restricted right to parity in selected areas to the larger right of self-determination.