Recently nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Ekta Parishad, or “unity forum,” has been facilitating nonviolent resistance by marginalized communities in India since 1991. Today Ekta Parishad has over 200,000 formal members across 13 Indian states and addresses issues faced by the poorest and most marginalized communities: governance and welfare, land acquisition, agriculture, the rights of tribal dalits, industrial expansion, tourism, energy, and especially mining, forestry and water.
Jill Carr-Harris has been a leader in Ekta Parishad’s women’s wing for over a decade. Originally from Canada, Carr-Harris worked in India with the United Nations Development Programme for two years and then with other grassroots organizations for several years. She joined Ekta Parishad in 2000 in the effort to build up a women’s wing of the movement called Ekta Mahila Manch, or “women united.” In Ekta Parishad, she has served on the international committee and currently travels throughout the world offering nonviolent trainings, building solidarity for the movement, and raising awareness of Ekta Parishad’s planned 2020 million-person march from Delhi to Geneva. She is helping to plan a 2016 Ekta Mahila Manch conference in India, which will bring together 50 women from 20 different countries. Carr-Harris is also currently developing a doctoral thesis on the topic of women and land rights at the University of Toronto.
At a recent conference in Ottawa, Carr-Harris spoke about Ekta Parishad’s 2012 march, where 50,000 people walked from Delhi to Gwalior demanding land rights. I spoke with her afterward about women’s roles in the movement and the leadership successes and challenges women face within it.
Could you speak a bit about the background of Ekta Parishad’s women participants. What are their lives like?
Women who are semi-literate or without literacy are fairly confined to the villages and local economic activities. Often they don’t have much mobility. When you set up women’s organizations and you build up leaders in communities, women just take off.
The tribal women are extremely active. In Ekta Parishad there have been many, many struggles over water. One comes to mind in Chhattisgarh where a huge company was taking the water from the river to clean steel after its production. Because they were taking all the river water, the downstream villages were left without water. One of these women stood up against this and went on a fast in a downstream village. After several days, she was taken by the police to the hospital and force-fed. She later died. But that is the kind of struggle women take up for water because without water you can’t do agriculture.
You mentioned a special connection between women’s livelihoods and land rights?
In India women pay to go into the men’s familial home in most cases. They have to adopt the caste and position of their husband and deal with the mother-in-law and father-in-law and brothers and so on. Because that in itself leads to powerlessness, it can also lead to marital unrest. If a woman wants to leave that situation but has no assets at all, it’s very difficult. So we promote joint property rights — or some sort of land rights — for women. They feel a little more secure with their children — as well as a little more dignified, in terms of being recognized — knowing that they have land rights.
One of the goals [of the 2012 march] was getting women not only to raise their own various agendas around women’s land rights but also to be on the task force committees that were to push the land reform agenda. If there hadn’t been so many women — 40 percent of the marchers were women — the media wouldn’t have picked it up and public opinion wouldn’t have been so positively accepting that women need land rights.
What are some of the ways that Ekta Parishad challenges the gendered experience?
In advocacy, they learn how to talk and negotiate with officials and male leaders. They are standing up to the forest department, which is a male-dominated domain, and persisting in their activities. In a highly gendered society, that is where I see their capacities built.
In terms of economic programs, we’re on a back-to-village scheme, which is based around family farms and local community plantation works. Women play a huge part in the village economy. In part, a great number of women have become the head of households because of large-scale male out-migration. Women are both the agricultural laborers and they are leasing land. We’ve seen how they’ve come together and they’ve done common forest plantations. I’m thinking of one community where they produce food for school children, for instance. They produce it and package it collectively. So there’s a lot to be said about the capacities that are being built by giving them the opportunities to have land through our land rights programs, which ask the government to redistribute or give land. And we have special funds to help women work more collectively on those economic programs, whether it’s collecting seeds, starting grain banks or other ways of working together.
Tell me about the roles women play in Ekta Parishad’s organizational leadership. What are the challenges they face?
Building leadership is one of the goals of Ekta Mahila Manch. There are a lot of women at the grassroots level but there’s less organizational leaders that are women. And it’s very hard for many to stay leaders because they face resistance from men who would prefer to have the top spots.
We have often said we should just start our own women’s movement. Let’s take Ekta Mahila Manch and make it a women-led movement. But we decided not to because we were getting a lot of mileage in a mixed movement of men and women and we also knew that in the long run we’d have to convince men about the need for women’s leadership. If you look at the advancement of women in Ekta Parishad over 25 years you see enormous advancement. It’s the Gandhian way: to work within the whole as an oppressed part without dislodging the whole, but advancing. But it is a challenge.
What have been some of Ekta Mahila Manch’s contributions to Ekta Parishad?
In the last march, I was taken by how many women had worked up the leadership chain. There are a lot of women moving up to take major leadership positions and you see that leadership developing at the community levels, at the activist level, at the mass movement level, and at the higher senior levels. I think that when you give women the space to grow either in advocacy or in leadership development, you can see tremendous headway with very little resources.
The best women leaders that I’ve seen anywhere, not only in Ekta Parishad, are those that continue to have a group of women behind them and Ekta Mahila Manch plays that role in providing a platform or a support network for women’s leadership development.