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Mahila Meetings are the platform through which ADATS and the Coolie Sangha interpret their policy of positive discrimination in favour of Coolie women. They are village level gatherings of one woman from each Member Coolie family who meet on a fixed day every week.
These meetings discuss problems that are particular and peculiar to Coolie women. No men are allowed to attend these exclusive meetings of Coolie women. But at the same time Coolie women have the right, and are indeed encouraged, to attend the mixed CSU Meetings. As a result, Mahila Meetings are platforms within the Coolie Sangha, and not separate entities to offer Coolie women the crumbs.
The key person in each Mahila Meeting is the Village Health Worker (VHW) who does much more than attend to health needs. VHWs assist the women in every which way and promote a feminist perspective within the Coolie Sangha as a whole.
The Balakendra Teacher, a school completed young woman selected by the Mahila Meeting, is the next important functionary who ensures that women stay central in the Coolie Sangha. Balakendra Teachers, apart from running the children's programme under their Mahila Meeting supervision, also monitor the Biogas and Woodstoves climate projects in their respective villages.
Each Mahila Meeting selects a woman cheque signatory from among themselves to operate the respective CSU bank accounts. Over the past 44 years, all financial decision-making powers to spend Sangha Funds are exclusively with the Mahila Meetings.
Along with children's schooling and every evening Balakendras, Community & Referral Health is an activity that Coolie women tend to rally around. The health objectives of this activity are secondary to the more socio-political one of strengthening Coolie women.
Each Mahila Meeting selects, from among its own members, a Village Health Worker (VHW), who is often the tradition midwife.
ADATS trains these VHWs in basic health, hygiene, nutrition, ante and post-natal care, simple curative skills and first aid. They are also sent to major hospitals for practical exposure in dealing with difficult deliveries, and to make functional contacts with various doctors and nurses. Maternity kits are then distributed to the VHWs. Thereafter, a small package of basic curative medicines, first aid material, vitamins and other essential drugs are supplied to the VHWs every month.
The procedure for supporting sick persons is totally decentralised. A woman (wife, mother or sister) from the patient's house explains the problem and requests her Mahila Meeting to please reimburse health expenses. All the women together consider the request and take a decision. They often give her a hand loan from their Vokkaku Sanchi Duddu and ask the family to return the moneys rather than take something as gratis. ADATS very strictly stays away from this process and does not directly help any sick person with succour or benefit.
During our 9 year intervention, VHW stipends were paid by ADATS. But they were still not Staff members in the strict sense of the term. Instead they are the cadre that ADATS builds up in the villages. After ADATS withdraws, VHW stipends, monthly medicine costs, referral bills to send patients to hospitals, etc. are met by the Mahila Meetings themselves from out of their Sangha Funds.
In the Coolie Sangha Formation and Formalisation phases, ADATS helped Coolie women set up small, informal credit schemes with initial grants of ₹ 1,000 per Mahila Meeting. The objective of the Vokkaku Sanchi Duddu was to make petty credit readily available for Coolie women and counter sexual exploitation by Ryots.
The VHW and woman CSU Representative handled this money at each Mahila Meeting. Coolie women used this facility, without any male interference, to meet urgent needs like tending to a sick child, buying rations from the fair price shop, entertaining unexpected guests, etc.
Since a small portion of these moneys sometimes "got stuck" with borrowers who were unable to repay, Vokkaku Sanchi Duddu were annually replenished with further grants (initially by ADATS and later with Sangha Funds) without any questions asked.
This was a special instrument administered by the Mahila Meetings for a short while to benefit women headed households without male support (widows, deserted women and young mothers) with grants and loans.
After a week long private visit of H.E. Dame Catherine Tizard, the former Governor General of New Zealand, this activity was supported by her government, through Save the Children New Zealand (SCNZ), under the Voluntary Agency Support Scheme.