Moving on

Moving on...

Newsletter Sept 1986

For the past few months, some of us were feeling that Saheli was going to pieces; collective functioning had been largely replaced by adhocism, some members were exercising undue influence, discipline and accountability were lacking. In small groups, and on a one to one basis, we were questioning a number of things such as efficiency, lack of a professional attitude to work. We wondered what had happened to the year’s plan that we had worked out. Saheli was getting more and more confined to becoming a crisis centre, and activities which were a part of Saheli’s mandate were being taken up in other organisations, by Saheli members. All this reached a point where some members wanted to withdraw from what seemed to be nobody’s baby, that is precisely what we had turned our organisation into. A few of us old timers had I already withdrawn due to some or the other personal reasons and had not made a proper exit, there-by leaving substantial gaps. We found ourselves committed as an organisation to projects which had started out as individual initiatives. One project was being implemented officially through Saheli and yet the core group of Saheli was quite ignorant about it.

Working under pressure for the International Women’s Day this year, the problems got further highlighted. It was at this time that we felt that we needed to question ourselves seriously and emerge as a cohesive organisation with a future.


Saheli when it started almost live years back was not an organisation with a clear-cut ideology, priorities and goals. This was a matter of choice as we did not want to get bogged down by debates and felt that the differences could be sorted out in practice. As such, the eight volunteers who formed Saheli probably had eight different ideas on what Saheli could be. There were different opinions even on whether Saheli would stage demonstrations as Saheli. We derived a lot of satisfaction from the fact that many differences got resolved when occasions arose and not with debate and polemics alone.

We had a major debate on whether to register Saheli, whether to accept foreign funds etc. Since funding has again emerged as a major issue in the recent debate, we are analysing our own history and thinking in totally separate article.

This approach, of taking up matters as they confronted us, worked well in the beginning. Basically, because we were not bogged down by work and deadlines. Yet even at this stage all was not well with this approach because it made Saheli into such an amorphous mass that people found it difficult to relate to it. Sometimes when we heard the variety of views on Saheli we felt that people were talking of some strange organisation and not of us. This also created the problem of involving new volunteers, with our work and our thinking. We faced the problem of not knowing where we were heading and what indeed was the way to go. In less than three years of existence, a young woman’s problem and police misbehavior brought us a lot of publicity. Saheli’s image became much bigger than what was on

the ground. A lot of women seeking help followed in the wake of this publicity and we plunged into work. The questions of planning, defining ourselves etc, took a back seat. Pressure of work restricted Saheli to such a point that we became known as a crisis centre event though all along we tried to take up issues and campaigns and did educational and awareness raising work, such as campaign against the use of hormonal drugs for testing pregnancy, school and college workshops, Kriti,·etc. It was not easy to do this work in Saheli—women in crisis could not be ignored. Some of the volunteers took the option of reducing their involvement in Saheli or alternately curtailing it and trying-to carry out educational, organising and mobilising work through other avenues. While it can be seen as the easy way out, probably some volunteers did it because in their perception, Saheli was meant for carrying out just one function- helping women in crisis. The others were also frustrated because Saheli was just taking up one aspect of women’s movement. Not that anyone felt that this individual support activity was an unnecessary activity, it was an integral part of the movement but unless carried out along with other programmes it tended to become social work and the women who came to Saheli went away after receiving help instead of becoming active in the movement. Since most of us did not see Saheli as a crisis centre alone, we constantly questioned our own involvement in what Saheli which had willynilly turned into—a crisis centre. It seemed that a number of us had grown or were wanting to grow and the organisation was not only preventing us from growing in its context but was infact slipping back.

Obviously, one option would have been to end this organisational form and continue to grow outside it. In which case the organisation would just have been a vehicle to contribute to the growth of individuals who then continued to contribute to the movement. The other option was to stop and take stock of the situation which Saheli was in and to find suitable ways of continuing to grow along with the organisation. We chose to exercise the second option—primarily for four reasons; firstly it was the organisation which had provided a vehicle for our growth; secondly it gave us courage and security to experiment with and increase the degree of our involvement in the movement; thirdly it had assumed a public importance much beyond the importance of all its members put together; and fourth and most importantly a large number of us saw a strong organisation as basic to the growth of the movement.

With these reasons, many of them stated and many unstated we began a process in early May, which included introspection, fault Ending, critiquing and reviewing. For all of us it involved difficult choices. To some members the process even seemed like personal rejection and may be a power game where issues of no importance were discussed. Tempers were flying high and anxieties were unlimited. To us this confusion and mistrust seems to have been an outcome of viewing Saheli differently. Growth of an organisation is important only to those who consider it important for the movement. To others, activities and issues are of greater importance and to them trying to create an organisation which is dynamic and not an impediment in doing things effectively is, at best, of secondary importance. Similarly, while a lot of us felt that it is important at this stage to develop a cohesive group some others felt that a loose network was all that was required.

Obviously, the importance of the issues discussed was be different for members holding different views. It was a difficult process and is by no means over yet, we even had to resort to voting because such diametrically opposite views could not co-exist in Saheli. Our consolation lies in that a beginning has been made.

Changes and Choices:

We would like to share with our readers whatever has gone on because our problems are in no way unique and our solutions are at best untried.

Structure: Major structural changes that have been effected so far are:

1. Concentration of the energies of each woman in essentially one activity. So far we have let every member engage in any number of activities depending on their interest, even if they just give one day a week to Saheli. This means that time is generally too thinly divided. While each activity has a coordinator no coordinator is in a position to make realistic plans because every one including the coordinator is doing everything inclucling helping individual women. In activities like preparing for March 8 everyone gets involved but in others, despite the interest of eight volunteers such as the domestic violence survey, the work just does not take off. Multiple involvement is a problem for a new volunteer as well where she is faced with a lot of choices but no real work because it is not the task of any one woman to involve new volunteers in Saheli’s work.

2. Treating Saheli as an organisation where some degree of cohesiveness, common purpose and ideology are pre-requisite among those members who constitute a core group which is responsible for the growth and development of the organisation. In practice it means that those Saheli members who have till now continued to be on the core group of two or more organisations which have competing (conflicting) nature of work or a differing ideology need to decide whether they will be on the core group of Saheli or in other organisations, e.g. women cannot be full members of Saheli and full if members of other women’s organisation; or in organisations whose basic support comes from foreign funds, etc. Future membership to the core group will continue to be guided by this principle.

This implies also that in the near future a lot of energy will have to be spent in developing a common perspective to till existing gaps in strategy.

The second change constituted a major change in many ways. An offer was made to all concerned to remain with Saheli. In case of those who were drawing salaries for doing activist work Saheli even offered to raise enough funds to support them because their undivided contribution would have meant a lot to Saheli. This offer was made in view of the fact that most members who were taking such funds expressed at a personal level that it had not been a matter of free choice for them and they preferred Saheli’s stand on foreign funds. It is unfortunate that only one member with such a dual identity opted to be in Saheli and is easing herself out of the other organisation, which takes an alternate view on funding though it is not a woman’s a organisation. Quite a number of women have totally withdrawn from Saheli with this decision.

This temporary setback in numbers is upsetting in the initial phase, although it has its advantage also. At least today we have a clearer picture of the total woman power available to Saheli. It will give us conti- nuing benefit because in future, our individual dynamism will get reflected in dynamism in Saheli. Now each one of us who has different ideas will have to thrash them out in Saheli and not have the freedom to act them out elsewhere. Recently, this had started happening too frequently. The other advantage is equally important, i.e., individual dynamism will now transcend the level of impulsive behaviour and will be grounded in collective discipline. Some confusion was also getting generated from members with dual identity representing Saheli and/or other organisations in outside fora . Saheli being rather well known, even when such members were representing other organisations it was seen as their representing Saheli. We had problems because in Saheli we try to choose our representatives in a democratic manner, at many places we would not even send a representative but when other organisations chose to send their representatives Saheli members also went. What these members then expressed were definitely not Saheli views but people believed them to be so. With respect to foreign funds this confusion crept in too often. As a consequence it was decided that members with dual identity shall not represent Saheli outside, because when they publicly become known as Saheli it creates problems for us.

At any rate, those women who have chosen not to be on the core group of Saheli and thus represent it elsewhere or coordinate any of its activities can still continue to help individual women. It is unfortunate again that only one of our core group members has chosen to exercise this right. Withdrawal of certain active members and the need to develop a common perspective has meant that we have planned to restrict our activities to quite an extent.

Developing a common perspective will require a lot of energy but when our collective stands are firmer, we will be able to truly act as a democratic organisation and also be in a position to induct new volunteers more effectively.

For the coming year we have decided to keep ourselves confined to those activities where we have already committed ourselves. The only new activity we are taking up is volunteer development lack of which has been our weakness so far. In fact, learning from our past experience we have decided to curtail our work in the area of helping women in distress for this year. Today this is possible because now there are a number of organisations who are doing this work although with a different perspective. This means that we can refer women elsewhere. Right now because of the sudden decrease in our numbers it has not been possible to implement one volunteer—one activity decision. And it will take atleast one year to make that decision fully functional.

Functioning: For the last few years we have confined all our decision-making to our volunteer meetings, where all active members, new and old are present. This has meant that all matters, policy and routine have been decided in these meetings. This has led to lop-sided agenda and discussion, undue influence of vocal members and at times lack of clear cut decisions. Volunteers perceive all meetings to be the same, and many times we find that we don’t have enough members present to take vital decisions which has meant post ponement of decision making also. Now we have decided to have at least three different fora for this purpose. For each activity/project which is in progress all concerned meet in small groups, for all policy decisions coordinators meet and for developing perspective the broadest forum consisting of all active members is utilised, which will also be the forum for deciding an annual plan.

To some this structure may appear to be hierarchical in nature. We view it differently. Firstly, we see the coordinators as the most knowledgeable and the most accountable members. Secondly, the number of coordinators is fairly large and finally coordinatorship is rotational. We see the coordinator of any activity as a woman who has been an active Saheli member for atleast one year. She is responsible for the proper carrying of that activity on behalf of Saheli. She should have the knowledge to do the activity herself even if not all the special skills required for it. She should have the skill to involve volunteers in the activity as also the skill to cultivate collective functioning within her group. She should be attuned to Saheli perspective and policies. She should be able to develop coordinators for future.

At present we need 14 coordinators for our various activities. Till now the total number of volunteers in Saheli has not crossed 30. With growth in activity we envisage a growth in both these members.

As can be seen from our Constitution coordinatorship is rotational. Every active volunteer gets the opportunity and responsibility to coordinate an activity by turn.

Activities for the coming year :

Three— broad activities other than the routine work of Saheli have been initiated by Saheli which have to continue this year.

Petition seeking a ban on NET-EN is in the Supreme Court. Saheli is coordinating all work with respect to the petition and also the educational and campaign work.

Last year we had planned a survey on domestic violence which was to have resulted in a campaign against it. For various reasons this work did not progress very far. We would be involved in it this year. Third, a systematic intervention is in the area of the unorganised sector which is employing an ever increasing number of women. This year we will be studying two areas to see the occupations prevalent there and the dynamics of the same. This work is being done along with YWCA and Ankur through Council for Social Development. While each organization has its own objectives with the project, our aim is at generating a viable organisation of women in these areas to take up work related, community related or family related issues which concern them so that these self help groups take on work which we as a small organisation can never hope to undertake.

Other than this we would continue to do our usual work, i.e. campaigns on current issues, helping individual women, bringing out our newsletter and running and developing our shelter.