Saheli started as a collective and not as an organization with a head because we believed in participative democracy. Even while getting Saheli registered we tried to maintain flexibility of structure and no authority was vested in any one person or designation. To work in a collective requires multi-skilling, sharing of information and setting up of a forum to air our differences. Working as a collective is an advantage to all even though it is not the easiest of processes. For women, being involved in decision-making has a special significance because in the society at large they are negated and silenced.
While the principles of our work were clear to us from the start, we had also decided to grow organically. It took two years for Saheli to be registered - even that was not determined by our preconceptions but by our needs. We started agitational work over a period of time when we perceived a gap which made the rest of our work seem like social work.
The only work Saheli had been committed to from the beginning was of solidarity and support to individual women in crisis, Of course, we were clear that this was not all we would do either individually or collectively. Accordingly we had begun educational and outreach programmes with schools, colleges and bastis on health and other women’s issues. Due to certain circumstances, support for individual women is what Saheli got known for and before the other activities were fully developed, we had a large number of women approaching us for help. For most of us it meant foregoing other activities because this work was integral to Saheli. At a personal level, it did pose a dilemma - to get absorbed into the task of helping individuals or to carry out other issue-oriented activities and campaigns. To gear Saheli to bring about a balance would have been the ideal solution; this would have served individual as well as organizational needs. However, some members chose to resolve this dilemma by taking on campaign work in other organizations. For the rest it meant having a reduced collective strength - and practically no choices. For the organization it meant getting restricted to becoming a crisis centre.
This multitude of interests, differing work inputs, the identity of members, informal power differences and the question of foreign funds brought things to a head. We had lengthy review meetings. It was clear that members who had opted to work outside, were seeing Saheli as limited in some ways, while the others wanted the organization itself to evolve a larger perspective. There was no consensus and we had to take majority decisions. It was clear that now Saheli needed some cohesiveness, commonality of purpose and ideology, to move ahead. We made some decisions about the structure:
(1) It was decided that on a rotational basis coordinators should take the responsibility for various activities and that together the coordinators should be responsible for the growth and development of Saheli.
(2) We would continue with an open membership of the organization but no member of Saheli could be on the policy-making body of another organization with competing/conflicting nature of work or ideology. Only members of Saheli (not full time workers alone) could represent Saheli outside.
Some members left Saheli because of these decisions. Over time we have been able to disengage ourselves from some projects which would have made us dependent on institutional funds. The nature of association with Saheli is also clearer. Some have chosen to be part of only specific programmes. We have been struggling to give shape to the hard choices we were making. It was feared initially that with some of the old members leaving Saheli, there would be a concentration of power in the hands of those remaining.
The impact of these decisions was somewhat paralysing at first but in two years time we have forged ahead as a much clearer organization. Working as a collective is still laborious but we have been able to stick to some values throughout.
The most significant achievement of our collective is that seven years of hard and continuous work have brought acclaim to the organization and not to a single individual member. Even our writings are still collective. No articles carry the names of individuals.
This does not mean that power is shared equally by all - there are differences based on experience, time commitment, understanding of particular issues, and length of association with Saheli. But as one member has put it: 'I’ve chosen to be in Saheli because here there is no boss and no worker'.