The idea of starting a grassroots women-to-women communication campaign dawned on me when I realized the power of aesthetic expressions in capturing the intangible impact of development interventions. The beneficiaries of the Women’s Empowerment Project in rural Nepal used oral lore to articulate their impressions and experiences of their participation in the program through songs, dance and poetry. And because the program interventions were rooted in basic literacy training, I helped translate the oral lore into written documents through the medium of a newsletter, where the program beneficiaries themselves became the suppliers and readers of the contents. The newsletter proceeded to serve as a powerful grassroots network that brought together two- hundred and forty local organizations partners of the program and their hundred and twenty thousand clients across the country for horizontal learning. The newsletter also proved to be an effective vertical medium for the program management to assess the impact of the program interventions beyond its set targets and indicators.
For the first edition of the newsletter, I scanned a few original copies of the prints written in neo-literate handwritings by the program beneficiaries themselves that I had collected for my back to the office field reports. These prints were complemented by photographs and added narratives of the stories from the field. A special request was made to the management to fund this pilot project and the newsletter was distributed to the entire project clientele, from east-end to west-end borders of the country. The response was totally unexpected.
Thousands of mailed envelops started pouring unto my desk from all over the country, containing, songs and poems, stories of successful business ventures, stories of collective actions for social change, letters of appreciation for the program, questions on the technical aspects of the program (village banking, enterprise creation and legal rights awareness and advocacy), and queries on subjects beyond program interventions, predominately on maternal and child health issues. Some of these envelops carried passport size photographs of the contributors, photos of the billboard signs and names of their village banks, photos of the business ventures, tea stalls, vegetable gardens, grossary stores, of mass rallies and street actions. Group photos in pink saaris. Group photos in red saaris. Some groups had made their own dress code to attend their weekly meetings.
These contributions dominated the forthcoming editions of the Women Power newsletter series, which went on to create the nation’s largest publication at the time (1997-2001) The horizontal, women-to-women learning model of this grassroots newsletter created a powerful network, where women learned from one another not only their successes but also in overcoming hardships. Because the stories were coming from the program participant themselves, the women could relate their lives to those of their peers, be inspired by one another and become encouraged to attempt business ventures that were proven successful by other members in a similar setting.
In a country where print media is still scarce, the grassroots women’s newsletter provided the opportunity for the rural population to practice their reading and writing skills and be informed on issues pertaining to their lifestyle, both within the program and outside it. A non-formal education expert was recruited to make the newsletter more equipped for the neo-literate audience. Local NGOs and program management also took advantage of the newsletter to build direct links with the rural women and their village banks. In fact, a healthy competition emerged from among the local NGOs, who worked hard with their groups to get the stories published and have their organization featured in the newsletter.
Several communication tools branched out from this grassroots newsletter. For instance, one particular success story of a women’s village bank, published in the third edition of the newsletter, drew so much interest and inquiry from the readers that a photo-novella handbook was published of that village bank, which portrayed the real life story behind the success of that group. The Steps to Forming a Village Bank: Vishalchowk Village Bank Success Story proved to be an instructional handbook for nascent groups to form village banks on their own. Similarly, another publication, Tara Empowerment Comic Series depicted role models from real life examples from the stories sent for the newsletter. Also, a video documentary, called Indra Maya’s Journey was produced, which featured the real life Indra Maya and her group members from the narrative script of the letter Indra Maya sent for the newsletter.
The groups and individuals featured in these publications were picked up by local and national radio shows to create a larger women-to-women learning network. In fact, the Vishalchowk Village Bank members were invited to inaugurate the national conference on the program, where the members held a question and answer session with the nation’s leading microfinance experts and donors in the field. In addition to the published stories, a special participatory technique called the Appreciative Planning and Action (APA) was pioneered in the program, which contributed to the empowerment agenda. The four-D approach of APA (Discover, Dream, Deliver and Dance) urged the women to begin and end their weekly groups meetings in a positive note, which helped realize and generate success stories to further the women-to-women learning campaign.
The Nepal’s Women’s Empowerment Project went on to receive five international awards, including the World Bank’s Development Marketplace (twice in a row) for its innovative demand-driven development model. Unfortunately, this grassroots social movement was cut short by another kind of revolution in the country. However, neither the country nor the donors have built on the success of the grassroots newsletter to scale it up to confront the challenges faced in the country today. As has been proven by the Women’s Empowerment Project, a tiny spark can ignite a powerful blaze given the right combination of matter and means.
Photo Credit: Flikr user Mykl Roventine