Priscilla is working in the rural districts surrounding Madras to help develop effective leadership in the women's groups.
The New Idea
Increasingly disillusioned with top-down central planning, India has been developing a new consensus that initiative must now come instead from the grassroots of society, which overwhelmingly means the villages. Priscilla is setting out to demonstrate how to help the now terribly weak leadership of the government-supported (and therefore widespread) village Madhar Sangams or women's groups become more effective. She also hopes to strengthen the capacity of the government servants charged with supporting the Sangams, both to help the Sangams and to engage government as a prime means of disseminating her work across the country.
If she can turn even ten percent of the Sangam officers into effective leaders, her impact would be enormous. New national legislation being considered by Parliament which would require 30 percent of elected village council (Panchayat) members to be women, further increases the possible importance of her work.
Priscilla, who has been running a program to introduce innovative subjects and teaching methods in-service teachers, decided to use her training skills to help women after a meeting with village women leaders crystallized her own difficult experiences and what she had seen in the villages into a sharp realization of just how powerless and unprepared women typically are to participate meaningfully in decision-making. She starts with a good many ideas of how to design her "information, education, and communication" program, but she plans to hold off beginning work on her training materials until after she's deepened her personal ties with the women leaders in her target villages and has been able to study the specific problems facing them.
One of the most sensitive aspects of helping women leaders develop is counseling them how far and how hard to press. Committed to change, not gestures, Priscilla plans to have an important part of her leadership training help her clients learn how to judge where the boundary line in their situation is between not pressing hard enough and triggering a destructive response by frightening their men.
More broadly, her approach is designed to help her clients obtain the information they need to deal with the problems their women's groups and villages face, the education that will help their personal social and economic development, and the confidence and skills that will enable them to lead.
Despite South Asia's several women Prime Ministers, women lead very difficult, dependent lives throughout the region, especially in the villages. A woman doctor and Ashoka Nominator from central India, for example, has learned not to tell mothers if their newborn infant is a girl right away because she has seen so many mothers respond by kicking or shoving the child aside. Not only is India one of the few countries in the world with more men than women in its population, but the gap continues to widen. Girls receive less food, less education, no experience leading and less encouragement.
Given this background, it is hardly surprising that most of the women's groups the government's development machinery has set up in the village are little more than shells. Priscilla's initial survey of thirty of these Madhar Sangams revealed little leadership or participation -- and proportionately negligible benefit to their members and communities.
She also found the officers responsible for the government programs for women and their villages dispirited by their failure and without a sense of how to proceed.
Priscilla, from the start, is setting out to create a model that others can use to help village women learn to lead in thousands of villages across India. She is not trying to pursue only women's concerns; her goal is to help village women break out of their traditionally narrow roles by encouraging and enabling them to help lead their communities in solving broader problems.
She is not trying to create a few new women's groups; she is trying to develop an approach many people can use to breathe life into the thousands of groups that already exist. She is not trying to ignore an ineffectual bureaucracy; she is trying to help it succeed, to engage its vast network to spread her work.
Priscilla grew up in Tamil Nadu, South India. She went to Madras Christian College and after a family-raising gap, got her Masters of Education from Madras's St. Christopher's College of Education.
Over the last four years she has been running an educational extension program. She has championed one innovation after another. A sample of some of the materials she has written for this work give a sense of her range:
"Peace Education""Population Education through Games""Child to Child Education""Environmental Approach to Mathematics""Value Education"Priscilla has helped eleven schools launch a series of innovative programs including environmental education; has organized a Math Project Expo to develop creativity in mathematics; has run special programs for rural teachers; and has drawn support from the leading central government agency concerned with educational research.
At the same time her interest in the need for broader social change, especially in the villages, has grown steadily stronger. She co-founded and is now President of the Society for the Upliftment of the Economically Backward, a voluntary organization that is working in the same general area where she now plans to launch her women's leadership development work. She is also now Vice-President of another complementary voluntary group, the Centre for Development Communication. All this has prepared her conceptually and professionally for her new work.
As important has been her own personal struggle with an impossible marriage in the paralyzing context of the traditional Indian definitions of a wife's role. Although this struggle has now left her the sole support of her daughter, it has also given her a deeply tempered understanding both of what has to change and of what paths are realistic psychologically.