Soma Sengupta is devising ways to meet the need for information sharing among mass based organizations and activists in the women's human rights movement in India. She is setting up a national gender information and communications bureau that collects and redistributes information in new, customized ways that enable those within the movement to use it as a basis for action.
The New Idea
Soma believes that information is a vital component to the activist's strategy and that easy access to information can significantly broaden the parameters of an activist's work. "My challenge is to convert information into power. Information being provided in a systematic and sustainable manner can empower women to take right kind of decisions, get organized, challenge the existing status-quo, and change their lives."Working from within the women's movement, Soma is combining the specificity of an activist's perspective with the broad planning and action needed to disseminate information to the entire spectrum of actors engaged in women's rights. Her ultimate goal in emphasizing the importance of information is to further collaborate action among constituents, crossing barriers of class, region, and language.
The women's movement in India is challenged by vast differences in its members' levels of education, living standards, economic opportunity, and means of communication. Lack of access to information is probably one of the most serious consequences of the diversity, and it is exacerbated by illiteracy, especially in rural areas. The literacy rate among adult women in India is only 36.1 percent compared to 64.5 percent among adult men (United Nations Development Program Human Development Report, 1997). Activists also have to deal with huge differences in infrastructure and amenities that further widen the urban-rural gap among women's groups. Although the government has passed progressive laws on women's rights and has ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), very little information on these achievements and what they mean in terms of practical resources for women actually filters down to the level of local activists. Poor mechanisms for information dissemination have been evident to Soma through her experience with women's organizations for over a decade. Existing attempts at meeting information needs have been narrowly focused and concentrate mostly on urban groups. Most of the research and documentation that is carried out in the urban areas is circulated to limited mailing lists and does not reach smaller groups, especially rural ones. The information is never specific to the needs of the activists working on different issues, and there is a lack of information and training manuals in local languages.
Soma is collaborating with various organizations in Calcutta and the surrounding districts in her efforts to collect information, conduct research, and organize training programs. She set up an organizational base, Sanhita ("Closeness"), in 1996 as part of a post-Beijing initiative of collaborative efforts amongst women activists and organizations in West Bengal. She aims to process and coordinate information services in the eastern region of India (Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and other states of the Northeast), a region of particular need, before spreading the model to other parts of the country through partner organizations. Soma also is considering moving into Bangladesh, given the linguistic ease with which this could be done.At a basic level, Sanhita is bringing together all the pieces of the fractured gender information network into a new and integrated system of information collection, collation, and dissemination. Information is gathered in whatever form is available - books, posters, articles, video cassettes. The information is then redistributed to various audiences. Newsletters are one form of dissemination. Her News collates news items from newspapers and magazines and presents them in a consolidated form every quarter. It is also published in Bengali (Sanbade Meyera). The newsletter aims to project a total picture of women in the news and to correct biases. Soma envisions her newsletter as the catalyst for positive action. Thus every issue of Sanbade Meyera and Her News carries adequate resource materials and ideas to form the basis for a workshop. As part of the process of usefully consolidating information, Sanhita also conducts research on high-priority issues, particularly health, violence, legal aid, and micro-credit, and provides analyses of the efficacy of existing remedial measures. Soma is collaborating with the Jeevika ("Life") Development Society, an organization, founded by Ashoka Fellow Raja Menon that provides credit to women in 24 Parganas, a district near Calcutta, to survey existing saving modules in the state and gather information from the beneficiaries of the loans. (Each state in India is divided into districts, which are distinct administrative units that can cover large areas, urban or rural.) In order to be an effective information bridge among grassroots activists, Sanhita is preparing documents related to the women's movement in local and regional languages. These include explanations of CEDAW and other human rights documents, advocacy materials on mothers' rights and gender-just laws, legal handbooks, and gender training manuals. In the area of domestic violence, Soma has prepared a resource directory of organizations and institutions working in the areas of legal counseling, shelter, medical aid, vocational training, credit, and marketing, in collaboration with Ashoka Fellow Anuradha Kapoor's organization, Swayam ("Oneself"), Calcutta's first comprehensive crisis center for women victims of violence. The resource directory has been hugely successful and is selling briskly in bookshops, colleges, schools, and libraries in Calcutta. It has already gone into its third print.Sanhita also provides training to activists, with a special focus on women in rural areas, gathering them in collaborative campaigns to increase their impact. "It is not enough to have information vehicles. Posters, for example, are not for decorating walls," is one among Soma's many training pegs in workshops where activists and organizations learn to create, process, use, and disseminate information for positive action and results, for building new perspectives and purging old ones. She encourages participants to respond creatively to their own information needs, to create their own slogans, songs, kits and posters - communication vehicles that will work well in their immediate environments and cater to their specific issue priorities. Such efforts are often much-needed creative breaks for activists from the unrelenting struggles and early burnout that define their professional and, often, their personal lives. Moreover, the workshops help Soma develop a sense of how various groups use information and the value that local activists impute to it - all essential for Sanhita to streamline and refine its mission.Soma would also like to set up a news desk that draws attention to gender wrongdoing. She envisions Sanhita as an independent information bureau that works in collaboration with partners who could be anywhere and at any level in the integrated gender map of practitioners, planners, policy makers, and opinion leaders.
Soma Sengupta was born in Calcutta in 1958. After completing a master's degree in history, she started her career as a teacher. However, teaching did not whet her spirit for exploration, and so she joined "Service Center," a Calcutta based nonprofit organization that began as a documentation and research organization on developmental issues related to agrarian communities. She worked actively in setting up communication and information channels at the organization. She set up a library for Service Center and launched and edited a newsmagazine, Debacle, from 1984 to 1987. The magazine aimed to disseminate the organization's learning and share the experience of the partners that it was working with.Then she began working independently, as a consultant with organizations such as Aditi in neighboring Bihar state. She realized she had to know the organizations better, understand their information requirements, and have a firm sense of how to develop useful information packaging and dissemination systems. What began thereafter were over ten years of intense mobilization work at the grassroots with numerous organizations, activists, and gender groups across the country, especially East India. Large gaps and fractures in the information map then became visible to her. "Whenever I wanted to do something innovative and creative, I never found a place for the right kind of support. Not a single group or place could put me in touch with the overall happenings in the area of women and development. I always felt like a blind person experiencing an elephant." She began fixing them in her own spontaneous ways - strategies that she today wants to grow as the Sanhita methodology.