Mina Das

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of Mina Das's work was prepared when Mina Das was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


In rural India Mina Das is enabling women and their daughters to be self-sufficient by giving them the skills, confidence, and knowledge to take control of their lives and be leaders in their villages.

The New Idea

Capitalizing on the tight bonds among women in traditional Indian villages, Mina Das has developed an organization that empowers women and girls to learn about and stand up for their rights. She circumvents the shortcomings of both the formal education system and standard rural development programs by creating a holistic educational alternative, grounded more in action than theory, that hammers home lessons at multiple levels for multiple audiences.Projects that Mina has begun appeal to married women, teenage girls, and young children. In the process, they and their fathers, husbands, and sons come to understand the importance of women's empowerment and education. As the women and girls take charge of road conditions, water management, health problems, land inequities and other needs neglected by the government, entire communities benefit, thereby creating a radically new attitude towards women's rights in West Bengal's traditional villages. This attitudinal shift is what Mina believes will sustain the changes in women's participation in village life and in traditional male/female relationships. In Mina's words, "I committed myself to creating a comprehensive leadership program for young boys and girls of our village, where they could relate to each other as peers. I wanted to break the dominant/subordinate role divisions that boys and girls grow up with_ I wanted them to be equal partners who would question attitudes, argue and fight with each other and criticize each other."
With girls and women leading the way, over 60 villages are undergoing massive change. Never before has such a ground swell of leadership come from the youngest members of poor and disenfranchised families. And never before has there been a system in place that allows younger and older women alike to reinforce each other's efforts to achieve basic human rights and equality.

The Problem

In rural West Bengal, high dropout rates defeat the purpose of government run schools. Rigid routines and fixed 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. timings prevent many children from attending school. Instead, they take care of their younger siblings while parents are working or spend their days farming. Families tend to prioritize income over education.For those who do go to school (51 girls for every 100 boys, according to Mina's promotional literature), the formal syllabus perpetrates traditional gender stereotyping and other value systems that rural children-especially girls-learn at home. Girls from villages are raised with large doses of patriarchal values (such as the importance of early marriage), superstition, taboos (such as women being forbidden from "men's jobs" like dredging ponds), and fatalism that renders inaction and, in extreme cases, leads to lunacy, homicide, or suicide. All of these, compounded with illiteracy and ignorance, gradually erode women's confidence; they subsequently take a backseat in every sphere of life. A poem from Mina's organization's brochure illustrates the desperation: "To the women of this country_ we will smash this prison, in whose walls daughters and daughters-in-law are buried alive in a web of slavery woven with the webs of cruel laws_"
Villages are rife with society's worst problems: domestic violence, sexual abuse of women and children, alcoholism and preferential treatment of boys over girls, even from birth. For example, for every baby boy who dies, three baby girls die. Although both government and citizens' organizations are working for rural women's development, little tangible change has taken place. The fault lies in their soft, short-term programs that emphasize literacy and income generation. The curriculum of informal education programs fails to provide specific knowledge that villagers need to be able to mail a letter, make a land deed, or practice good hygiene. Although men, through their contact with the outside world, become acquainted with various problems and problem-solving organizations, women, confined to domesticity, remain ignorant. As a result, despite literacy and income generation schemes and so-called "awareness programs," the crux of the problem remains largely untouched.
The problem is exacerbated by the misconception that women enjoy a higher status in West Bengal than in other Indian states. Disproving this belief are the facts: the district where Mina works has an average family income of 300-400 rupees a month (about $10) and is ravaged by illiteracy, poor health, and floods, made worse by inadequate irrigation.

The Strategy

With her firsthand knowledge of this environment's social dynamics, Mina's organization, Nishtha, ("dedication"), has crafted a strategy that capitalizes on certain aspects of rural West Bengal. Understanding this culture's premium on group solidarity, Nishtha has organized nearly 1,800 children and women who, through their unity and assertiveness, force change in village after village. Another effective tool in village culture is peer pressure, which Nishtha has used to eradicate domestic violence in a number of villages. Abusive men, finding hundreds of angry women on their doorsteps, quickly change their behavior with their wives.The women's groups, called Mahila Mandals, are part of a community building approach. Mahila Mandals (of which there are 35, as of 1997) bring women out of the home and give them space to discuss their oppression. Group complaining takes a constructive form when Nishtha introduces women to agencies and offices that they have never felt free to access: the post office, bank, court, police station, and local self-government body. They receive training in first aid, the use of technology (such as bio-gas and solar lanterns), how to manage property inheritance, prevention of early marriage, and other relevant topics. Armed with newfound skills and confidence, women take some economic control into their own hands and bring change to their villages, building roads and starting income-generating projects such as pig rearing.
Teenage girls have their own groups, called "Kishori Bahinis," which prepare them for leadership in Mahila Mandals. These girls (already 1,200 of them) undergo training in many of the same orientation skills as their mothers, but they also develop a spirit of social activism and spread these progressive ideas once they get married and move to their husbands' villages. Kishori Bahinis emphasize education, and not only does Nishtha cover tuition costs of high school for over 200 girls, but it also offers non-formal classes that girls squeeze in among their chores. These classes are practical, teaching the girls about health, laws affecting them, history of their villages, business interactions, organization and management skills, and how local governance works. The girls - joined by boys who also benefit from experiencing civic participation - also perform jobs to solve community needs, such as digging drains for irrigation, raising awareness about sanitation, testing soil, or distributing vitamins. They are making the conceptual leap that they can take ownership over their own communities. One girl explains, "We want to show that governments alone do not do good work. Children can work too_ We are left to ourselves and to what our parents can get for us. That's why I work for the Kishori Bahini of our village. I want to meet my own needs and create easier lives for our parents."
Like their older sisters, the "Balika Bahinis," the girls from ages three to nine, receive the informal education and learn songs that educate their families. Balika Bahinis' early lessons in self-sufficiency build lifelong habits of mind. In addition, as little girls, their activities - such as digging drains during rains to prevent water logging - meet with hardly any opposition, although villagers generally do not allow trespassers onto their land.
Even children at the preschool age feel the influence of Nishtha's work. They waddle into proper sanitation habits and learn rhymes and numbers. In this way, every layer of Nishtha's structure works in synergy. Through management and coordination, the activities reinforce each other and bring about social change in tradition-bound villages.
Nishtha, located at the hub of the villages where it operates, supervises these activities as well as eight health clinics, four schools, a child resource center, nearly a dozen income generation programs, legal aid services, and additional women's training programs - all with a full time staff of 25, a part time staff of 40, and several hundred volunteers. Mina feels a consistent crunch for funding this array of projects and receives most of her support from a West Bengal foundation.

The Person

Born to relatively enlightened parents in 24 South Parganas (the West Bengali district where Mina still lives and works), Mina went to the village school and graduated from college in Calcutta. In the meantime, at age 13, she joined Nishtha, which had been founded by her mother in 1974 and was run as the village charity club. Mina remembers that Nishtha then "taught women to sew and make candles. But such activities only reinforced traditional roles for women. I was in a big hurry to change all this."While Mina was pursuing her post-graduate studies in her early twenties, her nineteen year old cousin was killed, a victim of her husband's and mother-in-law's brutality. Mina says, "I was so disillusioned that I dropped out of my studies. It was futile." Thereafter, she set about to restructure Nishtha into a vehicle through which women could strike back at the root of the problems. In 1980 she registered Nishtha as a nongovernmental organization and began rural health clinics for women and children and schools for girls. Over the next few years Nishtha expanded to include the services it presently provides.
Mina knows that the road ahead is arduous: "It will take us very long to win male approval_ So many times we have found ourselves embroiled in charges of poisoning young children's minds_ Despite all our efforts, we still hear of forced marriages of young girls. Attitudes cannot be changed in a hurry." Yet past successes show the work's momentum. Spreading first to nine, then 30, and now nearly 40 villages, Mina now envisions new programs for child laborers, sex workers, children of sex workers, and other marginalized women of rural India.