WOMEN COMMUNITY LEADERS AS AGENTS OF REVIVAL AND CHANGE: SAMTA SAKHIS OF SHEOPUR, INDIA
By Nilanjana Sengupta (ICRW), Radhika Uppal (ICRW) and Neeta Hardikar (ANANDI)
“There were seven families who had walked for days from Jaipur city to my village during the Lockdown. They could not survive in the city because of lockdown and so they had come back. Since they were returnee migrants, they did not have ration cards here and could not get food grains from the PDS shop. For a few days, neighbors helped them. I got to know about this from one of the members of the collective and immediately contacted the families. Then I called the PDS shop owner and told him that he must provide them with ration as per Government directive. Next day itself, the families received their ration from the shop.”
— Sunita, Samta Sakhi (Community Resource Person), Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh, India.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the stringent lockdown imposed throughout India have led to a major socio-economic crisis that includes loss of livelihoods and incomes, reverse migration and increased domestic violence 
The Sheopur district in Madhya Pradesh—home to some of the most marginalized communities in India—is one of many across the country where these conditions have exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities and created precarious conditions for survival.
In this context, Samta Sakhis (Community Resource Persons focused on gender equality) are playing a vital role in supporting community members and the district Administration—disseminating information, creating awareness, facilitating access to relief measures and responding to situations of gender-based violence and communal disharmony.
Samta Sakhis are appointed across Sheopur District as part of a program led by a local Gender Justice Program to address multiple issues relevant to the lives of rural women: access to food, housing, livelihoods, land rights, citizenship documents, schemes and entitlements and issues of dignity, security and gender-based violence. The initiative is implemented by the nonprofit organization ANANDI, in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh State Rural Livelihoods Mission and with support from the Initiative of What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE).
Samta Sakhis are members of microfinance-based women’s collectives who work actively to spread awareness about gender equality, conduct gender training, and take action to support women’s rights and entitlements. As community members who are themselves part of the collectives, their work strengthens community leadership and community institutions.
At the outset of the pandemic, Samta Sakhis were a crucial element of the response, helping to create awareness and counter misinformation about the disease that was causing panic and suspicion between different communities.
“The phone would be ringing at all times of the day and night. Samta Sakhis located across different villages would be calling to get information about the Corona disease and strategies for prevention, relief measures available in the district, and ways in which they could help women facing violence. They were constantly vigilant, constantly updated about what to do and how.” — Madhu, Project staff, ANANDI
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