Women negotiate their way to assume the role of decision-makers


By Chandrika Patnaik

24 July 2023

Absence of men from home due to migration for long periods enables women to make decisions, gain autonomy, and create opportunities for their well-being.

Women like Bobby in Kaluku village do not have to suffer for water anymore. They have household taps with running water all day.

Photograph by Rushi Mallick

Runu Bisoyi, 55, last saw her husband over a year ago. Her husband, Kabiraj Bisoyi, 63, migrated to Surat when he was sixteen. Kabiraj’s uncle, who worked in a power loom factory in Surat, helped him get a job in a factory where Kabiraj worked for nearly twenty years. With slightly failing eyesight, he migrated to Ernakulam district in Kerala to take up work of climbing palm trees to pluck coconut and arecanut.

He now comes home once a year. Even if this fact perturbs the mother of three, she doesn’t show it. “In every household, it is the same story,” explains Runu sitting on the floor in her verandah, resting her back on the freshly cut paddy she cut the previous day and lying on a heap. “Older men and women and daughters and daughters-in-law are the only people who live here. Everyone else travels to find work.”

After all, absent husbands are a recurring theme in Kaluku, a small village of forty-three families nestled in the dry hinterland of the Aska block in the Ganjam district.

Predominantly a farming community, residents estimate that over three decades ago, most men in the village were farmers who cultivated paddy, pulses, and seasonal vegetables, primarily into rain-fed agriculture. With weather disturbances and climate change, rains became intermittent, and agriculture was unproductive. They travelled to Surat looking for better job opportunities.

In recent years, opportunities in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have taken some of them to the southern states.

And this migration pattern in the village has persisted for decades, which meant women left behind had the opportunity to assume roles and responsibilities previously handled by their husbands. This shift in household power dynamics led women like Runu Bisoyi to make decisions related to asset ownership, effective decision-making, handling of household expenditures, and personal autonomy as a way of life.

“We look after our families and bring up our children with the remittance money our husbands send us. Sometimes what they send us is not enough, so we earn a little on the side as farmhands. Or, if we are lucky with a good harvest due to timely rains, we sell the surplus paddy harvested in the local market.”

She says women single-handedly raise their children and look after expenses like weddings in the family or an unexpected health emergency or save remittance money a little at a time to pay off loans. They have converted their thatched houses into concrete dwellings through the money saved.

Traditionally, men worked in faraway places to earn their livelihood, and women could not participate in the village’s decision-making process. Older men who retired from work became village committee members and took all decisions related to development or conflict within the village. Women could not attend to any process concerning the village.

Bobby Jena married Kalu Jena, 53, a resident of Kaluku and a migrant worker who works in a power loom factory in Surat. Bobby, 45, came to live in Kaluku village as a bride many years ago and belongs to Kusuguma village, 20 kilometres away. She says the only thing she remembers of her life back in Kusuguma and later in Kaluku village, where she later got married, has been walking to fetch water.

Fetching water was the burden every woman carried in both villages. She shares, ” Around the time I got married in Kaluku village, there was a celebration in my home village, Kusuguma, when residents received piped water supply in 2005. Before that, the 80 families there depended on one dug well for all their water needs. I wish Gram Vikas visited Kusugama earlier when I was still not married. I could have enjoyed my time at home as others in Kusuguma do now.”

Only after Bobby got married did the water and sanitation program start in Kusuguma, and since 2005, her mother’s village has had tap water at home with the support of Gram Vikas. She tried to speak to people in Kaluku about Kusuguma’s water and sanitation system, but the men were not interested initially.

“After getting married in Kaluku, I did the same thing: fetch water for the entire day. Bathing in the open was very stressful as I held my saree to me lest it fell off and somebody would watch us. I always restrain myself from going out to relieve myself too many times. I know the comfort women enjoy in my mother’s village, and I wanted women to experience similar benefits in Kaluku. We just needed that our voices are heard.”

Among the many difficulties the women of Kaluku face, the acute water shortage for household and agricultural purposes has been the most challenging. Women walk to fetch water for their household needs from the village’s only water source, a dug well. They walk half a kilometre to defecate at the Sata Bhauni foothills while they walk 100 meters away from their homes to wash clothes and bathe.

Water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and vomiting were quite common in the village. Women and children frequently fell ill. The Community Health Centre was fifteen kilometres away in Balisera town in the Aska block and was the only one around the entire radius of the village. Women carried their sick children in their arms and walked on foot to the Centre.

“But a difficulty arose when women fell sick and had to walk to the Centre to get treated. In the past couple of years, youth in the village with bikes usually give us a lift when we are ill or have to carry sick children to the Centre,” says Bobby.

Balmiki Jena, 40, is Runu’s younger brother and a migrant worker who works in Surat and comes home once every year. He says his sister Runu and Bobby took the initiative to change how they live in the village by ensuring a water and sanitation system for all families. Women took household decisions but were not allowed to participate in village meetings or speak in open forums. “Runu spoke to women about sanitation and hygiene during their trips to the foothills or while fetching water.”

Gram Vikas’ MANTRA approach focuses on the community-led construction of a twin-pit, pour-flush latrine with an attached bathroom for all households in a village. It uses water as an incentive to encourage community commitment to build this infrastructure. Gram Vikas facilitates the setup of a sanitation committee with equal gender and caste representation.

Existing evidence suggests that community contribution in terms of time and resources influences ownership. This is apparent in our partner villages, where the community sanitation committees manage the building of sanitation infrastructure and define the maintenance and repair process.

Our work on strengthening village institutions will be an overarching component across all the focus areas. A strong village development committee can help steer the programme to success, and a consensus was easier to achieve since community members belong to only a few groups.

Through regular meetings, Gram Vikas mobilised the residents, especially the men, who were adamant that they were fine defecating and bathing outside the house. Meetings took place regularly in the village for nearly a year in the presence of both men and women. The village had a single women’s group – Sata Bhauni Self-Help Group (SHG). The group did not meet regularly nor function properly. Separate meetings mobilised the women in the group and facilitated regular meetings.

When a newly formed Village Development Committee (VDC), consisting of five women and five men, decided to proceed with the water and sanitation program, there was no looking back. Women built their sanitation structure in their homes without the presence of their husbands.

Runu Bisoyi, elected Secretary to the newly formed VDC, says, “We were only too happy to start the work as soon as possible and decided to construct our toilet and bathing room according to our requirements without wasting any time.”

Subhash Chandra Swain, 52, a farmer and member of the newly formed VDC, and one who bucked the migration trend himself, says that though there was a workforce shortage in the village, women made up for it. With few youth members in the village with high chances of migration, women wanted to start immediately. They speeded up the construction of individual toilets and bathing rooms by constructing on their own. They also participated in large numbers to finish the construction work of the overhead water tank. “We feel proud of the women. They were instrumental in finishing the work and getting water to our homes,” says Subhash.

Bijaya Jena, 47, a resident of Kaluku, who works in Surat, says he was happy to see the new sanitation system in his house when he returned home for his annual vacation. He gave credit to his wife, Mini, 43, for constructing the toilet and bathing room in his absence with the help of her group members.

Strengthening the participation and leadership of women in village-level development planning and governance is a core element of Gram Vikas’ work. Better and more decisive leadership by women will ensure that results are more relevant and sustainable.

The overhead water tank of Kaluku village in Ganjam district.

Photograph by Rushi Mallick


Prashant Kumar Naik, Thematic Coordinator in Planning Monitoring Documentation and Communication and Kalpana Moharana, Thematic Coordinator in Village Institutions and Convergence helped in collecting data for the story. Amrita Haldipur edited the story.


Chandrika Patnaik leads content production within the Communications team in Gram Vikas.


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