Meet our Network: Sujata Khandekar and Mumtaz Shaikh, CORO India

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CORO empowers leaders in marginalized communities to work towards collective social change in Mumbai, India. Rob Cameron spoke with Sujata Khandekar and Mumtaz Shaikh, program managers of CORO’s Women’s Empowerment Program.

Rob Cameron: CORO began life as an adult literacy program but is so much more than that. Can you paint a picture of the organization and all that it is doing today?

Sujata Khandekar: CORO has evolved a lot over the last thirty years. CORO was formed in 1989 to serve low-income communities with literacy programs but was founded by people outside them — well educated and well meaning, but remote from the communities the organization served. Now CORO is community managed and led, which means that those who are controlling the organization and making important decisions are men and women actually in the communities the organization exists to serve. Our flagship program focuses on facilitating grassroots leadership within communities. It empowers people in marginalized communities to assume leadership positions and work to solve the issues within their communities. When you empower a community to address issues within their community, people take ownership for the changes they create which has a real impact.

RC: So what CORO really does is enable people to become leaders in their communities and to secure people’s rights?

SK: Exactly. Our leadership program says that change has to come from within a community — external people can facilitate the process but that leadership comes from within. We’ve learned at CORO that it is the fragmented identity of marginalized people and communities that restricts them from seeking rights and justice. If you work on that identity, you unlock people’s potential.

RC: The Constitution of India provides for equal rights for all but, in practice, the social and cultural context of the caste system often means people are denied their rights. How does an organization like CORO address these cultural norms?

SK: Many marginalized people see their silence in claiming their rights as a natural mindset rather than an adopted one. At CORO we believe that the way people are brought up and socialized leads to this adopted mindset. We work with marginalized communities on breaking this paradigm, and it has to happen programmatically. It’s one thing to tell someone they have rights, but unless you convert that belief into a deliverable mechanism people can’t access it. We also create spaces for dialogues with people in power about our constitutional rights which helps raise everyone’s understanding. Additionally, we emphasize advocacy and networking because a single person cannot make the same impact as a network.

RC: When we think about rights and empowerment, women are often more marginalized than men. Can you speak about why this focus is so important to you?

SK: Women’s marginalization occurs along both caste and gender axes so it is complex. When we were still just a literacy program, many women participated because they were not literate. But they also came up with many other issues that they faced, so we tried to help them address these issues and that’s really how CORO began evolving into a women-centric organization. Gender-based discrimination is very explicit, and women are discriminated against in many ways. The community mindset is often that men are superior, while women are socialized to be subservient and tolerant. The worst manifestation of gender discrimination is domestic violence. We work with marginalized leaders to help them to tell women it is not their fate to go through this, and that they can speak for themselves. When a woman comes to know that this is not their fate, they learn to speak up and negotiate in their personal, political, and cultural relationships. They become a human being.

RC: As you mentioned, this discrimination often transcends into violence. You have a statistic on your website that says every three minutes a woman in India is subjected to violence. How do you tackle a problem of this scale?

SK: The women empowerment program we just spoke about encourages women to speak up about every aspect of discrimination, not just violence, but we also realized that speaking up is only one side of the problem and that we needed to do more work with men. Now we are working also with men who, while being part of the problem, are also part of the solution. Some men are socialized by their own context to become violent, so to break that cycle we need to start with a dialogue. We try to show men what they are losing by being violent. It’s not a zero-sum game — that if your power increases, my power decreases. Violence against women has to be tackled socially, legally and most importantly culturally. There are laws in India that support women, but implementation of those laws is the problem. Subtle cultural traditions invite, endorse, justify and perpetuate discrimination constantly.

RC: Violence is a form of abuse, and so is the denial of basic facilities. Can you tell me about your Right to Pee campaign and some of its success so far?

Mumtaz Shaikh: The Right to Pee campaign emerged from our leadership program when community leaders in Mumbai came together to advocate for public toilets for women. They were very clear from the beginning — it’s only partly about the actual facilities themselves. It is also at least as much about gender blindness in systems and society and decision making. Women are stepping out of the house for work, education and leisure in greater numbers but society has not acknowledged that because there are no public toilets for women. If you don’t provide this space for a woman, you’re not acknowledging that she is part of and contributing to society as much as a man.

RC: Where is the program in terms of impact?

MS: The Mumbai Municipal Corporation has sanctioned the expansion of public women’s toilets. This is the first time that the provision of women’s public toilets has appeared in the gender budget. There is upcoming policy in Mumbai regarding public women’s toilets. It has a provision for mandatory women’s toilets in the city development plan, and we are working towards bringing in community voices, especially women’s voices in planning and maintaining sanitation facilities in low-income communities all over Mumbai.

RC: What advice would you give someone trying to work across gender-based and human rights issues?

SK: Seeking human rights is a process, not a project. Patience and process are two very important things in this journey. You cannot fix problems of this scale immediately. The outside world needs to be patient and supportive of organizations like CORO which are dealing with the problem at its roots.

RC: So, we’ve got patience, process, and participation.

SK: I would also say unconditional support of organizations like CORO.

RC: CORO’s model has been designed, developed and refined over the past thirty years by the people in the communities it seeks to serve. It seems to me to be extremely transferable to communities in other parts of the world.

SK: We agree. In fact, Dalberg conducted an impact assessment recently and the actual impact of CORO’s work relative to many bigger and better known development organizations was really strong especially when related to the investment. We hope other communities will take our model and apply it in their own cultural context.

RC: I want to thank you for all you’ve done. You and your team are inspiring.

SK & MS: Thank you.

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