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CEWAS, Madurai

A small women's rights organization with big goals

India has one of the most modern constitutions in the world. It is an eclectic composition based on various fundamental rights declarations. This includes the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man. All people, regardless of race, religion, place of birth or gender, are guaranteed equal rights.

If one however, takes a look at the situation of women's rights in India, it becomes noticeable that gender equality frequently remains very much theoretical. Despite the possibility of women holding high political positions, including the office of Prime Minister, gender inequality remains an unfortunate and sometimes distressing feature of Indian society. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is one of the most dangerous countries for women worldwide. Throughout all levels of society, women are confronted with discrimination, violence and sexual exploitation. The plight of many rural women is of particular concern within Indian society.

Behind this inequality lies frequently the traditionally uncontested view that a woman’s role is to serve husband and family unconditionally - usually compromising her own needs. This poor, unempowered level of gender status combined with social problems such as poverty, lack of education and alcohol abuse by male relatives can lead to the inhumane conditions in which women often find themselves.

So, how can this situation of inequality be amended? The social phenomenon of gender inequality certainly needs to be tackled at a political level.  State authorities are obliged to defend the fundamental rights of all citizens and should be held accountable when not fulfilling this task. Furthermore, civil engagement with the goal of empowering disadvantaged individuals or groups at community level is absolutely essential. This requires grass-roots organizations that work directly with local communities and follow a bottom-up strategy.

CEWAS (Centre for Women’s Advocacy Studies Trust) is such an organization, aiming to advocate the legal and social empowerment of women in and around Madurai (Tamil Nadu). As a politically and religiously neutral NGO, it specialises in facilitating access to legal information in order to improve the situation of women in rural communities.

As in many parts of the country, women in the villages around Madurai face various difficulties. Often they are affected by physical, psychological, social, sexual and economic violence. Common problems are associated with dowry demands, abuse, property disputes and alcohol abuse amongst male relatives.

To overcome these difficulties CEWAS follows different methods and approaches. On the one hand, it operates a counselling office for legal affairs. Here, women in need receive free legal advice from trained employees - victims of abuse are frequently unable to access help and advice. The NGO gives support by involving the appropriate authorities for individual cases. Furthermore CEWAS organizes women's forums in the villages. These groups receive regular training in legal matters, and are motivated to share their knowledge with the community. This reinforces the self-help potential of the group members and is conducive to a sustainable improvement.

With an integrative approach, the organization also seeks the cooperation of abusive husbands, police officers, public officials, panchayat leaders and village elders. In this way it aims to raise awareness amongst the general population of gender issues. Broad collaboration with other non-governmental organizations and government institutions is a vital part of this work.

The idea for this project stems from the Indian advocate Saravana Biju, who encountered social injustice towards women in her daily work. In 2004 she founded the organization CEWAS. The project was implemented two years later in cooperation with the Swiss social anthropologist Nathalie Peyer. In February 2007 the CEWAS Support Association in Switzerland was founded to ensure the continuity of this project.

Despite its small size, the women's rights organization covers a surprisingly large area. In recent years, their community work was conducted in 30 villages and has thus reached around a 1,000 women. The organisation hopes for and is striving towards increased activity in around 50 villages.  A great challenge confronts the group as only six employees are engaged in this beneficial work, four of whom are field-workers.

With their grass-roots approach CEWAS tries to give a voice to poorer women living on the outskirts of Madurai. The approach of CEWAS towards its clients is an understanding and respectful one. It seeks to educate, inform and empower without the use of force, violence or intimidation.

The work being carried out by CEWAS is indeed proof that small, locally rooted initiatives can bring about great things! 

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