By Moin Qazi
Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.
― Gloria Steinem
The suffering of the poor women has long been a surefire way to pull on the heartstrings of rich donors. In the recent years, there has been a newfound appreciation for the role that these women play in breaking the cycle of poverty and stabilizing fragile societies. The role of women is now recognised as ‘critical‘ to economic progress, good governance and healthy civil society by the development experts.
Making women independent
Empowering women has been held up as an answer to a myriad of global problems, starting with poverty. Societies and cultures that invest in and empower women are in a virtuous cycle. They become richer, better governed, more stable, and less prone to violence. Countries that limit women’s education, employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile and have higher levels of corruption.
In India, the most popular model for empowering women in villages is through self-help groups, which provide financial access along with improving social mobilization. A typical Indian self-help group consists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds. These groups are designed to be wholly managed by the villagers themselves. Each group has a constitution (a list of rules) that is created and agreed upon by the members themselves. The procedures are simple and transparent and peer pressure is a medium to enforce loan repayment.
Self-help groups have their origin in the Self Help Affinity Groups facilitated by the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) that were adopted by the National Bank of Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD). The adopted version started as a pilot project in 1992 which was soon upgraded to a regular banking programme. The self-help group movement, which is now in its silver jubilee year, has grown massively with 85 lakh units operating across the country.
How do self-help groups function?
Members deposit small sums—often starting with weekly deposits of 20 rupees —and build lump sums for predictable needs. The disciplined hard work of running a group makes them efficient money managers. When it has a fair amount of capital, the group starts making small loans to its members. The women cross-guarantee each other’s debts. Astonishingly only a few default. By transferring tasks normally done by well-paid bankers to poor people, the cost of administration comes down drastically. Although the value for members is not just in finance, credit remains an important element. One can’t change social dynamics without women’s involvement in the economy.
Members take loans for a variety of reasons: to buy medicines, start a business, purchase animals, pay school fees, buy clothing, buy food during the lean season and invest in agriculture. With help for starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty. According to a Harvard Business Review study, women in emerging markets reinvest 90% of every dollar earned into “human resources”— their families’ education, health and nutrition — compared to only 30 to 40% of every dollar earned by men.
An instrument of empowerment
Allowing women direct access to financial services might improve their possibilities to become entrepreneurs, thus increasing their individual incomes, their chances to become more independent, and strengthen their participation in family and community decision making. There is also an important insurance effect: better access to finance reduces their dependence on relatives or local moneylenders.
The self-help groups are the biggest generators of social capital in rural India. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals. The vast majority of women leaders in Panchayat Raj (Village Governance) Institutions have come from self-help groups and most successful sarpanches have had their grooming in these collectives.
Moreover, self-help groups are an instrument for the empowerment of poor and marginalized sectors. They have proved to be an effective instrument for changing oppressive relationships in the home (gender-and tradition-related) and in society. This is especially true for those relationships that arise from caste, class and political power, which have made it difficult for poor people to build a sustainable base for their livelihoods and grow holistically.
The taste of freedom
“I’ve learned how to invest my money wisely and the power of being united. I’ve also learned a lot from other women in my group in terms of responsibility and respect,” says Chanda, who sells homemade yoghurt. “This group is very different than others. It’s not just about the money, it’s about being part of a unit that understands what you are going through and helps you move forward.”
For poor women, it is a journey towards the second freedom or the real freedom, as Mahatma Gandhi said when he talked about the unfinished agenda at the time of independence.
Ela Bhat, the founder of SEWA and one of India’s tallest social workers emphasizing the creative role of women in synthesizing new cultural patterns says: “In my experience, women are the key to rebuilding a community. Focus on women, and you will find allies who want a stable community. The woman wants roots for her family. In women, you get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker. She is a forger of bonds—in her, essentially, you have a creator and a preserver.”
Changing the perception of women in society
Empowerment has many dimensions – social, economic, cultural, political and personal. When every part is treasured, the good unleashed is greatest. This is the unique philosophy of every self-help group. The membership of self-help groups has transformed women in ways that men have changed their perception of women. Together the women create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do.
Men may fret that they lose when women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. This belief is best embodied in the words of Nirmala Geghate, a sarpanch (head of the village council) in a village called Wanoja in eastern Maharashtra: “My father always believed that it would have been far better if I were born a son. But today he realizes how lucky he is to have me as a daughter.”
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