By Moin Qazi
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” says Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister.
Women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture, the farm labour force and day-to-day family subsistence. The biggest myth is that the rural woman is part of her land’s wealth. Yes, but only to the extent of generating it. They do not own land but produce secondary crops, gather food and firewood, process, store and prepare food and fetch water for the family.
On an average, women spend about twice as much time as men doing the unpaid work that makes life possible for everyone; like cooking, cleaning and caring. As a result, women have no time to finish their education or learn new skills. The fact that the potential of so many women is going unrealised is a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity. Girls and women are not just the faces of the poverty; they are also the key to overcome it.
Strategies to empower rural women
The Indian woman has moved out from the kitchen, only to be shackled by other obstructions such as inheritances laws for agricultural land in favour of men, preference for sons, patrilocal marriage, female seclusion from decision making and so on. Few rural women own or control land and this handicaps them in the face of poverty. She is a victim of not just these circumstances, but of social attitudes.
Over the years, several strategies have been used to empower women. One of them relies on community groups, whose members can be trained and equipped to use their collective strength and wisdom to tackle their problems.
In India, the most popular model for empowering village women through financial access and provision of other services is the Self Help Group (SHG) mechanism. A typical Indian SHG consists of 10 to 20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds who pool their savings into a fund from which they can borrow as and when necessary. They meet once a month to pool savings discuss a social issue, like family planning or schooling for girls and swap stories of personal endurance in their own family lives.
Group members are engaged in livelihood activities such as running a retail shop, cattle rearing, zari work, tailoring jobs, making candles, artificial jewellery. These women make smart financial decisions and elevate their incomes above the poverty line. They cross-guarantee each other’s debts.
Empowerment of marginalised
SHGs are also an instrument for the empowerment of poor and marginalised sectors. They have proved to be an effective instrument for changing oppressive relationships in the homes (gender and tradition-related) and society. This is especially true for those relationships that are rising from caste, class and political power. These women from remote, rural villages spoke eloquently about the power of this platform. This platform of coming together, of supporting one another, of “opening doors and gateways of progress.”
“We were separated from power,” a woman told me. “We were in the dark and now we are in the light.”
Manda Lakhe, a shop owner in Wanoja, a village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, has a simple method to manage her finances. Every day—no matter how good or bad the business was—she puts Rs 20 into a secret lock-box at her home; this is her “core reserve” for emergencies. Moreover, on days when she has surplus revenues in the shop, she hides the extra cash in another lock-box at her house. From this box, she pays daily expenses.
As soon as she has accumulated Rs 1000 she buys durable stocks, such as canned foods, at the value of 800; she puts Rs 200 aside for shop maintenance. This method allows her to have full shop shelves even during times when the revenues drop, and she would not be able to spend money on new stocks. Nirmala never had to borrow money, except once, when her father got very ill, and she had to pay the doctors. Her story was echoed by several women I spoke to. That is what SHG’s assistance to Nirmala amounted to, a bit of help where and when it counts most, which often means focusing on women like her.
The society cannot progress without its women
Development experts now widely recognise women’s role as critical to economic progress, good governance, and healthy civil society, especially in developing countries. The key levers for change from the ground up, they clearly are female education and women’s access to income.
There is an African adage that goes: “If you educate a boy, you train a man. If you educate a girl, you train a village.”
This is not only true, but it is also measurable. For example, women are more likely to spend their resources on health and education, investing up to 90 percent of their earnings in this way compared with just 30 to 40 percent for men.
In the words of Nobel Laureate Prof. Mohammad Yunus, “Credit is one door through which people can escape poverty. Many more doors and windows can be created to facilitate an easy exit. It involves conceptualising about people differently; it involves designing a new institutional framework consistent with this new conceptualisation.”
In the guise of loans
Credit has to be combined with several social services to bring about real change in the lives of women .Or else it can prove to be counterproductive. Painting all the women in the world as a creative entrepreneur doesn’t make them so. They are tenacious, heroic and gritty, all right, given the struggle, they lead against poverty; but we all know that entrepreneurial ventures have a high mortality rate in villages. And few can deliver the kind of returns one requires to be able to pay back interest rates of around 24 percent. Given that much of the money is actually used for consumption, the chances of getting into debt are always high. Many women admit that while they pick up the loan money, their husbands control it; that they lie to the loan officer. They claim they will start a small poultry business but actually use the loan for a dowry for their daughters; that they have been victims of harsh collection practices by ruthless loan officers.
For alleviating poverty, we have to pair skills training with education, particularly in basic and financial literacy and give women information about their legal rights and social issues, including protection against violence and exploitation. Without these services, women cannot develop resilience to withstand political, economic, social or environmental upheaval. Overturning entrenched cultural and social mores is no easy task.
Rays of hope
During my recent visit to villages where I have been closely associated with social programmes, I found sprinklers spouting rainbow streams of water into the fields. In one village, a new deep well had replaced the old inadequate shallow one. A large pond had been dug to catch rainwater and provide for aquaculture. Irrigation stretched from the pond to fields planted with grains, quick-growing rice and potatoes. There was watershed management to stop erosion off the steep slopes.
There was a light shining in the villagers’ eyes when they talked about the transformation of their village economy. Hope had begun coursing through communities once shackled by fatalism and low expectations. In a world where people live on less than an American dollar a day, this is an important step. In the words and expressions of these unlettered people, it showed me the boundless potential for immense possibilities.
I was humbled by everything that I learned that day about their life, their enterprises, and the people who have benefited from the success. I found bliss and flavour of quotidian wisdom worn humbly and lightly. In the lives of these tenacious women, I found the story, not of a country’s doom but of a country’s will to survive.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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