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Self help groups vital for ending poverty, improving women's financial security



By Moin Qazi*
We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism.
Yet women face significant constraints in maximizing their productivity. They often do not have equal access to productive inputs or to markets for their goods In addition to economic factors, the rigidity of socially ascribed gender roles and women’s limited access to power, education, training and productive resources as well as other emerging factors. The women need a raft of services to move the economic ladder.
Over years of wandering the villages, I have been compelled to revise much of my received wisdom about what our rural priorities should be. We must be challenged to see the reality of poverty and vulnerability through the eyes of a particular individual, typically a woman, and to understand how that person strives to overcome it. This way we can at least get some feeling of her daily worries and needs.
It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers .This can possible only through groups who share the same emotional values and are driven by strong impulses of mutual goals. In India, community groups have been set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems. They are known as self-help groups .One of the primary objectives is of course to avail loans which the women access by cross guaranteeing each other’s liability.
These loans are part of a financial philosophy called microfinance. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skills to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change. Microfinance interventions aim not only to provide poor people the financial means to improve their lives, but also stimulate local economies through the creation of micro-entrepreneurship.
With the help for starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their communities 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.
Commerce has a profound ability to make people put aside their differences and interact with each other. “Before the Self Help Group came on the scene, I was zero,” Kamla told us. “We were share-croppers. We could not find food to feed our children or clothes to dress them. Now we can buy food and lease land and send our children to school. I have repaid Rs. 5,000 for the loan I was given by my Self Help Group. I have money left over from which I want to buy a goat.”

Experience worldwide shows that when accessible finance reaches women, the benefits are particularly sustainable. Savings rates are higher; group life is more intensive; repayment rates are remarkable; enterprise growth and graduation are stronger; and there are measurable improvements in child nutrition and education, family health and household sanitation, shelter and general welfare.
Suvarna Moharle found livelihood difficult in her native village, 10 kilometres from Warora n Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. She shifted along with her husband and set up her dwelling in this jungle. With Bank’s help, she set up a small poultry business and her husband purchased a cycle rickshaw. Within a year she has saved enough for erecting a house that, though not a concrete structure, is strong enough to withstand the pressure of monsoon. She recounts those miserable days when she would buy scraps of bread with mould on them. They were meant for animals, but she would scrape off the mould, pound the bread into powder and give it to children. She spends her day selling bakery products on her wheelbarrow, and enjoys the evening with children.
I was completely blown as I listened to the stories of these tenacious women. They have sophisticated credit algorithms: “Does the woman own a buffalo? Some chickens? Does she have a toilet in her home? What kind of roofing material does her home have? Does she bring a shawl to the village meeting? Does she come barefoot to the meeting, or does she wear slippers? Do her children come to the school properly washed and dressed?”
If you go to Charurkhati today, you will find that life in the village quite different from what it was a few years ago. Not substantially richer, because there is still drought, no industry save rain-fed agriculture—but the overall quality of life is better. There’s a bank, a school, biogas plants; farmers drive around on motorcycles. Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such as sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses. The fields are heavy with grain.
Even more remarkable is the social transformation that the movement has wrought. No one drinks. Only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened. Dalits suffer far less discrimination than before, as do women and girls. The village is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound.
Self help groups have proved to be vital institutions for ending poverty through sustainable solutions that build resilience, improve financial security, and open opportunity for lives of dignity, health and hope.
What we need today are innovative solutions that can take into account the peculiarities of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. We need to use your natural powers-of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity to do work, think deeply, and solve problems and incorporate lessons of successful social programs.
Replication should not be a cookie-cutter process and should avoid wholesale cloning. The objective should be to reproduce a successful program’s results, not to slavishly recreate every one of its features. Replicating programs that do not produce results is at best a waste of precious resources and a source of active harm to the participants. We should not just rush in to replicate programs ..Change must be gradual; all good innovations are never made in haste. Gradualism is the best and surest way to get the buy in of every stakeholder.

*Author of the bestseller “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades

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