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Women’s collectives as locomotives of economic growth in rural areas


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
Every woman, regardless of her marital status, needs education, a good job and support with household duties Society needs to abandon culturally entrenched practices, marital or otherwise, that degrades and commodifies women. Women also need legal immunity from debts accrued by the husbands. Changing long-held beliefs, practices and laws may be difficult, but it is the only way to keep price tags off women and ensure them dignity and financial independence.
Empowering women is the solution to many problems on a global level, right from poverty. Societies that take the effort to empower women show better development indices, are better governed, more stable, and are less prone to violence. On the other hand, societies that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and where women’s political voices are poorer, are more prone to corruption.
We live in a world where impoverished women face gross inequalities and injustice right from their childhood. From poor education to insufficient nutrition to low-pay employment, the sequence of discrimination is rough but all too common. But, there are silver strands in this dark discourse. Given an opportunity to fight hunger and poverty, a poor woman proves to be a better warrior than a man. We have witnessed how poor women have an innate and intense desire to move forward. They are hardworking, concerned about their dignity, their children’s present and future, and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of their family.
The concept of self-help groups or women’s collectives has been the most powerful and robust path for empowering women in rural India through financial access and social mobilization. Self help groups owe their origin to the self-help affinity groups initiated by the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency The National Bank of Agricultural and Rural Development started the same model in 1992 as a pilot project, and later upgraded it to a regular banking programme.
Harper et al. (1998) had described Indian SHGs as “on-lending groups which collect their own equity capital, and savings deposits, from their owners, who are also the members and the customers, they lend out their money to the members, at interest rates which they decide, and they accumulate profits which they choose either to distribute to the owners, or to add to the fund at their joint disposal”.[1]
The Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), the first state -driven and group- based programme for development adopted and tweaked the SHG model was into a hybrid livelihoods promotion programme. Subsidies were introduced in a programme which had so far remained market-based business model.
This was reinforced under the World Bank– supported Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) programme in Andhra Pradesh, the Aajivika programme in Bihar; IFAD supported Women Development Progamme in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and similar programmes in a few other states. This model has been further evolved under the new National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) programme being currently rolled run the Government of India (GOI) in which SHGs are the building bricks on which community based federations are erected.
In their broader sense, Self help groups are groups of people bound by affinity and empathy. A typical self-help group consists of 10-20 poor but like-minded women from similar socioeconomic backgrounds affirming mutual loyalty. Most of these women are poor and assetless .They meet once a month to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance thereby enriching each other.
The common characteristics are: Self-selected and unrelated members, small size, and regular attendance at meetings, regular savings by members, peer pressure to enforce repayment of loans and simple and transparent procedures. Every member contributes a fixed predetermined amount to the self help group’s bank account to build a shared pool of resources.
Once the basic structure of the savings group model is introduced to a rural community by an outside agency – usually a local nonprofit – the groups do virtually everything, including training more groups. Once the groups have mastered the mechanics of savings and lending, they begin to ask: What’s next? When they have a fair amount of capital, it starts making small loans to its members. They dispense small and unsecured loans at varying costs to group members on the basis of need. They cross guarantee each other’s debts. The prime security is trust and a social contract that holds the members accountable to each other.
The needs may vary from business expenses to paying school fees or health-care costs, purchasing animals, or investing in start –up capital for undertaking cattle rearing and livestock breeding or tailoring. In this way they make money ‘work’ because small amounts can be contributed and made available to everyone to use for their emergency needs.
With education of children and running the household being their priority, the women utilize the borrowed money to pay for their children’s educational needs, household repairs and even monthly food ration. Through the group mechanism, the funds become a collective asset enabling uplift of the community. With 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.
The group is linked to a public bank which supervises it and oversees its money management. Over time the bank begins to lend to the group as a unit, without collateral, relying on self-monitoring and peer pressure within the group.
The most significant aspect of these collectives is that they are wholly managed by the women. Women themselves plan the design, implementation and trajectory of this model. Each group has a constitution or a list of rules, created and accepted by the members themselves. The rules pertain to selecting members, electing office bearers, creating their own loan fund, deciding on the recipient of a loan, ensuring repayment of the loan and the like. Regular meetings are the enabling forces, giving women the courage to lean into multiple household and community settings.
Women act as their own bankers, create their own loan fund, and approve small loans to each other as savings accumulate and making sure loans are repaid. The women guarantee each other’s loans astonishingly, few default. The repayments proceed like clockwork. 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. You can’t change social dynamics without women’s involvement in the economy.
These groups are obviously formed for financial support but that is not an end in itself. They soon become a platform for education, health information and training, savings, business development, technical and marketing asis6ance .SHGs become a comprehensive ladder of support and opportunity. The disciplined efforts involved in running a group make the women efficient money managers.
The groups grow in size, they save and invest more, and they launch their own initiatives—training groups for their children, buying grain when the price is low to better survive the lean season, and launching collective enterprises as they reach out to other NGO and development programs. With their economic clout, management skills, and group solidarity, they aspire to more. Together the women create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do. It is an amoeba model — and each group has the DNA within itself to self-replicate.
The relationships the women build among themselves and their shared values—and often their shared sense of identity—enhances their individual confidence. They gain much by the solidarity they share, they are able to save money, grow their businesses, and finally break out of poverty. The sisterhood is so close knit and persuasive and sorority so intense that women have begun to think of themselves in a different way.
Loans are then given out to individual members from these funds upon application and unanimous resolution drawn at a group meeting. The bank permits withdrawal from the group account on the basis of such resolutions. Such loans, fully funded out of the savings generated by the group members themselves, are called ‘interloans’. The repayment period of loans is usually short, 3–6 months. After regular loan issuance and repayment for six months, the bank considers making a bank loan to the SHG. The maximum loan amount is a multiple (usually 4:1) of the total funds in the group account (India Infrastructure Report 2007 Chapter 10 Rural Housing Piyush Tiwari).
Contrary to what many believe the poor are not too poor to save, that there is enough savings potential within a group to enable people to meet the basic needs within a small community, and those small sums can make a big difference. Once the basic structure of the savings group model is introduced to a rural community by an outside agency—usually a local nonprofit—the groups do virtually everything, including training more groups.
SHGs are the biggest generators of social capital in rural India. This model generates a unique stock of social capital through the process of regular group meetings and it is this social capital that has been instrumental in transforming the status of these women, both within the home and community. The phenomenon of regular meetings is an important enabling force which gives the woman courage to “lean in”, in multiple household and community settings.
Dialogue-based education does not require that women know how to read or write, and learning together strengthens and gives confidence to the group. Groups are also a place where people can learn from others, share their experience and seek advice. The disciplined hard work of saving every week and running a group makes them efficient money managers.
More than just a conduit for credit – they also act as a delivery mechanism for various other services ranging from entrepreneurial training, livelihood promotion activity and community development programs. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals (CPs) and catalysts for mobilisation, health, literacy financial management, agriculture, leadership livestock and more. Combining group-based microfinance programme with participatory training on gender norms, domestic violence and preventive health education is making, women better equipped to challenge discriminatory norms and raise public awareness about various other gender issues.
A vast majority of women leaders in Panchayat Raj institutions have come from SGHs and most successful sarpanches have had their grooming in these collectives. It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed. But there is almost a certainty that women will channel money into solving more fundamental issues.
It has been found that groups in which women meet more often and are exposed to greater social interaction show persistent improvements relative to groups that meet less often. Research suggests that groups generate social capital through the focused interactions that takes place in various encounters , i.e., group meetings and other community activities .the meeting have several cohesive and empowering features a number of features, including:
  • a single focus of attention;
  • intense brainstorming among group members on various domestic mattes and community issues;
  • the regular rigmarole of group meeting steered by the group leader involving conflict resolution and building consensus;
  • peer monitoring; and
  • the rituals of song and dress that surround the group meetings, all of which produce a strong feeling of solidarity and corresponding emotional bonding . This is a very different understanding of social capital and how it is generated among women.
The manner in which each group operates is unique to itself and is based on the collective creativity of the members and not imposed or borrowed from any formal system. Thus we have a humongous mass of social capital generated by these groups whose uniqueness lies n its rich diversity.
By providing a space where members can build relationships and develop a strong sense of identity and belongingness, they create a unique set of relationships and values. They show how managing money involves more than financial management, the creation of significant social value. These groups impart training in areas such as health care, nutrition, and domestic problem solving. These social services help clients profit from their loan sand also aid in the development of human capital – an important contributor to poverty alleviation.
Some of the outcomes are amazing—and also remind us why women can be powerful agents for change in their families. Cash empowers people .When targeted properly it gives people the choice of doing something that makes their life more sustainable and lifts them out of extreme poverty. For these women, the overriding sentiment is hope in humanity and in the future. The world they see is a good place.
Like termites, they have furrowed the male-dominated power-grid in villages and are pulverizing the whole patriarchal foundation. Where once participation of women in public meetings was an anathema, it has now become a ritual. SHGs have become powerful economic locomotives and have enabled women found new confidence, agency and purpose. Transcending their ascribed roles, they have dispelled the myth that women are good just for homes.
These groups have become the main locomotives of economic growth in rural areas. SHGs are seen as an entry point for other social activities — school committees to watershed councils. As they mature, the group sparks and spearheads meaningful and enduring changes by addressing community issues such as abuse of women, the dowry system, alcohol, educational quality, inadequate infrastructure.
Beginning in the benign area of health, women slowly gained confidence and moved on to other social areas. They began asking for change from the bus conductor, introducing new farming practices, saving enough money to engage banks and acquire simple irrigation equipment like water tanks, agitating for an improved road (and getting it) mapping village land and rethinking what’s planted to produce year-round yields and income, demanding the presence of the school teacher, negotiating with local officials for providing services to which they were entitled.
SHGs influence those oppressive relationships arising from caste, class and political power, which have made it difficult for poor people to build a sustainable base for their livelihoods. As with any single strategy, this is not going to put an end to poverty. However, the plan is simple, low-cost, and resilient and can be carried out by non-governmental organisations. What is most important is that development is truly in the hands of the people.
“When women have the support of other women, and when they have income of their own,” say Ela Bhatt, founder of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), ,which represents 1.2 million women working in India’s informal sector , “they are able to fight their own battles in their own way.”
Bhatt speaks of a quiet yet persistent strength particular to women: “Once a woman knows what she wants,” Bhatt says, she’s not afraid to take risks. "If we cannot break through, we just find a way around.”
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. A membership of a self help group has transformed women in ways that it has made men alter their perception of women. Men may fret that they lose when women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. .This lesson is best embodied in the words of Nirmala, a self help group member for well over two decades and the current sarpanch of Wanoja in Central India, which she keeps repeating whenever I visit her: “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.”
For poor women, it is a journey towards the second freedom or the real freedom, as Mahatma Gandhi said when he talked of the unfinished agenda at the time of Independence.
***
Centuries ago, a king, while travelling through his domain came across people living in dark caves. He was horrified at the gloom and ordered every family to be given lamps and oil to fuel them. Fifty years later, he visited the area again and found the caves in darkness. The lamps had been forgotten or were broken. The oil had run out. The king ordered more oil, new lamps. But when he returned to the area the following year the caves were dark once more. The king summoned his minister, a wise old man, and asked for an explanation. ‘Ah,’ said the minister, ‘You gave the lamps to the men. You should have given them to the women.’
The king followed his minister’s advice and the lamps have kept burning ever since!

Notes

[1] Harper, Malcolm, Ezekiel Esipisu, A.K. Mohanty and D.S.K. Rao. (1998). The New Middlewomen—Profitable Banking through On-Lending Groups, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Pvt Ltd, New Delhi

*Development expert

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