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THE CRUSADE OF BETTER HALVES  

If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman

-Margaret Thatcher

Money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million.

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them. The woman is the centre of most development programmes across the world   because she is the fulcrum around which the village   economy revolves. Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty .One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men

In India the most popular model for empowering village women through financial access and provision of other services is the Self Help Group mechanism. It is in practice for more than two decades and has   transformed the lives of millions of women, several of whom now occupy important positions in village administration. A typical Indian SHG consists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds   In these groups people save money together, gradually increasing the pot of money available to the group. Once there’s enough, the group can start lending portions of the money back to individual group members – at interest.  They charge high interest rates, but [group members] don’t care, because they realize that the interest goes back to them.

This model is a very effective intervention   that currently reaches millions of women worldwide   — small loans and other financial services for poor women who have no access to the formal banking system. Responsible financing has succeeded in increasing the incomes of poor households and protecting them against complete destitution

As Anusaya Ledange   explains: “In the beginning we didn’t know anything. Before we organized ourselves in a SHG we used to believe everything and agreed with everything our men told us. Now we have learned to state our opinions and views and now our men even ask us about what we think.”  The male household heads now seriously regards women’s views on marriage partners for their daughters. Though male family members continue to choose a suitable match for the family’s sons, many women report having the ‘final word’ in decisions on their daughters’ marriage partners, a position which was previously unthinkable. As women  gain  new skills and knowledge, their feeling of self-worth   increase s, and they have gained the necessary confidence to take a more vocal stand at the household level.  The poor are no different from other small entrepreneurs in that managerial

Socially responsible lending initiatives and aid are slowly transforming rural India’s landscape. Poor people show inspirational courage and ability to transform the little that the deck has dealt them into livelihoods for their families and their communities. They already have skills, are politically conscious, and are aware of the need for schooling their children and taking care of their health.. In general, aid appears to work best when it is focused on    women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return.

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. As women gain  new skills and knowledge, their feeling of self-worth   increase s, and they have gained the necessary confidence to take a more vocal stand at the household level.

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If you want to see the credibility of poor women borrowers, you must visit villages in the suicide-prone Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where banks had to plough dud agricultural loans like a mountain of rotten potatoes. My experiences during the last few years in Yavatmal have made these convictions indelible. I was leading a credit camp for my company, engaged in housing finance through Self Help Groups in the interior tribal villages in Kelapur block. I was struck by the plight of a family whose tin roof had blown away. I offered a Rs. 5,000 loan to the women. To my great surprise, she refused, saying she would not be able to repay it. I tried to convince her to accept it and to get the interest rate further reduced by my company, but she remained unmoved. Her daughter, who was observing our interaction, told me that the mother would never take a loan, as the last time she had taken one she was already under great moral stress and had to donate blood at least two times at the nearest hospital to meet her loan instalment commitment.

In Sakhra, deep into the forest belt infested by tigers and other wildlife, lies an island of incredible honesty. Sakhra is a unique example of totally illiterate backward women ensuring the rights they have been guaranteed by the law by virtue of their being forest tribals and also the protection under the laws for displaced people. Sakhra is a resettlement village in which villagers uprooted by a development project have been rehabilitated. Seventy households led by Anusaya, lovingly called Amma, have fought their way on their own. They demonstrated before the local administration for days to get a barely motorable road constructed. Each family owns six acres of irrigated land, and at least a pair of bullocks, two cows and a few goats. Six enterprising young boys own premium brand motorcycles. A few weeks back, a tiger had mauled a resident beyond recognition. Now the villagers have set up bamboo fences around the courtyards of their houses. Ammai was a wonderful host and served a sumptuous meal to our entire group. I offered a token donation for village welfare after we had a sumptuous meal at her place. Ammai was up in arms. “Feeding guests is a fulfilment of God’s obligation. How dare you do that? If I visit your house, will you charge me for hospitality?”

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, it is measurable. For example, women are more likely to spend their resources on health and education, investing up to 90 per cent of their earnings in this way compared with just 30-40 per cent for men. This spending creates a powerful ripple effect throughout society and across generations. A study conducted in Brazil, for example, found that the positive effect on the probability that a child will survive in urban Brazil is almost 20 times greater when the household income is controlled by a woman rather than by a man. Responsible financing has succeeded in increasing the incomes of poor households and protecting them against complete destitution. Over the years there have been many efforts to reduce women’s poverty. Investments to increase agricultural productivity improve livestock management and provide livelihood opportunities are key ways to address the needs of poor rural women.

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