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THE KEY TO BREAKING THE POVERTY  CYCLE

Teach the husband ways of earning wealth

-Atharva Ved 7.46.3

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. Women are economic factors: They produce and process food for the family; they are the primary caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick; and their income and labor are directed toward children’s education, health and well-being.

The 21st century poses many challenges that require new ways of thinking, none more important than the economic role of women in a rapidly changing world. 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.

The Indian village woman is pliant and adaptable, just like the clay that the woman potters knead and give myriad shapes and forms. Bury her and she is steadfast as the earth. Burn her and she will ride the flames. Women know which emotional button to press. They are not seducers; they are mind experts. There’s a brave practicality in the face of the steep nastiness of life and yes, along with all this there is also a lot of heart. The women are not lost, just temporarily obscured like stars that cannot be seen in mid-afternoon.  Self Help Groups are those intimate spaces that have enabled rural women to experience that freedom

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 who meet once a month to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance. The women cross guarantee each other’s debts. Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions. Most attempts at marrying financial inclusion with access to health care have centred on micro-health insurance. This makes sense – the poor are the most vulnerable to both health problems and financial shocks, and should have greater demand for health coverage than any other market.

Women have struggled in their life in myriad ways. They have risked beatings to build up a future for themselves. Those little rebellions helped them maintain a sense of identity through the worst of times. Kusum belongs to Mohbala, a village 4 km from Warora. Kusum was always too intimidated to cross through the heart of her village on her way to the fields. I looked over her shoulder and saw the village schoolroom and other building a short way away. They were only ten minutes from Kusum’s house and yet for years she had refused to venture there. As she herself put it, “I only knew the house, the stove and the field.” She was content to be a doormat.”

One day, a group of ladies from Wanoja visited Mohbala. They enlisted the help of respected local women to approach the poorest women (including Kusum) and persuaded them to form a savings group. After a lot of persuasion, Kusum joined a group.  When Kusum finally obtained her first small loan from her group she bought two goats and received training in goat rearing. The goats have given her nine kids and Kusum sells them and the goat milk. What Kusum was proudest of, however, was that others no longer intimidate her. The group made her confront her fears by obliging her to attend meetings and deposit its savings at the bank. . “I have become bold, I no longer avoid the village,”   says Kusum with a little quaver in her voice. Though age has mellowed her, there is a youthful glint in her eye. She writes down account books even as she sings a lullaby for putting the baby to sleep. The project helped Kusum build her confidence. For Kusum and many like her, this is empowerment. Many of the women say they, too, had overcome shyness and fear through their participation in groups.

I visited a village a month away from the rainy season. The villagers were getting their fields ready. Equipped with agricultural tools, the women who were trained measured the fields and estimated the quantities of fertilizers, insecticides and weed-killers that were needed. Others observed and got trained on the job. “Our objective is to gain perfect mastery of all the basic agricultural techniques,” said Sunanda, a dynamic new farmer. Accounts were maintained meticulously and the cash value of all borrowed inputs was calculated and paid up later.

Each shareholder had an individual account and loans taken were noted down. “This way, we are sure not to find ourselves with inflated bills after the harvests,” Sunanda explained, adding, “We make it a matter of principle to pay back the money that was lent to us to the last penny. We do not want to discourage those who trusted us.” The village men were unanimous in their admiration. “We have been surprised by their rigorous management and the output of their fields,” they remarked. In their determination to become self-reliant, the women had collected savings, which, complemented by a small government loan, was to help them set up a bore well equipped with a pump. This would irrigate seedlings before the first rains fell, and also augment the drinking water supply to the village. Taking advantage of this, the women could sell their harvest in the market before the other farmers, and at better prices. These earnings, as they said, would “help improve the menus at home, help with purchase of medicines and clothes for the family.” This year, part of the profit had been used for the creation of a ten hectare vegetable garden, which produced tomatoes, cabbages, onions, lettuce and potatoes. Some of these were consumed locally, the rest were sold at weekly markets.

What we need today are innovative solutions that can take into account the peculiarities of the people at the bottom of the pyramid.  .Social innovation is taking place at multiple levels, driven by passion to make a difference. But as with most trumpeted development initiatives   the present programmes are also struggling to   turn rhetoric into tangible success. A lot of good programs got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. But several of these programmes were difficult to scale up. We increasingly have the tools to combat it. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.

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