THE POOR WOMEN’S CRUSADE
Oh woman! Please provide us with wealth through your intellect
-Atharva Ved 7.48.2
Money, says the proverb, makes money. When you have got a little, it is often easy to get more. The great difficulty is to get that little.
Adam Smith, the Wealth of Nations
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 is very hard, but all too common. They face significant constraints in maximizing their productivity. They often do not have equal access to productive inputs or to markets for their goods. They own only 15 percent of the land worldwide, work longer hours than men and earn lower wage
In India, community groups set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems are known as self-help groups. 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. 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. The women have the drive, ambition, and capability to create streams of income for themselves, but they often need a lump sum to get started. When we place capital in the hands of women, especially low-income women, who don’t have access to loans through traditional means it works wonders – unlocking her entrepreneurial impulses. . 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.
Lata had been a regular figure at our meetings and training programmes. She imbibed the values of thrift and hard work very assiduously and quickly. I didn’t have a chance to visit her home but I came to know she was doing well. One morning I joined Lata on the long ride home to her shack. As we approached, hordes of curious youngsters swarmed around us. Lata steered me into her home, a simple cement structure, with a tiny shrine built into a wall.. It had no window, no water, and no electricity. But it was nonetheless meticulously clean, so much so that the floor of beaten earth was just like marble. No one would have dreamed of treading on it without first removing his shoes. As the whole family squeezed inside, Lata’s mother daubed my forehead with purple rice .Lata lopped the top off a fresh coconut, popped in a straw and offered it to me. She then hacked it with a scythe and gathered the cotton white cream in a steel bowl and was keen that I not only taste it but consume the entire bowl.
When it was time for me to leave she wished me namaste(traditional Indian greeting ), then grabbed my hand in hers and gave it a tight squeeze. In a barely audible whisper she said -“I am grateful to you for introducing me to this Self Help Group concept”. Now I am on my third loan of Rs 40,000.I am using it myself. My husband does not take even five rupees from my shop. All the outgoings and incomings I deal with. He pays for our food and clothing from his shop while I have bought things for the house – tape, TV. I have paid to get my son trained as a carpenter. I am busy enough with my shop and managing the house
Mangala Dhawas is a very enterprising group leader from Mohbala village in Chandrapur.”My father always wished I was a boy .The Self Help Group proved how fortunate he is, to have a girl”,beams the chirpy lady .“He thought its too bold a step to set up an enterprise as only men are capable of handling business .Women should stay at home, doing domestic chores. He is eating his words today. “ it all began when the local bank manager visited our village and told us about this unique self help scheme. Nearly twelve women including me, contributed whatever small savings we had. Against which the bank extended a good amount of loan to us after satisfying itself about the conduct of the account for preceding six months. There was no stopping me after that. I set up an agro processing unit with the loan .My business thrived .and my opinion is valued even by my neighbours.” She exudes self-confidence as she offers a round of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She doesn’t even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. She has come a long way and is now a market agent for insurance and deposit companies. Her extended house has two tenants from a local power company.
But microfinance alone wasn’t enough. Mangala had a loan, but no business plan and no safety net. She was running her home and business with no budget. If she or someone in her family became ill, or their business had an unexpected emergency, they had no savings and no plan to get back on their feet. One small hiccup could wash away all of her hard work.. Mangala completed a financial literacy training . The modules taught her how to create and manage a budget, how to save for emergencies and long-term goals, and about government services available to her, like life insurance.
Lata and Mangala are faces of a multitude of poor women who are now travelers on a path of empowerment .But they need much more to make their destination. Women, especially those who are less educated, need access to a range of services: accounting courses, business mentoring, local partnerships, advice on signing contracts. Surveys show that without such support women are prone to accept contracts without knowing their full rights or obligations.
There are many metaphors for the role of assistance. Aid is more a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own. That is what the assistance to these women meant : a bit of help where and when it counts most.
Several factors converge to sometimes make poverty almost inescapable. Often the cycle is transmitted from generation to generation .One formula which most present programmes embrace is investment in health and education of children. It is easier to build a strong child than to repair broken men and women. A compelling message is that if we want to chip away at poverty there’s no magic bullet, that helping people is much harder than it looks. 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.