THE POWER OF THE POOR WOMEN
Hey wife! I am holding your hand for prosperity
-Atharva Ved 14.1.50
Money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million.
Traditional wisdom has always held the household as the female domain and the world outside as the domain of the male. This is more pronounced in the rural areas where women–even though they work in the fields–are inextricably associated with the kitchen, the inside, the private. “Women were thought to be incapable of understanding what went on outside the domestic walls,” writes sociologist MN Shrinivas. However, there is overwhelming evidence that women-run project ventures are the best managed, with women showing a much greater sense of responsibility and also a commitment to human development objectives such as health and education of their families. It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them.
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. One of them is microfinance and the grop mechanism of microfiance has proved to be quite empowering.
In India the most popular model for empowering village women through financial access and provision of other services is the Self Help Group mechanism. The idea of springing people from poverty by advancing them small amounts of money is old. But the modern template was created in India in the nineties in the form of the Self Help Group model. 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. Group members are engaged in livelihood activities such as running a retail shop, cattle rearing, zari work, tailoring jobs, making candles, artificial jeweler.
The Self Help Group concept has attracted the attention of behavioural scientists who are trying to leverage the social capital to enhance the women’s self-esteem and develop them into community leaders. The new confidence has enabled these women to get elected to the village councils, and a large number of them head these councils. There are some 250,000 village councils, or Gram Panchayats, in India. The councils choose which public goods to invest in — from drinking-water facilities to roads — and where to put them. They implement welfare schemes and public jobs programs, and decide who will benefit . The panchayats are a gift of a seismic reform, a 16-year campaign to decentralize power from the states to local elected bodies known as panchayats, cutting out much of the bureaucratic cancer altogether The rise of Indian women as panchayat leaders is a spectacular achievement given that India has one of the worst records with respect to the way it treats the female sex.By creating empowered female role models, it has led villagers to visualize more equal aspirations for their teenage sons and daughters and to reduce their daughters’ domestic chores and increase their schooling.
The self-help group (SHG) concept in India has gone beyond the mere financing of petty loans to women, and now embraces the concept of space for women in decision making and in setting the development agenda . For millions of women who have for the first time stepped out of their courtyards and handled a pass book and the responsibilities of leadership, the SHG experiment has been truly life renewing. Women in Maharashtra have taken on entrenched village hierarchies and hoisted the national flag in their villages despite opposition from men. They have put an end to the brewing of liquor, they have bid for contracts for fishing in village ponds, developed wastelands and grown fruits and vegetables and enhanced their economic position in numerous ways. The loss of control that the village moneylender has suffered is a common enough story now in villages where SHGs have taken root. Women belonging to the Scheduled Castes at a village in Solapur told me, “We have no work for four months in the year and in order to survive, we are forced to take a loan of Rs. 300 per month during this period from the money lender at 100 per cent interest. But after we formed the SHG we have no need to do this. We take the money from our SHGs.” In the tribal villages of Dhule women who used to purchase grains from the grain merchants at a high price in times of scarcity, have found a way out by forming their own grain local banks which have rules similar to the rules followed by the SHGs for saving money. It is for the first time that government’s attention has been drawn to women as a focus of developmental change. No doubt this casts more responsibility on women, but it is a responsibility which enhances their sense of self-esteem and self-worth and their clout in village affairs.
Sitting at a table in front of them under the dappled shade of the banyan tree is Lalita the local panchayat chief. Three years ago she wore a veil and rarely left her house without a chaperone – addressing a 200-strong crowd would have been unthinkable. But today Lalita is president of the panchayat (village council). “I never had the opportunity to study past high school but I want the girls from my village to go to university.”Fielding questions on pensions for widows, road repair and land rights – subjects that matter to the villagers who elected her Lalita is one of 1.2 million women representatives in rural India.
In Sunna village in the heart of Yavatmal district of Maharashtra Vimal has lobbied state officials for a medical clinic. She watched helplessly as five of her seven children died of diseases she only vaguely understood — a curse that she believes might have been avoided had there been a convenient, reliable place in the village to take them for checkups and vaccinations. From drinking water and polio vaccine campaigns to primary health centres and schools, women are redesigning the development agenda.
On a walk through the quiet lanes in October, past herds of snoozing water buffalo and carts pulled by teams of oxen, Vimal pointed to the village hand pump she had gotten fixed. She showed off the new brick lanes, electrical poles and street lights installed on her watch and checked on the progress of a new community hall, being built for 90,000 rupees.
These women, who have successfully challenged the traditional village male elite, are the aspirational symbols for new India. For them the posts of village heads offer the only real opportunity to bring change to their communities. When these seats are coupled with new skills – from public speaking to budget management – they are better prepared to negotiate the political space that has opened for them. It is then that an elected women head of the village can stand confidently before the full village assembly