THE SISTERHOOD OF THE POOR
Pride and dignity would belong to women if only men would leave them alone.
Money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million.
It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them. At the lower end of the economic strata, women are saddled with husbands who only drink and help produce children, but the women still work from dusk to dawn, providing succour to their families, including a drinking allowance to errant husbands. While the village woman cooks, she may breastfeed one child and watches over three others. If she fails in any of these tasks, or performs them too slowly, her husband often feels it is his prerogative to beat her. And yet invariably she considers her husband a god. At the well at dawn, in the hearth at dark, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, milling, the women are constantly on their toes.
A raft of interventions have been initiated to rid women of this drudgery .Multiple strategies have to be deployed in concert because it is now a fact that there is no one-size-fits –all mechanism. One of the ambitious programmes for empowering women through membership of a collective is the Self Help Group. . 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. Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions. 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. SHGs also have important social functions: they may serve as a platform to address community issues such as the abuse of women, alcohol, the dowry system, educational quality, inadequate infrastructure. Women have become more self-confident in their activities. Previously, when government officials or the bankers interacted with the village women in the absence of their husbands, they generally responded with statements like – “I don’t know”: “My husband has gone out”, “What can I say”, “Let him come” or “He only knows”.
When Laxmi, in a depleted village in Chandrapur, had first held Rs. 500 in her hands, they had trembled. It was money that gave strength to her hands, changed her life, and that of thirty other women in the village who had been rooted to a patch of soybean that glowed like emerald and scorched their bare feet. Laxmi’s eyes filled with tears while telling us that, as a widow, she couldn’t provide her four children with enough to eat. Today, although finances are tight, Laxmi and her family are getting back on their feet. “I’ve always wanted a better life but didn’t know what to do, but now I have this mushroom-growing skill and can support my family. Why didn’t you people come three years earlier?” she asks playfully. She did not have much else to look forward to and was expected to go on in the same way miserable way all her life. She was racked by severe melancholy depression. Fear of poverty and respect for society keep many women locked in bad marriage, as does the prospect of losing custody of their children. In a life bound to realities beyond the grasp of man, there was little room for an identity to emerge. Most important, Laxmi’s reputation for honesty made people adore her. Incidentally her name also means honesty. In a village where honesty was in short supply I was glad to see a woman who was respected just because her only wealth was honesty.
The local panchayat leader, Ashabai, comes from a village of five hundred people. “My village has no lights, no water, and no road. The women got together because of the bishi (an Indian ROSCA, Rotating Savings and Credit Association).” Ashabai was made of sterner stuff; but being alone, her patience would run out. An exposure to the groups has honed her patience and built resilience. Initially, she attended the meeting with her husband in tow. A few months back, the husband was shoved away. Since then Asha is on her own. She knows she will be debarred from the group if the husband continues to accompany her and if she remains totally dependent on him. One of the cardinal goals of group membership is that the women must be encouraged to gather enough self-confidence to no longer need male chaperones. When first speaking on stage about her experience, she could mumble and splutter only a few sentences. Today she is a refined, confident public speaker.
Rekha Asutkar, who now is an organizer for her saving group, used to reside in a tiny, rickety house that could no longer withstand the fury of the monsoon. She was in a dilemma whether to invest her meagre savings in business or to construct a small sturdy room. When the bank agreed to give her a loan to start up a business, she constructed a pucca house and utilized the bank loan to set up a grocery store. Today she has a decent house and a small but flourishing grocery shop. She proudly proclaims that in Andhra Pradesh, Self Help Group women have turned into celebrities and in Rajasthan, they have catapulted to the silver screen. She is confident that the day is not too far when a woman from Warora will grace the cover page of a women’s magazine. The women snap pictures of various celebrations in their group as a matter of record for posterity.
Our experience of working with poor women emphasises the fact that work is their foremost priority, around which their lives revolve. As they say, “If we work, we survive.” Besides intermediation, all manner of self-employment—sewing, delivering small items, making handicrafts—could be facilitated with a small amount of capital for a sewing machine, a bicycle, or tools. The mere act of leaving the isolation of family compounds and joining the weekly peer group discussions increase women’s confidence and motivation. During these discussions women become part of a new social network, forging supportive friendships and sharing information and tips that prove key to the success of their business venture. We help empower not just women, but the communities in which they live.
What we need today are innovative solutions that can take into account the peculiarities of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. We need to use your natural powers-of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity to do work, think deeply, and solve problems. 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.