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Hey bride! You shall bring bliss to all and direct our homes towards our purpose of living
-Atharva Ved 14.1.61

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. 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
Self-help groups (SHGs) have emerged as a popular and most potent mode for women empowerment . 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 women cross guarantee each other’s debts. Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions. 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, etc.
Setting aside Rs. 20 every month is a tough call for a daily wage labourer. Especially, when she is the only earning member of a family of 10. Sitting on a temple floor at Reva Danda, a village 100 kms from Mumbai, her sari draped in traditional fisherfolk style, Jana Jagannath Raoji holds your attention with her talk of interest rates and microcredit as a motley mix of housewives and daily wage labourers discuss monthly savings and bank loans. Jana is illiterate but knows how to write her name thanks to a self-help group set up by the village bank. This is an SHG, set up with the assistance of the State Bank of India for their socio-economic development. “I keep aside Rs. 20 with great difficulty,” says Jana, her face breaking into shy smiles as she talks. “I do it so I can repair my house before the rains.”
About eight women paint clay idols on a workshop floor in Kasarali village, Penn, famous for its Ganesh idols. They are part of a 15-member SHG formed by the womenfolk to supplement the family income.
“None of them have any knowledge of the craft,” informs Sunil Dattaraya Hazare of Mangesh Kala Kendra, the workshop proprietor. “But they are diligent and eager to work. I pay them Rs. 50 for eight hours of work.” Jyoti Samel, a mother of three, whose husband makes the statues, comes here to hone her skills in painting the idols. “I have learnt to paint observing my husband and the workers at our yard. But my husband won’t let me work as he feels it deprives a worker of his job. So I come here after my chores. I plan to set up my own workshop soon.”
Anita works in the front courtyard of her house, under ashoka and neem trees that provide welcome shade in the mid-day heat. Everyone pitches in: her father-in-law softening and shaping wet lumps of clay by working them in his hands, her husband spinning pots on the wheel. The pottery offers only two simple products, small cooking pots and cooking stoves, and sells only to the neighborhood – but Anita has ambitious plans.
In Ashi, Kaml who is 30, is also a traditional village woman. She grew up in a hamlet where only boys were educated. She drops her voice to a hoarse whisper and covers her unflinching, hazel eyes with a veil in the presence of older village men. But she is nobody’s fool. Her whispery voice was loud enough to put a stop to what she and others in the village say was her predecessor’s habit of collecting money from peddlers on behalf of the village, then pocketing it for himself. There is perhaps a naïveté in how she pegs this to ideas of truth, principles and commitment when the world around her turns on the fulcrum of realpolitik
For women the longing for independence and autonomy runs deep, many women need just minimal assistance and a bit of encouragement to become thriving entrepreneurs. Earlier in this village a woman who spoke about herself was considered a loose woman. To voice a pain, to divulge a secret, was considered sacrilege, a breach of family trust. Today, voices are raised without fear, and are heard outside the walls of homes that once kept a woman protected, also isolated. Some of the women who speak here have stepped out. Others who have not are beginning to be aware, eager to find expression. The self-help group has given them a voice, an identity.
To date, there have been many instances of total transformation, not only of the individual’s self-confidence, but also of village politics, ethics and social norms The SHG units began to develop a fierce identity both for themselves and within the context of the larger SHG network. Women have experienced impacts and benefits of participating in the SHGs which go beyond increased income and economic bargaining power. At the household and individual levels, the economic benefits of organising, and the new knowledge women possess, have been catalysts for changing gender roles.
Women recognize the norms, which dominate gender relations at the household level: “we mostly take the decisions jointly. But even if I am upset he will go ahead with the decision. It is our tradition that what a woman decides, a man never accepts”. However, these norms are changing .Women’s income-earning activities have led to a rise in women’s status within the traditional family unit and an increased capacity to negotiate for changes at the household level.
Empowerment means different things to different people. There is, of course, one tide that will lift all boats. That is the tide of economic growth. Poverty is the biggest hurdle to empowerment. It is poverty that denies access to education, health and housing; fails to create adequate number of job opportunities; drives families to a demeaning life shorn of the barest dignity; forces a mother to give away her girl child in marriage. It is a matter of common knowledge that higher family income results in greater spending on education for the children; better food and clothing; search for better housing; more forceful assertion of rights and the willingness to seek legal remedies; and the capacity to influence, individually or collectively, decisions that affect large sections of the people
My own background has taught me a lot about the power of investing in poor women, because you do end up feeding a family and not just an individual. For a solution to intractable poverty, we need a massive cultural shift. Foundations, universities, NGOs and financial institutions have to contribute in the form of educational, social and financial programs that can deliver tangible, measurable progress as well as defining clear policy and position points

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