Development experts now widely recognise women’s role as critical to economic progress, good governance and healthy civil society.
Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.
— Gloria Steinem
Poor women’s suffering has long been a surefire way to pull on the heartstrings of rich donors, but in recent years there has been a new-found appreciation for the role that these women play in breaking the cycle of poverty and stabilising fragile societies. Development experts now widely recognise women’s role as critical to economic progress, good governance and healthy civil society.
Empowering women has been held up as an answer to myriad global problems, starting with poverty. Societies and cultures that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, better governed, more stable and less prone to violence. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption.
In India, the most popular model for empowering village women through financial access and social mobilisation is the self-help group concept. A typical Indian self-help group consists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds. The common characteristics of these self-help groups are: self-selected and unrelated members, small size, regular attendance at meetings, regular savings by members, peer pressure to enforce repayment of loans and simple and transparent procedures.
The self-help groups have their origin in the self-help affinity groups facilitated by the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) that were adapted by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). The adapted version started in 1992 as a pilot project and was soon upgraded to a regular banking programme. The self-help group movement, which is now in its silver jubilee year has, over a span of 25 years, grown massively with 85 lakh units operating across the country.
What’s most significant about these groups is that they are designed to be wholly managed by villagers themselves. Each group has a constitution (a list of rules) that is created and agreed upon by the members themselves — selection of members, election of officers, creation of their own loan fund, decisions on who will receive a loan and making sure loans are repaid. The phenomenon of “regular meetings” is an important enabling force which gives the woman courage to “lean in” in multiple household and community settings.
The disciplined hard work of running a group makes them efficient money managers. When it has a fair amount of capital, the group starts making small loans to its members. The women cross guarantee each other’s debts. Astonishingly few default. By transferring tasks normally done by well-paid bankers to poor people, the cost of administration comes down drastically. Although the value for members is not just in finance, credit remains an important element. You can’t change social dynamics without women’s involvement in the economy.
Members take loans for a variety of reasons: to buy medicine, start a business, purchase animals, pay school fees, buy clothing, buy food during the lean season and invest in agriculture. With help for starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty. According to a Harvard Business Review study, women in emerging markets reinvest 90 per cent of every dollar earned into “human resources” — their families’ education, health and nutrition — compared to only 30 to 40 per cent of every dollar earned by men.
Allowing women direct access to financial services might improve their possibilities to become entrepreneurs, thus increasing their individual incomes, their chances to become more independent, and strengthen their participation in family and community decision making. There is also an important insurance effect: better access to finance reduces their dependence on relatives or local moneylenders.
The self-help groups are the biggest generators of social capital in rural India. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals (CPs). The vast majority of women leaders in panchayati raj institutions have come from self-help groups and most successful sarpanches have had their grooming in these collectives.
Moreover, self-help groups are an instrument for the empowerment of poor and marginalised sectors. They have proved to be an effective instrument for changing oppressive relationships in the home (gender and tradition related), and in society. This is specially true for those relationships arising from caste, class and political power, which have made it difficult for poor people to build a sustainable base for their livelihoods and to grow holistically.
“I’ve learnt how to invest my money wisely and the power of being united. I’ve also learnt a lot from other women in my group in terms of responsibility and respect,” says Chanda, who sells homemade yogurt. “This group is very different than others. It’s not just about the money, it’s about being part of a unit that understands what you are going through and helps you move forward.”
For poor women, it is a journey towards the second freedom or the real freedom, as Mahatma Gandhi said when he talked of the unfinished agenda at the time of Independence.
Ela Bhatt, the founder of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and one of India’s tallest social workers emphasising the creative role of women in synthesising new cultural patterns: “In my experience, women are the key to rebuilding a community. Focus on women, and you will find allies who want a stable community. The woman wants roots for her family. In women, you get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker. She is a forger of bonds — in her, essentially, you have a creator and a preserver.”
Empowerment has many dimensions — social, economic, cultural, political and personal. When every part is treasured, the good unleashed is greatest. This is the unique philosophy of every self-help group. A membership of a self-help group has transformed women in ways that it has made men alter their perception of women. Together the women create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do.
Men may fret that they lose when women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances.
This belief is best embodied in the words of Nirmala Geghate, a sarpanch (head of village council) in a village called Wanoja in eastern Maharashtra, which she keeps repeating whenever I visit her: “My father always believed that it would have been far better if I were born a son. But today he realises how lucky he is to have me as a daughter.”
The writer is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.