A mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation.
-Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian poet
The real tragedy of the poor, particularly the women among them, is that their voice is unheard in forums, even at those which are exclusively devoted to their problems. As the Madagasy proverb goes, “poverty won’t allow him to lift his head, dignity won’t allow him to bow it down”. They are shouted down by those who consider them illiterate and uninformed and who abrogate to themselves the wisdom and the right to speak for the poor.
Over the years several strategies have been used to empower women .One of them relies on community groups whose members can be trained and equipped to use their collective strength and wisdom to tackle their problems. It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers .This can be possible only through groups who share the same emotional values and are driven by strong impulses of mutual goals. Together the women create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do .
In India the most popular model for empowering village women through financial access and provision of other services is the Self Help Group mechanism 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. The women cross guarantee each other’s debts. Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions. What’s most significant about these groups is that they are designed to be wholly managed by villagers themselves; by and large, they function as they are intended to function; and they reach impoverished people in remote rural areas who would otherwise go without any financial services, even microfinance .
Each of these women whom we provided credit via these groups began with not a scintilla of hope. “I had nothing, nobody,” said Mina, who worked as a maid for payment in rice after her husband abandoned her. “I was scared to become a member of the group. I was too poor to repay a loan. But now that I’m getting goats at reasonably priced loans, I’m interested.”
Ranjana doesn’t belong to a very poor family. But she definitely needed credit for expanding her tailoring unit. . She at first believed SHGs to be the usual social clubs that vanish as fast as they sprout. But now she has become a die-hard votary of self help groups. “I thought these groups to be silly. With what you call their highbrow philosophy. And I was certainly humbled by the noble spirit.” she admits
As Anusaya Ledange explains: “In the beginning we didn’t know anything. Before we organized ourselves in a SHG we used to believe everything and agreed with everything our men told us. Now we have learned to state our opinions and views and now our men even ask us about what we think.” Though male family members continue to choose a suitable match for the family’s sons, many women report having the ‘final word’ in decisions on their daughters’ marriage partners, a position which was previously unthinkable
During my microfinance journey I found several impoverished women made progress only to slip back into poverty. We need to understand why they go on and on taking small loans. Several studies show that at times credit being given is used for consumption and not for income-generation purposes. But a lot of micro-borrowing goes into paying school fees because the borrower can’t afford the lump sum fees.
As women participate in the economy, they also become more involved socially and politically. Within their communities they may advocate for changes that will better their own lives and those of other girls and women. Even the power of example is important. More families will pay for their girls to attend school if they see women putting their education to use.More importantly, a loan in the hands of a woman has a better chance to change not just her life, but to improve her children’s opportunities and her society’s prosperity
These women inspire us, and they serve as good examples of how millions of brave and industrious people are working their way up the economic ladder, with dignity and pride..The real benefits, the women say, cannot be measured in rupees—a lesson for anyone who believes that the poor are motivated simply by material needs and not the desire for respect, community and recognition. A vital part of the entire programme is the fellowship they share with their sisters. The Self Help Groups have become astringents for soaking up the pain of their individual members.
But we need to be alive to the downside of debt .Debt can both unlock you and lock you. A central problem is this: most of us see women borrowers as autonomous individuals who make independent choices in the marketplace. But this is not always the reality. It is erroneous to believe that access to credit will necessarily make life honeyed and sweet. Even when they possess marketable, loan-worthy skills, women often find themselves beholden to their husband and male relatives. Where self help groups are mature and equipped with handling basic credit management skills this normally doesn’t happen. Thus credit misused can permanently ruin a family and lead to intergenerational poverty. The groups must ensures t women invest only in businesses that the economy of their area can sustain
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. Several development successes have occurred in less than optimal settings. In each case, creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness, and imagined a way forward that took into account local realities and built on local strengths. We increasingly have the tools to combat it. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade .He can be reached at email@example.com