We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination is very hard, but all too common. They face significant constraints in maximizing their
But there are also silvery strands in this dark discourse. Given an opportunity to fight hunger and poverty, a poor woman turns out to be a better fighter than a poor man. It has been our experience that poor women have the intense drive to move up; they are hardworking, concerned about their human dignity, concerned about their children’s present and future, and willing to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of their children’
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.
In India, community groups have been set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems. They are known as self-help groups. 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. One of the key objectives of SHGs is to provide financial access to entrepreneurial women through a mechanism in which women cross guarantee each other’s debts.
Moreover, SHGs are also an instrument for the empowerment of poor and marginalized 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 especially 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.
It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers .This can possible only through groups who share the same emotional values and are driven by strong impulses of mutual goals. One of the primary objectives is of course to avail loans which the women access by cross guaranteeing each other’s liability. These loans are part of a financial philosophy called microfinance. 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, invest in agriculture..
Women view the cooperative as their window to the outside world and as a place where they can discuss their problems with each other, indicating that the groups have had a profound impact on many women. The members consider the unity and solidarity among the women in the group to be one of the most important benefits of membership. 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”.
The process for the banks relationship with a self help group ip involves an initiatory period, during which a group deposits savings with the bank for a designated period, usually a minimum of six months, after which it can access a bank loan. The SHG then “on-lends” the loan amount to its members. Depending on the policies of the partner bank, SHGs are able to borrow between 2 and 4 times their savings, and terms can include both short-term and long-term loans. The group makes a financial spread by charging members a higher interest rate than it pays to the bank. This “profit” is distributed to members, or is added to member savings and used for lending or investment. SHG members may choose to distribute dividends, but SHGs generally do not “cash out” (distribute all savings and earnings) on a periodic basis. Groups can have loan terms as long as 60 months. Some SHGs allow voluntary withdrawal of savings, but many do not as these funds are used as a guarantee for bank loans.
When I first initiated this loan programme in Cjharurkhati vilage in Chandrapur district as a banker almost two and half decades back, I remember there was a woman by name Nirmala Wansnghe who started out with a mud hut. When I came back after six years on a personal holiday, she had a three-room house with a cement floor, and the goats were stabled in the hut in which she had stayed before. When her group of women first came for loans, they sat hunched, looking down into their laps. They would take the small pile of pastel and white notes they got as part of a loan and fold it into a hairpin behind their ears. They were looking so frightened because, they said, they were afraid they couldn’t pay it back. One of them was so dazed that she wanted to know the name of the person who had recommended her for the loan. Some of them even suggested taking only a part of the loan. For the remaining they said they would consult their husbands and then come back.
Bebibai Kotrange was abandoned by her husband for no fault of her. Life seemed to have drawn a curtain on her life. The odds were badly stacked against her. The Bank’s timely assistance regenerated her skills and her fingers have been honed by training to produce beautiful garments. She now exudes a quiet confidence as she presides at group meetings. There was a lime when she had retreated into depression, after the sudden disappearance of her husband. “I had to lower my eyes, seek refuge in its cocoon. I felt suffocated”. It was the SHG, which helped her emerge from the catatonic trance.
Granted, there are problems: a husband confiscates the cash and uses it to buy a bottle of homebrew, a woman buys a goat that then dies, a borrower uses a loan not to invest but to pay for a doctor’s visit for a child, and so on. In those cases, the borrower’s family is indeed worse off, but I think those are unusual. Socially responsible finance , delivered responsibly, enables poor women to accomplish a number of useful purposes for her family.
Social innovation is taking place at multiple levels. But as with most trumpeted development initiatives the present programmes are also struggling to turn rhetoric into tangible success. One inspiring step has a tendency to raise the sense of possibility in others — say, the youth who dream of being active change agents. 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 are difficult to scale up. 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 decades .He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org