Written By: Agnes Mekwana and Arpita Macwan, Executive Partnership Management, Vadodara

 

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Promotion of Self-Help Group (SHGs) mainly for women has been a common feature in India towards the aim of poverty alleviation under the micro-finance concept.Access to credit has not only strengthened the position of women economically, but it has also created a ripple effect which alters power dynamics to allow them agency to a large extent. Besides, SHGs have helped women to participate in the community affairs and in various instances, they have helped tackle the issues concerning public infrastructure, access to social entitlements, health and nutrition, and basic facilities such as safe drinking water, electricity and so on. Most importantly, the process of mobilization and collectivization has been a journey of reflexive empowerment and carving a space for the women self. Though there still stand challenges of enormous magnitude with regards to the participation of women in the political affairs of the country, but the SHGs for long have contributed towards developing women leaders at the grassroots level. The space infused confidence in several women and led them to participate in the local governance process. These women have the potential to shape up as strong contenders and actively get engaged in the local political field.

 

IGSSS effectively ensured the formation of SHGs in all its programmatic interventions as a significant strategy towards promoting women to be at the forefront of governance structures as equal partners while ensuring their access over resources. SHGs, in this sense, have played a critical role in the socio-economic and political upliftment of women. A deeper insight about the evolution of the rural women through their engagement with the SHGs could be understood through IGSSS’ intervention in Vadodara.

 

In the Vadodara programme area, besides poverty, the key issues plaguing was low crop production, lack of understanding about livestock rearing as an income generation activity, unemployment among youth and lack of vocational skills. There were also other grappling issues such as poor civic amenities, lack of drinking water and sanitation facilities, poor condition of the roads, inadequate transportation facilities and rampant alcoholism. The condition of women was worse as their health issues were not given due attention because of poor income and patriarchal social structures. Instances of marital disputes were extensive and girl child education was completely discouraged.

 

One of the key strategies adopted by IGSSS to address the livelihood concerns and socio-economic conditions of the villagers was to involve women in the development process and to develop women leaders. The process started in 2008, when the IGSSS team and the women in 26 villages of the Waghodia block came together to start their small savings and credit groups. Over the period of next five years they formed 52 SHGs.

 

As the process commenced, the women were mobilized under SHGs through trainings provided to improve farming practices, livestock development, income generation activities, gender and leadership, women rights and laws, advanced sewing training, socio-economic analysis, book keeping and general management. Invigorated by the positive experiences as members of SHGs and to increase their capital base, the SHGs came together and formed Block level women collective named WaghodiaTaluka Women’s Savings and Credit Cooperative Limited in 2011. The purpose was to avail bigger amount loans and initiate entrepreneurial activities both at individual and collective level. Currently the cooperative has membership from 900 women.

 

The collectivization and conscientization of women as a part of SHGs also worked towards critically eliminating many social biases emanating from caste and class which they had also internalized being a part of the same wider social fabric. Initially the women from the Rathodia caste (OBC) were reluctant to sit with the Dalit women of the Valmiki community. They would object to eating or drinking food prepared in Valmiki households stating “ussghatka hum khaatenahihain” meaning “we do not eat from that part of the village”. However, the IGSSS team persistently addressed this issue in its trainings through modules on social awareness. The origins and operations of caste system were discussed with women to convey the message of equality of all human beings.

 

The management structure of the cooperative was also planned in a manner that each and every woman in the community had access and opportunity to participate in the governance of the cooperative in a democratic manner. The general body of the cooperative was composed of individual women from the village who bought a share of the cooperative and became a member. Out of the shareholders, 11 members were elected through an election process as the office bearer who formed the governing body of the cooperative also known as cooperative committee. This committee assembles and selects the office bearers i.e. President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer on the basis of managerial skills and knowledge and who can voluntarily spend time and energy on running of the cooperative. The office bearers appoint the internal auditor and advisory committee advises the cooperative committee in their decision making and policy direction. Besides, a larger village representative body consisting of one woman from each village is formed. These members are nominated by the villagers themselves to the cooperative and they represent the credit needs and development issues of the given village at the cooperative level.

 

The cooperative committee and the representative committee meet every month in a different village and conduct the business of the cooperative. It is the complete responsibility of the given village unit (SHGs) in rotation to arrange the cooperative meetings and coordination everything with the cooperative. The cooperative credits are given for the priorities fixed by the committee such as seasonal needs of agriculture, education of the children, clearing the old debts, building houses, starting small business and also for addressing the issues of health and for social and other emergency needs. Elections take place to elect representatives in the Executive Committee (EC) and the EC becomes involved in the selections for other designated office bearers. The cooperative functions independently managed by the cooperative committee selected by the local community members from the SHGs.

 

A significant transitional moment for the cooperative came when the cooperative members set up a production unit in 2014, under which the production team would prepare and supply nutritious supplementary food to 154 Anganwadi centers (AWCs) in Waghodiya block. As per the plan around 47,000 nutritional mix packets will be prepared by the women of the cooperative on a daily basis and thus the unit met the nutrition needs for 6546 women, 5702 children and 1294 adolescent girls, totaling 13542 beneficiaries. This intervention provided direct employment to 20 women and indirect employment to 15 families who were involved in transportation and in packing the nutritional mix. These women were selected by the cooperative members who come from marginalised families headed by single women and widows. Most of the women are in the 35-45 years age group. The programme is being implemented in coordination with the Gujarat Livelihood Program Committee (GLPC) and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) department. Nutritious food is provided to the Anganwadi centres under the government sponsored Take Home Ration (THR) initiative. Thus, the SHGs strategically supported by IGSSS have also successfully aligned with government stakeholders to create a convergence model of development.

 

Emboldened by the economic enhancement, the women also started taking keen interest in social issues and actively participated in the village development processes. Its impact was quite visible when these women successfully dealt with issues pertaining to hygiene and sanitation; in several villages the group members even negotiated with the local government functionaries in setting up adequate drainage system and drinking water facilities. The women also took significant steps towards dealing with the issue of caste based discrimination and girl child education.

 

The SHGs provided an alternative source of credit to many Dalit women who were otherwise taken as bonded labour to pay back the borrowed amount to the upper caste traders. The SHGs not only succeeded in liberating marginalized castes from the vicious cycle of chronic debt, but also created a reflexive process among the women members to free themselves of such biases. Today, these SHGs comprising of women members from both upper and lower castes, have initiated dialogues between both the groups has gone a long way in breaking barriers. The SHGs have also come to be inclusive towards religious minority women who were for a long time completely left out of developmental processes. Thus, the collectivization of women has worked towards rupturing if not subverting, the intersectional hierarchies of gender, caste and religion.

 

The same understanding further trickled down to the families of these women. The women members took similar steps to encourage girl child education. They initially set an example by sending their own daughters to schools and then conducted a door to door campaign and meetings with the families to send their girls to school. Their crusade is also going on against other social evils such as alcoholism and domestic violence, issues which for a long time have been impeding the development of their villages. One of the most significant changes has been in the attitude of men towards women’s agency and empowerment. The men, who used to be highly skeptical and disapproving of women’s participation in SHG activities five years ago, today have come forward to support the cooperatives.

 

The intervention led by the SHG women has created a long lasting impact in the lives of the targeted population. The changes seen are in: livelihood generation, social transformation and above all towards empowering the women. The villagers themselves have realized the transformation that they have undergone and experienced. Not only has their standard of living changed, but the quality of life has also been affected through the initiative. It is evident that the women have taken a lead in decision making; they are no longer mere silent listeners but are alternatively voicing for rights. Few desired, critical and anticipated changes through the project interventions have manifested through running their own production unit and taking control of supplying quality nutritional feed to their children and young mothers.

 

This empowering transitional journey of the women SHG members of the waghodiya block, who were once confined under their veils and evolved as decision makers in their own lives, negotiating for space in the larger developmental process is very well summed up by the words of Neeruben, one of the cooperative member, “It is only the men whose names you find on everything – on properties, house, land, all assets and even on the vessels…But we women will write our names on the whole sky and here we are, beginning from our own homes and villages”.