How Poor Women Are Taking Charge Of Their Future


If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones. John Steinbeck

The Indian women farmer, almost never publicly acknowledged, reviled by superstition and patriarchy, and increasingly troubled by entrenched social and cultural mores and taboos bears the real burden of farm labour. Nearly 98 million Indian women have agricultural jobs, but around 63% of them, or 61.6 million women, are agricultural labourers, dependent on the farms of others, according to 2011 Census data. There has been a 24% increase in the number of female agricultural labourers, from 49.5 million in 2001 to 61.6 million in 2011. Reflecting growing distress in Indian agriculture, millions of women have gone from being land owners and cultivators to becoming labourers over a decade

Poverty and vulnerability are not purely economic phenomena reflecting what people have; they are also social phenomena reflecting who they are and what are the everyday tragedies they have to cope with .We must remember that most poor  live on the edge, in constant fear of a catastrophe or tragedy.    The battle for women’s land rights in India pits progressive law against oppressive culture — and the culture has largely prevailed.  A study funded by the World Bank found that women own only 3.3 percent of the land in Odisha. Without title, female farmers acting on their own don’t have access to credit, subsidies, and government programs for seeds, irrigation or fertilizer. They cannot get loans and do not invest to improve their yields.  .

A raft of interventions have been initiated to empower these women .Multiple strategies have to be deployed in concert because it is now a fact that there is no one-size-fits –all mechanism. One of the ambitious programmes for empowering women through membership of a collective is the self help group.  A typical Indian self help group consists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds who meet once a month to pool savings.  Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions. That ensures social pressure to repay . I was completely blown as I listened to the stories of these tenacious women. They have sophisticated credit algorithms: “Does the woman own a buffalo? Some chickens? Does she have a toilet in her home? What kind of roofing material does her home have? Does she bring a shawl to the village meeting? Does she come barefoot to the meeting, or does she wear slippers? Do her children come to the school properly washed and dressed?”

Our experience of working with poor women emphasises the fact that work is their foremost priority, around which their lives revolve. As they say, “If we work, we survive.” The women have the drive, ambition, and capability to create streams of income for themselves, but they often need a lump sum to get started. Through the group all manner of self-employment—sewing, delivering small items, making handicrafts—could be facilitated with a small amount of capital for a sewing machine, a bicycle, or tools. The mere act of leaving the isolation of family compounds and joining the weekly peer group discussions increase women’s confidence and motivation.

India’s flagship social programme National Rural Livelihoods Mission   has self help groups as its amoeba units and focuses on the formation of institutions of the poor and the aggregation of those institutions beyond the community level. The institutions and their aggregate federations will form an institutional platform—from the self‐help group to the district—with the scope and scale to leverage resources from the public and private sector and to interact favorably with markets.  These platforms create an ecosystem for innovation where the poor work together and with external agents to identify problems and design solutions

When Laxmi, in a depleted village of Charurkhati in Chandrapur, had first held Rs. 500 in her hands, they had trembled. It was money that gave strength to her hands, changed her life, and that of thirty other women in the village who had been rooted to a patch of soybean that glowed like emerald and scorched their bare feet. Laxmi’s eyes filled with tears while telling us that, as a widow, she couldn’t provide her four children with enough to eat. Today, although finances are tight, Laxmi and her family are getting back on their feet. “I’ve always wanted a better life but didn’t know what to do, but now I have this mushroom-growing skill and can support my family. Why didn’t you people come three years earlier?” she asks playfully. She did not have much else to look forward to and was expected to go on in the same way miserable way all her life.  . Fear of poverty and respect for society keep many women locked in bad marriage, as does the prospect of losing custody of their children. In a life bound to realities beyond the grasp of man, there was little room for an identity to emerge. Most important, Laxmi’s reputation for honesty made people adore her. Incidentally her name also means honesty. In a village where honesty was in short supply I was glad to see a woman who was respected just because her only wealth was honesty.

Experience worldwide shows that when   a woman receives money, her extended family usually benefits, as any profit percolates down and brings about the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people. We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change. For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: if we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women

Through exposure to various roles in these self help groups, 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”: “What can I say””My husband has gone out”, , “Let him come” or “He only knows”.

Women   have become a lot more savvier about how to marshal their forces and have a much  better knowledge of the system .While the base issues are the same, how we are dealing with them is different  .The demands of  women’s movement are getting more sophisticated, more detailed on what needs to be changed exactly.

The hallmark of any intervention for the poor is that it should stand on the following legs:  empathy, humility, compassion, conscience. 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 were difficult to scale up. The measure of success is always relative to the native culture, which is why it’s so important to work with local groups who are part of the culture and thus know what success looks like .As Bill Clinton noted during his presidency, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.” The frustration is that, “we can’t seem to replicate [those solutions] anywhere else.” 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 [email protected]

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