Give These Tenacious Women Some Flashlights



Woman must not accept; she must challenge. She must not be awed by that which has been built up around her; she must reverence that woman in her which struggles for expression.

– Margaret Sanger

Providing women with more and better opportunities to fulfill their social, economic, and political roles is now deemed so essential for reducing poverty and improving governance that women’s empowerment has become a development objective in its own right. In order for a woman to be empowered, she needs access to the material, human, and social resources necessary to make strategic choices in her life. Not only have women been historically disadvantaged in access to material resources like credit, property and money, but they have also been excluded from social resources like education. Aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. This spending creates a powerful ripple effect throughout society and across generations.

We have for long made paternalistic decision to “protect” these women, thereby eliminating their ability to solve issues that they face.  Why couldn’t they decide for themselves how to manage their own situation? Why couldn’t we equip them to   decide how they can take their own decisions? The key levers for change, from the ground up, are clearly female education and women’s access to income.

A very heartening development is that elected women heads of village councils are now gaining control and several of them are now able to bring about visible development. Most of these women are part of the social capital produced by the self help group movement. . A typical Indian self help groupconsists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds who meet once a month to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance 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. This phenomenon of “regular meetings” appears to be an important enabling force which gives the woman courage to “lean in”, in multiple household and community settings.

Rekha had already taken a loan for construction of a house and was not eligible for a business loan which she desperately needed. She was a reputed tailoring hand of the village but since her house was badly damaged she was not able to continue her business .She somehow managed to raise half the amount and the rest she took from the moneylender.

This would irrigate seedlings before the first rains fell, and also augment the drinking water supply to the village. Taking advantage of this, the women could sell their harvest in the market before the other farmers, and at better prices. These earnings, as they said, would “help improve the menus at home, help with purchase of medicines and clothes for the family.” This year, part of the profit had been used for the creation of a ten hectare vegetable garden, which produced tomatoes, cabbages, onions, lettuce and potatoes. Some of these were consumed locally, the rest were sold at weekly markets. Despite the success of their enterprise, the women still have several hurdles to cross, not least the traditional prejudices against women’s independence. For instance, most organizations giving agricultural loans prefer to give them to men. As the leader of the women farmers confided, “Till now we didn’t even have our own plough to work. We had to borrow it from the men. Sometimes we had to postpone the dates of ploughing.” The-women had therefore decided that the profits from the next harvest of the vegetable garden would-be used to buy ploughs. In the meantime, they did the work with their hands.

A borrower who lost her husband inherited a family of nine dependents. She had few remaining means of survival. Yet, through perseverance, she was able to create a web of entrepreneurial activities – from trading in baskets and foodgrains to animal raising and managing her own kiosk – that allowed her to send all the children to school and to clothe and feed them. How did she do this? Through microloans, through steady savings, even in times when saving was difficult, and by buying her way,

The self help groups have brought a new breeze of development for the poor women folk. “It all began with the savings group”, says Radhabai, an answer that seems simplistic. “Each of the women started collecting a rupee daily so that we could have an individual kitty of Rs. 30.  It was then pooled into group savings.  . With the savings we bought a loudspeaker that we rented out for marriages and festivals. We invested the money we earned.  We learnt to go to the bank, learnt to have forms filled, learnt to get loans. With the loans we got, each of us was able to start a small business. Some sold vegetables, some fish or bangles. Some bought a couple of goats and reared them while some bought tamarind trees and sold their fruit and wood. Some bought a sewing machine and started tailoring. In one village, women bought a large vessel that they rented out for large feasts. “ .

The membership of SHG has been an elixir for Radhabai. The self help groups have now spawned a number of small businesses. These stories have never panned out   and have rarely been documented .We can all learn a lot from what has not worked as well as from what has.

These stories tell us that aid is not always the necessary solution .Aid may sometimes not be viewed   as well as it should be. Aid is not responsible when it is used to patch up the effects of basic differences that are built into the structure and values of society. From this point of view, aid can sometimes be seen as actually accepting the injustices of society while trying to mitigate the results of the injustices.

When we design solutions that recognize the poor as clients   and equal participants in the development process and not as passive  recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty. If we cast a fresh look at the development landscape we find a compelling message. Lasting change comes about so slowly that you may not even notice it until one day people and Individuals don’t want to be taken care of – they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential .If we can inspire people around the world to think differently about what it means to be poor, then we will have made a real impact.

Ela Bhat, the founder of SEWA and one of India’s tallest social workers emphasizing the creative role of women in synthesizing 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. I consider women’s participation and representation an integral part of our peace process. Women will bring constructive, creative and sustainable solutions to the table.”

 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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