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 that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity, to avoid recognizing the problem and finding the solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility, but in fact charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. It allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor.
What is needed is that we tap the innate talent of each individual and provide capital for setting up a small business When we place capital in the hands of women, especially low-income women it works wonders – unlocking her entrepreneurial impulses. We help empower not just women, but the communities in which they live. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skills to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle..They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism.
Several factors converge to sometimes make poverty almost inescapable. Often the cycle is transmitted from generation to generation. One overarching lesson from the past few decades of research about how to break the cycles of poverty is that these interventions must make women the center of their focus. They need training in a large range of skills that makes the issues confronting them navigable. In several classes, poverty stems from the limitations of the poor and is largely impervious to outside intervention.
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 set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems are known as self-help groups. 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
In my microfinance journey, I have served thousands of women at the base of the financial and social pyramid giving them access to financial services without asking for any formal collateral. Women proved to be responsible and dynamic in their approach. They began earning, planning and investing back into their families. Providing investment capital for additional income generation unlocks their capacity to solve many, if not all, of the manifestations of poverty that affect their lives. The poor are no different from other small entrepreneurs in that managerial advice and access to business networks can make the difference between success and failure. Services alone are not enough.
Women who had so far been diffident and withdrawn gradually shed their earlier reticence and stepped out of the four walls of their homes to acquire an identity of their own. Their concern for development fluttered everywhere. The heroic stories of tenacious women scripting tales of economic success are great signs of a brighter tomorrow. I found that women had furrowed the male-dominated power-grid in villages and self help groups were heaving up the whole foundation. Beginning in the benign area of health, the women slowly gained confidence and moved on to other social areas .They began asking for change from the bus conductor, demanded the presence of a school teacher and expected proper services from village officials.
Kalpana was a gibbering widow who firmly spurned charitable dollops from village elite and preferred to work on the farm to eke out her living. Self help groups have afforded her a chance to rebuild her life. “For once the bank seems to understand that the poor know better how to help clients out of poverty; they only need to be able to make their choices” surmises Kalpana in a deadpan voice that hides the twinkle in her eyes .
I visited a Charurkhat ,a village in Maharashtra , a month away from the rainy season. The villagers were getting their fields ready. Equipped with agricultural tools, the women who were trained measured the fields and estimated the quantities of fertilizers, insecticides and weed-killers that were needed. Others observed and got trained on the job. “Our objective is to gain perfect mastery of all the basic agricultural techniques,” said Sunanda, a dynamic new farmer. Accounts were maintained meticulously and the cash value of all borrowed inputs was calculated and paid up later.
Each shareholder had an individual account and loans taken were noted down. “This way, we are sure not to find ourselves with inflated bills after the harvests,” Sunanda explained, adding, “We make it a matter of principle to pay back the money that was lent to us to the last penny. We do not want to discourage those who trusted us.” The village men were unanimous in their admiration. “We have been surprised by their rigorous management and the output of their fields,” they remarked. In their determination to become self-reliant, the women had collected savings, which, complemented by a small government loan, was to help them set up a bore well equipped with a pump.
If you go to Charurkhati today, you will find that life in the village quite different from what it was a few years ago. Not substantially richer, because there is still drought, no industry save rain-fed agriculture—but the overall quality of life is better. There’s a bank, a school, biogas plants; farmers drive around on motorcycles. Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such as sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses. The fields are heavy with grain.
A compelling message is that if we want to chip away at poverty there’s no magic bullet, that helping people is much harder than it looks. They must realize that a “one size fits all” policy has often failed in India because of the country’s diversity. Small pilot successes do not signal readiness for an all-India implementation. 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. 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 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 decades .He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org