Indian women write their story of self-reliance - and empowerment

July 26th, 2008 - 5:12 pm ICT by IANS  

By Shyam Pandharipande
The barely literate homemaker struggled everyday to feed her husband and two children with only a small patch of land in the drought-hit belt of India’s Maharashtra state to depend on. But Sita Bai Moite was determined to make a better life for her children and delved into her kitchen to come up with a recipe for success - supplying pickle, candy and other products to retailers. Sita Bai, who has studied only till Class 4, got together with 10 other women to supply products made of the Indian gooseberry, called amla, to retailers big and small in an enterprise locally called ‘bachat ghats’, literally saving banks, financed by small household savings.

Sita Bai, 32, who her colleagues say keeps an excellent book of accounts, started with just Rs.200 (about $5). Today she has applied for a bank loan and does organic farming too.

“Now my whole family is working along with me. My husband has also joined in. We make amla candy, amla hair oil, soap and pickle,” she said proudly.

It’s a story being replicated all over the country. Hundreds of thousands of women in India’s many villages have broken the bonds of gender and literacy to write their own story of self-reliance and empowerment by pooling their resources through self help groups (SHGs). These SHGs provide the platform for the women to use their talents and reach out to the world outside.

Sita Bai from Vidarbha region in western India - a cotton-rich region stalked by falling farm incomes and farmer suicides in the last few years - is just one of those who has benefited from the SHG structure.

Typically, each SHG has 10 to 20 women who contribute small amounts up to Rs.50 (just over $1) per month. Banks offer loans to the groups against the savings and women who work diligently, earn up to Rs.3,000 (approx $70) a month.

They are helped by initiatives like Yashaswini started by parliamentarian Supriya Sule under the aegis of a trust, Yashwantrao Chavan Pratishthan, based in India’s financial hub and the capital of Maharashtra state Mumbai. From marketing their products to small street corner groceries in towns and villages to supplying mega retail chains like Big Bazaar, the initiative is helping thousands of women to climb the ladder of success. And helping them brave all the odds, even physical disability.

Sealing a deal with Big Bazaar for marketing SHG products through its malls in the state, Sule’s Yashaswini coordinators recently held a series of campaigns, calling them Yashaswini Yatra at the Big Bazaar superstores in six cities in Maharashtra.

The tie-up envisages the sale of select Yashaswini SHG products like pickle, spices, snacks and condiments apart from handicrafts and utility items from Big Bazaar counters.

Similar arrangements are being worked out with other retail chain companies like Reliance, Spencer’s and Subhiksha, Sule said.

“The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity as far as the marketing endeavour is concerned,” Sule said when asked about the number of SHGs in the Yashaswini network. “The ultimate aim is women’s empowerment through productive activities, education and life insurance.”

Sule and her well-knit team of coordinators are aware of the need for skill development of poor, uneducated rural women in production and packaging if the project has to succeed.

While the quality of the products and packaging on display through the Yashaswini campaigns shows the women have acquired the necessary training through various agencies, the Yashaswini network is taking care of the marketing aspect.

“But we have plans to start our own training facilities too in tandem with Big Bazaar,” Yashswini coordination committee member Pragati Patil said.

State-sponsored women empowerment through SHGs is a two-decade old phenomenon in Maharashtra though the new, privately run Yashaswini initiative is going ahead of the former in achieving a smart urban market outreach through big retail chains.

The Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM), working under the state government’s women and child welfare department, has already touched the lives of 700,000 women in 13,036 villages through 56,000 SHGs. These are apart from over 10,000 SHGs in urban areas attached to municipalities.

“Together, these SHGs have mustered saving of Rs.850 million ($19.8 million) and banks are happy to support them because of their prompt repayment,” said MAVIM development officer Balkrishna Sapkal.

What’s more, SHGs often help banks in making loan recoveries from the rural men-folk, he added.

The bustling Big Bazaar mall in Nagpur, about 160 km from India’s commercial capital Mumbai, is the stage of more such success stories being played out.

Sangita Banait, for instance, who dished out a small bowl of semolina stew, or upma, to all visitors just so they could sample her pickle - and be tempted to buy of course.

“No, this is not for sale; it is complimentary,” she told each one with a broad, welcoming smile. “I want you to taste from a range of pickles I have; but how will you eat it just like that?”

Of the 250-odd members of women’s SHGs drawn mainly from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region at the Big Bazaar mall in Nagpur, Sangita, all of three feet, stood the tallest with her resolve to start a venture to support other physically challenged women.

“I am looking for a loan to buy the necessary equipment to manufacture food products and train handicapped women in preparing, packaging and marketing food stuff so they can find their own means of livelihood rather than be dependent on anybody,” said Sangita standing on a stool behind her stall.

Sangita, who has studied at the industrial training institute in Wardha, and Sita Bai embody the confidence and verve behind the SHG concept - where women from low education, low income strata network to engage in a range of productive activities to empower themselves and support their families.

Sangita and Sita Bai and their many compatriots - truly the protagonists of a modern day fairytale of empowerment and enterprise.

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