Women's Empowerment

If by strength is meant moral power,then woman is immeasurably man’s superior
-    Mahatma Gandhi

Starting in the early 1980s, Prof Jajoo realized that economic prosperity ushered into the villages with the various programme’s was not trickling down to women folks. The question on how to empower women to be an integral part of holistic rural health experience was the beginning of this journey aimed for upliftment of women in rural communities surrounding Sevagram. This narrative details how small self-help women groups started in villages surrounding sevagram grew over time so as to provide women a voice within the workings of the villages. This amazing exercise in self- empowerment and financial betterment for women shaped is a testament to overturn the existing paradigm and dogmas in current society.

Women Empowerment

Scope of the problem…

‘After much introspection, a realization dawned on me that despite attempts to improve women’s health (Women's Health programme) starting in the early 1980s and the economic prosperity ushered into the villages with the various programmes, the benefit was not trickling down to women.’ said Prof Jajoo.

He added that ‘Women continue to face unjust social inequalities in rural India despite being hard-working. In this social milieu where women are still considered inferior to men, are considered dispensable, and where the birth of a female child is considered as the mother’s fault, the social dimension had to be improved.’

Dada Dharmadhikari, the renowned Gandhian, referred to women as the ‘the proletariat of the proletariat’, meaning the poorest and defenseless among the poor landless labour families.

A realization dawned that a different direction was needed. ‘We realized that mere economic progress without social and moral change can destroy the social fabric of society. The economic engine should rest on the moral foundation of its members.’ said Prof. Jajoo.

He added that ‘We felt that inculcation of moral values could become possible with women’s organization so as to be leading defenders of morality in social culture.  In today’s society women had to find their voice and promote action together which formed the basis of programmes aimed to empower women to be an integral part of holistic rural health experience.’

The birth of women Self Help Groups -a microfinance ecosystem

Around the time when women were joining hands in Bangladesh and Andhra Pradesh to form Self-Help Groups (SHGs), a similar initiative was started in the programme. Prof Jajoo said ‘Our prior experience had clearly taught us that bringing people together for mere material self-interest destroys faith and promotes power mongering. We decided early on in the experience to build SHGs as an exercise in both financial and moral self-support.’

 This was created by having a welfare scheme that avoided target-driven government subsidies, caste segregation or working for people below specific poverty thresholds.

The early days….

Prof. Jajoo, in his late night meetings with the villagers under the Health Assurance Scheme, got feedbacks about the default on loans from banks by menfolk. For quite some time, the thought of elevating the status of women had been occupying his mind. With a masterstroke, he broached the idea of Self-help groups for women, in meetings at different villages. The enthusiastic villages fulfilling the criteria were enrolled for the same.

Nuts and bolts…

Self-help women groups with a maximum strength of 20 members began taking roots in various villages surrounding sevagram. This was started as an unregistered body run entirely on faith, cooperation and mutual trust among its women members. The goal of this group was to operate bank account with savings as small as 10 rupees per month for financial transactions. Over the years, micro-financing within the group was created by increasing credit worthiness and bank credits for individual needs.

Women EmpowermentThis group nominated members as office bearer who were designated as organizer, record keeper, accountant, signatories of bank account and switched roles every three years. A code of conduct was formulated with participation from all members. To create the right group dynamics only those groups that followed the code of conduct were considered eligible for the benefits, under Health Assurance.

Women came together, pooled their meager resources and inculcated a culture of decision making by consensus and mutual faith. To keep a track of transactions, cheques were introduced to ensure a paper trail and all decisions were made by participation and co-operation. Men were strictly prohibited from interfering in this issue.

The SHGs applied their experiential learning to improve themselves. Various SHGs from different villages meet together at least once a year to share and learn from their common experiences. As group dynamics improved, the SHGs gave a common platform for group members to share their worries, problems and agony as  they searched for meaningful solutions.

The momentum builds…

Prof. Jajoo came up with a novel way to enhance participation by linking participation in the SHG scheme to the already popular Jowar Health Assurance scheme. He said ’We modified the popular Jowar Health Assurance scheme, such that participation in the SHG was one of the four mandatory criteria set forth for participating in the Jowar Health Assurance scheme. Merely satisfying earlier criteria of 75% participation or partners in community based activities like one-house-one latrine scheme, lift-irrigation scheme, etc was no longer applicable for eligibility now. Surprisingly, despite these changes, an ever increasing participation in the SHGs was noticed.’

shgAs the SHG movement gained momentum and its track record and credibility improved, banks started to extend credit and over five years some groups which were transparent in their financial transactions, doubled the credit extended every successive year. Prof. Jajoo mentions ‘We came up with novel ways to provide incentives women to continue participation in the SHGs by offering 12 percent compound interest per year (which no bank or post office offers) on their share of savings and it represented the best investment vehicle, readily available in the village.’

Secondly a common pool was raised out of extra interest earned. As the credit rating for the SHGs improved the bank were ready to extended credit at much lower rates of 12% per year. The group in turn could loan it at a higher rate of 36% thus bringing in additional revenues to the SHGs. After offering compound interest of 12% on the member share, the rest was kept in a revolving fund owned by the entire group which could be be utilized for (a) microfinancing, (b) boosting credit linkages with banks, (c) funding common programmes, educative camps, study tours, and meditation camp. Some groups could extend loans for as much as rupees fifty thousand per member.

Prof. Jajoo recalls ‘We saw firsthand the true benefit of this SHG scheme and the milestones achieved for women self- empowerment and betterment. Families having difficulty in the past obtaining loans due to prior defaults became active participating members of the scheme.’ He added ‘Many families were liberated from the grasp of money lenders, who charged exorbitant rates of upto 10% or more per month. With the corpus swelling, the income generated out of the interest started taking care of the loan requirements itself. Crop loans also brought out a significant shift in the status of women in the family as they changed from being the oppressed to the breadwinner of the family.’