BY CHAITANYA SINGHANIA
The women stand in six clusters of 15 or so people. Blue saris, with folds as wrinkled as their wearers’ foreheads, cascade down their torsos. A few women raise their palms to shade their faces from the piercing summer sunlight. In the distance, behind the mud-brick huts of the village of Kothakondapalli rolling green hills gently rise.
Mr. Doraian, the field director of Srinivasan Services Trust (SST) for villages in this South Indian region, points with his right arm towards the women. The problem, he says, began “when they started earning more than their husbands.”
A financially independent woman is unheard of in many Indian villages. Women there typically perform low-paying, labor intensive jobs, if they are not wholly detained by domestic duties. But small savings communities called self-help groups are liberating women from their traditional confinement. Mushrooming across the nation, these groups provide women with additional income and empower them to break free from financial dependence on their husbands.
Financial empowerment also strengthens the role of women in the public sphere, by providing them with recognition and credibility within their communities. For the first time ever in many villages, women are finding their voices. But the self-help group model, as it is at present, stops short of addressing deeper forms of oppression: domestic violence, abuse, and rape. Financial empowerment does not translate into liberation within the home—not until the current model undergoes some revision.
Twelve years ago, women in Kothakondapalli worked as dairy farmers or corner-store clerks, Doraian said. They earned, at most, around $40 a month—about half the amount their husbands earned. Many were not permitted to even leave their homes. But since SST’s entrance into their village has transformed their lives.
SST encouraged women to join self-help groups. This NGO’s self-help groups began to generate income by running chapatti (Indian bread) factories from the village hall. Each woman contributes eight five-hour shifts of work per week to churn out 450,000 chapattis per month. But the chapatti production, like all self-help group activity, was secondary work for these women, bringing in about 60 dollars every month. Traditional occupations provided them with 50 to 100 dollars per month. Soon the women started earning nearly 60 percent of their households’ income.
The bread-makers became the breadwinners.
Kothakondapalli’s local village government, the panchayat, was not pleased by this subversion of societal structures. The panchayat kicked the women out of the village hall, claiming that no income-generating activities could be conducted on public property.
But the women were persistent. They met with the district’s chief government offcer, sought approval to purchase land, and asked the government to build them a “factory” (flat-roofed white huts). With a smile growing across his face, Doraian said, “They now supply chapattis to all the major factories in the vicinity.” He added that they even “manage their own accounts, supplies and marketing.”
Self-help groups function as microcredit enterprises: They provide women with a store for their savings and a source for loans. When an NGO enters a new region, it organizes interested women into a handful of self-help groups. A self-help group, which typically consist of 10 to 20 women, starts off slowly—with individual members contributing as little as a few pennies to the group’s fund. Once the group accumulates enough money, it starts lending to its members. The interest rates of SST-affliated self-help groups’ can be as low as a fifth of what local lenders offer, Ashoke Joshi, Chairman of SST, told me. The low interest rates free group members from the binds of indebtedness to local moneylenders.
After six months of stable operations, the self-help group becomes eligible for government and local financial support. It receives about $200 (Rs. 10,000) as a grant from the government, as well as about $300 (Rs. 15,000) as a loan from a local bank. Many NGOs encourage their self-help groups to capitalize on this additional funding by initiating various traditional activities—ranging from honey collection to basket weaving—to generate additional income. The women in Kothakondapalli, like most rural women and unlike most rural men across the nation, use the extra income to fund their children’s education.
Founding a productive self-help group, however, is far from easy. Villages are skeptical of outsiders such as NGOs providing advice, and women have qualms about balancing self-help groups with familial responsibilities. But in many Indian villages, the greatest obstacles often come from within the home—from the women’s husbands.
In traditional Indian marriages, the husband is the source of income. When self-help groups subvert this tradition, Indian husbands can become unsettled. These men, noted Golda Calonge, a social worker who worked with SST this past summer, “might not be used to [the women] exercising their independence.”
Enter SST’s ‘animators.’ These are local village-dwellers, employed to form the bridge between the NGO and the community. Animators’ close ties to the village make them especially sensitive to cultural and familial norms. With animators’ support, women successfully overcome societal constraints and join self-help groups.
“They don’t try to indoctrinate people or falsify any kind of development,” Calonge said. “They truly are so sensitive to family dynamics and to cultural nuances that people come around and they’re willing to try and learn.” It is this sensitivity that distinguishes SST from other NGOs that rural communities often perceive as preachy outsiders with their own selfish agendas—oftentimes reminiscent of their forefathers’ tales about imperialists.
The process of surmounting societal resistance might be the most significant component of a self-help group’s work.
“The amount of savings isn’t as important as that feeling of ‘I actually have control over my life,” remarked Kimberley Wilson, a lecturer at Tufts University’s Fletcher School who has studied and written on self-help groups in India. By helping women overcome societal conventions, sensitive animators direct SST’s self-help group members towards this feeling of control and confidence.
Financial empowerment also provides women with societal recognition. “When the women come together as a group and they have financial clout, the men folk have understood that they’re also an important part of the community,” Joshi said to me. As citizens that contribute financially to the community, self-help group members gain a voice in the village’s affairs. On occasion, Joshi observed, they even enter the panchayat. That women can enter the panchayat—the very body that typically provides the most resistance to self help groups—exemplifies self-help groups’ ability to empower women outside the home.
Despite the financial and societal empowerment self-help groups provide women, many of these women still face oppression within the home. SST officials tell me that domestic violence continues to pose a challenge. In a nation where as many as 84 percent of women are subject to domestic violence, the rural Indian women’s struggles will persist unless empowerment extends into the household.
Barefoot College has accepted the challenges domestic inequality poses for women. The College is an NGO that, like SST, works to cultivate sustainable rural development, but with a greater focus on grassroots, localized, ‘barefoot’ solutions. It is also three times older than SST. Offcials at the NGO claim to have found a solution to domestic violence. The key is honest, open communication, even on taboo subjects: In Barefoot’s Women’s Groups, women sit on the floor together barefoot and discuss everything from wage issues to alcoholic husbands to rape.
Barefoot established these women’s groups in 1981, before anyone was considering empowering women in the conservative, once feudal and warlord-dominated desert state of Rajasthan in the northeastern corner of India. Mr. Ramkaran, coordinator of Barefoot’s women’s development, told me that they encouraged women to discuss “matters of the heart” publicly.
Barefoot succeeded in 1985, when— at a festival organized by the NGO to encourage public, open, communication on women’s issues—a grandfather from a nearby village took center-stage with his 17-year-old daughter. He stood in front of the 3,000-strong crowd present and announced that his daughter had been raped.
All 3,000 women present at the festival then marched to the district police headquarters, occupied the building’s porch, and threatened to hold ground until the police wither forced them to move or arrested the rapist. The women sat there, singing slogans and chanting demands, until, at six in the evening, the police took the rapist into custody.
On the third day of the festival, the women, for the first time, discussed rape. Understanding the need for communication, the women conducted a workshop on the matter. Women that had once called rape “dirty and impure” were thrust into discussions about the heart of the issue. Since then, every women’s group has openly discussed issues such as rape and alcoholism, Ramkaran told me. The numbers reveal Barefoot’s success: 1987 itself saw thirty rape cases in Barefoot’s region of operation; since 1987, there has been a total of two.
After three decades of running women’s groups, Ramkaran observes more men appearing at—and cooperating with—women’s group discussions. He noted, “Now, men and women sit together, work together and take decisions together.” This—men’s presence at discussions about sensitive, taboo topics—is Barefoot’s greatest achievement. By encouraging men and women to sit together and discuss domestic problems, Barefoot’s women’s groups have created an unprec- edented, open channel of communication between the two genders. Open communication like this is perhaps the most promising path to ending domestic oppression.
Barefoot College and SST offer two—perhaps mutually exclusive—ways of empowering women. Ramkaran, for instance, avers that Barefoot’s women’s groups are incompatible with self-help groups. “Money and offcial positions destroy unity,” he told me. “Ours are issue-based groups.” Removing the monetary component lets the groups focus exclusively on honest, open dialogue, he believes. Open dialogue, he thinks, is the key to confronting domestic violence.
Kim Nasatir, a social worker who assisted at SST this past summer, disagrees that selfhelp groups cannot foster a space for open dialogue. Self-help groups already provide women with a close-knit community, and their discussions, Nasatir and Joshi both believe, often delve into personal problems. The self-help group community, their claim goes, can provide the perfect setting for discussions like those Barefoot encourages.
“If there was the encouragement to speak about things that are uncomfortable—encouraging at least a forum where people know that there’s confidentiality and support—that could exist within the structure” of self-help groups, Nasatir said to me.
This is where the animators have a greater role to play. Just as they sensitively support women to achieve financial independence through self-help groups, they can also guide women towards honest, open dialogue about issues that are socially taboo. Nasatir is confident that SST can expand the role of animators to include the domestic empowerment of women. This expansion of their role can turn social empowerment into an intentional, integral component—rather than a byproduct—of self-help groups’ work. If she is right, then the animators could play a vital role in bridging Barefoot and SST’s seemingly incompatible models.
The odds that Kothakondapalli’s women, on their own, will break deeper domestic societal boundaries are weak. Without external encouragement, change would take generations at least. But with animators’ guidance, the women’s self-help groups can turn into empowering hubs for dialogue. Given SST’s willingness to experiment and learn from other NGOs, an admirable lesson in itself for social innovators, they could achieve this goal within the next five years.
Given SST’s willingness to experiment and learn from others, they will likely bridge this gap within the next five years. Bridging this gap will not solve the rural Indian woman’s struggles entirely, but will advance towards this goal. If SST progresses at its current pace, we might, in a decade, see husbands sitting together with women at self-help group meetings. Then the eyes of Kothakondapalli’s women, looking into the sun, will gleam in the piercing light with hope for their children’s empowerment—and also their own.
Chaitanya Singhania ’16 is in Trumbull College. Contact him at chaitanya.singhania@ yale.edu. Interviews for this article were conducted in Hindi.