Abstract: The following article highlights the key components to women’s SHGs activities and how they have raised themselves to become empowered women of the society. It briefly analyses the economic growth that has taken place due to their commitment to move up the social ladder by breaking all possible barriers. Their fight for justice has finally taken a place in the gender disparity issues found in the Indian community.
Keywords: Self Help Groups (SHGs), personal growth, women’s empowerment, social upward mobility, breaking barriers, revolution, watershed management, fight for justice
A Commitment and a Way of Life
The success of the SHG movement rests entirely on the leadership provided by the sahayogini (grass-roots worker). The work is strenuous and hard, involving considerable travelling, and poor remuneration. The sahayoginis, who also hail from similar backgrounds as the women they serve, find the movement satisfying and see it as a process of personal growth as seen in the story narrated here.
A young Muslim woman in Bhandara district was appointed as a sahayogini. Enjoying the challenges of the work and the opportunities it presented to serve other women, she refused a better-paying teaching job. More importantly, she refused marriage proposals until she met a man who could appreciate the value of her work as a sahayogini and also agreed to relocate to Bhandara so that she could continue to work.
Appreciating her dedication, her prospective husband gave up his lucrative business as a contractor in the nearby town to move back into the village. He continues to support her work and looks after their daughter when she is in the field.
Women’s Initiative in Watershed Management
An important aspect of the SHG movement is getting women out of the home into the public domain.
This involvement of women in community welfare activities contributes significantly towards changing community perceptions about them. The ways by which women’s power can transform society is evident in the following story:
Two SHGs of Kharanja Taluka, Wardha District, came together to construct the Vanrai dam. They discussed the project with the Block Development Authority (BDO), the Panchayat Samiti and the Technical Officer of the watershed development programme.
Subsequently, they submitted a tender for the construction of the dam. When the tender was accepted, the SHG members along with the cooperation of the community constructed the dam. They are now eager to take other such similar projects for the development of their village.
Breaking Barriers: Understanding Differences
The formation of women’s collectives cutting across caste and religious barriers helps to establish communal harmony.
This is because for the first time, women step out of their private locations in the home to mediate relationships irrespective of the wishes of their families. This appreciation of the ‘other’ that women achieve through their participation in the collective, helps to build understanding and friendship, as seen in a small village in Bhandara district. This village was prone to frequent communal tensions. The SHG movement has built bridges across communities.
The women are more understanding of each other and appreciate the cultural differences. For instance, respecting the religious sentiments of the Sahayogini – a Muslim—they remind her when it is time to perform namaz and remain respectfully silent when she says her prayers.
A Silent Revolution
The SHG movement has the capacity to initiate the upward mobility in poor households Anusuya Priram Ushke, had always believed that her socio-economic location as a poor tribal agricultural worker with only second standard education had placed her outside the development process. The introduction of the SHG movement in Bandara gave her hope.
Apart from enabling her to improve her economic status, she felt that the programme had given her a different worldview. She now devotes her time to her children’s education, particularly her daughter’s education. She believes that education is like the third eye: for it enables one to have a vision of a different future.
Saying No to Alcohol
The emerging women’s power through the SHG movement can transform families.
In the Sharadah Chikani village of Chandrapur district, the women found that the husbands of some of the members under the influence of alcohol would attempt to disrupt their meetings. Fed up with this nuisance, the women decided to put an end to alcohol. They protested against the sale of alcohol and have succeeded in ensuring the closure of the government retail liquor shop. However, the women are not happy with their success as they feel that they are unable to ensure the closure of the private liquor shops, as such shop keepers are dangerous and might threaten them.
Women’s Fight for Justice
The consciousness-raising programmes conducted through the SHG movement can empower women to fight for justice as indicated in this story from Talodi village, Chandrapur District.
The community was fairly well integrated. This peaceful life of the village was disrupted when two men accosted a new bride and raped her. The entire community was shocked with the incident. Nonetheless, the men in the village were reluctant to file a police complaint. The complainant, encouraged by the support she received from the SHGs in the village, filed a police complaint. The SHG women escorted the complainant to the police station and ensured that the complaint was filed. Overwhelmed by their collective strength, the police arrested the accused and investigated the crime. This was the beginning of women’s fight for justice and right to intervene in the public spaces.
Looking Beyond the Confines of the Home
Through participation in the SHG Movement, women acquire a broader vision of live. They then (as seen in the story of Sugrabai, an illiterate agricultural worker in the Nandurbar Village of Singnapur) work for the larger good of society.
Sugrabai was initially sceptical of the SHG movement and rather reluctantly joined it. Her participation, however, initiated a process of personal growth. She was able to purchase 6 goats with the loan she could now get from the bank and improve her financial conditions. This economic improvement in her life helped to raise her aspirations for her children. Realising the importance of education and vocational skills, she encouraged her daughter who had dropped out of school to go for tailoring classes. She feels that her daughter should have better opportunities in life.
Sugrabai, like the other women in the village, were troubled with the lack of safe drinking water. She therefore took the initiate or organising them to look into the problem. Raising the question in the village assembly, Sugrabai along with the other women in the village followed up the matter in the Block Development Office until bore wells were sunk in the village. Her success has meant that the villagers voted her as a member of the village panchayat. She now serves as a deputy sarpanch.
VEENA POONACHA. Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.