The ‘Feminine’ Capital of Kerala and Growth


Abstract: The emergence of the dominant Malayalee woman during the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium has served as a spur to the awakening of the ‘Feminine Capital’ of Kerala. This paper proposes to examine how this has become a significant factor in the human resources development in Kerala.

  Keywords: Malayalee women, Women development programmes, district women’s councils, Self Help Groups (SHGs), Kumdumbashree, Family Welfare Insurance,

The emergence of the dominant Malayalee woman during the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium has served as a spur to the awakening of the Feminine Capital of Kerala. This paper proposes to examine how this has become a significant factor in the human resources development in Kerala. This awakening has been very positive and fruitful because the Kerala development experience has incorporated activities like family planning and literacy campaigns that helped to create a general awareness among Malayalee women, releasing them from the burden of unnecessary motherhood, giving them much needed skills and capacity to read and understand what is happening around them in the political, social and economic spheres.

The development programs for Kerala women always had the general objective of improving their status, especially in the rural areas, so that their contribution to the natural economy and the well being of families would be enhanced. Women are now expected to play dual roles — in their homes and outside. Yet, there have been obstacles in their learning and earning capability. Earlier, they had little leisure with unequal access to health and nutrition. This necessitated the need for formulating programmes exclusively for women. The growing awareness that women also form a vital part of the human capital resource has helped to give them special attention as participants in the growth of Kerala’s economy. Population wise, women outnumber men. They have a low drop-out rate at school, leading to more positive growth. Higher literary rates are also seen among women than among men in Kerala.

Till recently these cultural and educational advantages of the women in Kerala had not been fully translated into their socio-economic upliftment or greater political participation. The high rate of unemployment among girls and wage discrimination are some of the factors that have had serious socio-economic consequences. When educated men from Kerala migrated in search of better jobs, girls in this state were generally unemployed because of traditional barriers. According to some social analysts, unpaid and unaccountable ‘invisible’ work, social insecurity and problems associated with the running of small units and other local factors worsened the situation for women.

In the early ‘development’ years of the last century, the son grew up with some kind of gender privileges to become the wage earner whether in farming, business or government service. The daughter would be trained in domestic chores and arts, as her business was to keep house and raise children. Many generations shared the house-space. Meekness was the girl’s greatest virtue. Personal achievements for girls were never considered and there were no academic expectations from girls or pressures in them as is understood today. But girls in Kerala had some kind of formal schooling unlike what was given to girls in other states.

The change came faster in the seventies and eighties of the last century when Kerala women started to enter the career fray. By the eighties the efficiency and determination of the Malayalee women transformed the work scenario. The nuclear family unit replaced the joint family groups. Two children became the fashion as women became college educated, many trained in professional courses. Two incomes made for higher standards of living. Informality and life-style changes replaced the relationship between parent and child.

The earlier development plans of Kerala for growth and development of the state had focussed on the different angles of women’s progress. But all this ended in financial assistance or subsidy to a particular group of women, rather than focussing on the substantial development of this group. In the decentralising context, about hundred percent of the budget allocation was set aside exclusively for projects for women. Yet, statistical surveys revealed that many Gram Panchayats had seldom set aside any amount, for women projects. Also the women projects prepared had been mostly confined to a few stereotyped activities like garment making, dairy and poultry farming, pickle and jam making, etc. Many women activists had pointed out that no full information had been gathered regarding the educational status, skills and the employment possibilities of the Malayalee women. This was one of the reasons why no area-specific women-development programmes had been prepared and implemented in Kerala. Lack of proper planning and monitoring of many poverty alleviation projects and programmes for women in Kerala which were started with great fanfare, led to very little success or ended up in failure, and disappointment. Given below are details of some of the pragrammes.

The Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) programmes was a much-publicised scheme for the economic and social growth of the women in the countryside. In this programme, the financial progress of families with special reference to women had been stressed. It sought to strengthen the income, sources of income and change in the attitudes in social behaviour of and towards women and children, in the rural areas. Here, women were to be guided and helped to work and increase family income and thus create general welfare. Help was extended to achieve this aim. Women under DWCRA were organised into groups, each with fifteen to twenty members. These organised groups were given training and financial help to enable them choose trades, which they knew and could do. Each group would have a family dynamic co-ordinator, who could encourage the working of the group. Such groups would be given up to Rs. 15000/- as financial help, if suitable industries were co-ordinated by them the United Nations Children’s Fund and the state government jointly extended such help. The finance thus organised was utilised as a revolving fund for profitable business, conducted by such groups. The group co-ordinate was given a memorial honorarium every month. The fund could also be used for children’s welfare.

Assistant project officers had been appointed in each district to coordinate and supervise the activities of DWCRA. They did this work for DWCRA as part of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) activities. Trained gram sevikas gave help and corporation to co-ordinate the work. DWCRA was started as a financial project in 1982-83 and spread to almost all the districts in Kerala, helping women in rural areas to attain some kind of financial independence. With the rise in financial status, the welfare of children in the form of better nutrition and better educational facilities also progressed. The leisure hours of the rural Malayalee women, were now productively employed in making simple but useful items, which could easily be sold, thus creating an extra income for the house hold. Banks gave easy loans to such groups. Bank aid, particularly under the IRDP formed about one-third of the financial help required by such groups. Both the Central government and the Reserve Bank of India had given advice and instructions to financial institutions on these lines. Because of this constructive and promotional attitude, many progressive and active women groups took shape in many parts of Kerala.

In spite of all this, the expected results were not fully attained. A survey had revealed that in DWCRA programmes, there had been very little follow-up action, after the setting up of a unit. Many such units were faced with problems of working capital management, lack of regular supply of raw materials, absence of management skills, lack of records and unsympathetic record keeping. In the area of marketing the products of these small time entrepreneurs had to face tough competition from private manufacturers and other established vendors. Even if the quality of the product was assured, there was the absence of a brand name, poor quality of packing, inability to sell on credit— all such handicaps affected the sound working of the units. Subsidy for such programmes often killed the initiative to produce and sell quality goods. There was little creativity and the producers were generally ignorant of the changes, which necessitated the need for redesigning their products based on demand. In many cases they tried to sell what they made, rather than make what was demanded. So many products were not sold because there was no market for information.

The Self Help Groups (SHGs) organised to aid such units, helped in areas like marketing where middle-men exploited the women groups, specially when the margin of such intermediaries went up to twenty percent of the consumer price. Also because of their low production capacity, the groups sold most of their products locally at low prices. Even with more optimistic production, collecting, centralising and transporting to the marketing centres posed a big constraint. In Alapuzha, three hundred and fifty all-women SHGs, locally called Neighbourhood Help Groups, had been promoted under the patronage of the Community Development Society (CDS). More than ten thousand very poor women organised themselves for productive activity. Although they started with very little, within a year and a half they could command lakhs of rupees. With the help of bank loans, they took up many income-generating activities and the repayment rate had been hundred percent. The grit and determination of these women had earned them the “We the People Award” instituted to commemorate the fiftieth (golden jubilee) of the United Nations. An extension of the SHGs had been the kudumbashree programme — one of the schemes to eradicate poverty. Most of the women-development programmes could do better with more group effort, involvement and participation of women at the various stages of project preparation and implementation.

Today the role and status of women in Kerala have improved much more than before as the Peoples’ Campaigns in the state has created tremendous scope for women’s welfare. The kudumbashree programme could do the needful, where rural women would get credit and be encouraged to undertake income-generating activities and generate more opportunities with easier rural lending, fostering group enterprises and mother units. A word must be added about the District Women’s Councils in Kerala. These organisations have almost all the women’s social service groups like MahilaSamajams, as their members, mainly through the Block Union MahilaSamajams (BUMS), which represent the organised groups of women specially at the grass-roots level. General voting at the block level chooses Presidents and Secretaries Panchayats elect their representatives for the BUMS, from which, later. These officials became members of the District Women’s Councils. These councils have as their President the District Collectors wife ex-offices. A general body composed of all its members elects the Secretary, Treasurer and the members of the Executive Committee (of the councils). The office-bearers help and organise the work of the Councils with the co-operation from the whole District. The work mainly consist of social service. To quote an example, the District Women’s Council, Thrissur has built a Working Women’s Hostel with the help of Central Government subsidy, given at various intervals, depending on the progress of the construction. The Hostel was inaugurated by honorary Minister Mrs. Susila Gopalan and is now running successfully. The building is situated near the Thrissur Collectorate with a Police Station and bus stop nearby.

During the Decade of the Women many meetings and seminars were organised by these District Women’s Councils, leading to the awakening of the women in Kerala. Several medical camps to help the general public with cooperation from several doctors and specialists organised by these Councils, have been conducted — many camps were also held to give practical help to the physically handicapped, help like free distribution hearing aids, artificial limbs, tricycles and wheel-chairs for very badly handicapped.

The coming of the kudumbakodathi, family court to Kerala has helped women to a great degree. Many real life stories can be quoted where justice has been administered to needy and destitute women. One such case is that of Mani, an old lady aged sixty-five, who became a destitute after her husband threw her out because he was interested in another woman and whose children refused to be responsible for her. After a long, legal battle at the kudumbakodathy, Mani’s husband was asked to give her Rs. 350/- as maintenance every month. But she does not get this maintenance allowance regularly as her husband is not regular as far as payment is concerned. She goes to court and stakes her claim and so she gets something off and on. Today she is a diabetic and lives in an old-age home run by the Kasthurba trust. She has to buy medicines, provide herself with special diet etc., which is very difficult for her in her present destitute life. The Kasthurba Gandhi National Memorial Trust has more than thirty centres under its centre in Kerala. These centres are mostly all-women working organisations which conduct nursery schools, day-care centres, etc. They also conduct hostels, especially for students and working girls and old age Ashrams.

Some special schemes, and groups have recently been inaugurated for women in Kerala. A SthreeSakthi Insurance Scheme, in collaboration in the natural Insurance SthreeSakthi Kendra, was recently inaugurated by V.M.Sudheeran in the premises of COSTFORD, Ayyanthole, Thrissur District, Kerala which brings into being SthreeSakthi Family Welfare Insurance. There would also be a SthreeSakthi Bank working in the same premises. This is a great institutional innovation, which recognises the fact the Malayalee women, needs such organisations to help create her own welfare. To add to this, there are also Police Stations in Kerala fully controlled by women. As a strong backing to this there are many Malayalee lady IPS officers functioning as superintendents of police and so on.

Many achievers have shed glory on the feminine capital of Kerala. It was in the environment and laboratories in Cochin, that is, in the Central Institute of Fisheries technology that Dr. Krishna Srinath did her marvellous work on women’s development though the application of science and technology. She qualified thus for an award of One Lakh rupees for this work in the Kerala environment. The woman of Kerala has achieved growth in many fields. There are many more worlds to conquer. The political scenario has already attracted many Malayalee women. There are some very articulate and impressive ladies from Kerala in the Niyama Sabha and the Lok Sabha. The Panchayathi Raj Bill in its original form had provisions to ensure that about thirty percent of the seats would be reserved for women through elections, not nominations, so that they can participate in all the activities of the administration. Many Malayalee women are now Presidents of village Panchayats as well as District Panchayats. The Malayalee woman has proved her powers in the field of education as a student and as a teacher. There is the wonderful example of Rabia, who is a wheel-chair educationist. She has overcome her handicap and spreads knowledge all over her area. She is the recipient of many awards and to many she represents Saraswathy, the spirit of learning.

Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, educationists— all kinds of professions are areas where the Kerala women have gained deserving entry. But the best recognition for the feminine capital of Kerala has been the formation of the Vanitha Commission, guarding the rights of women, redressing their grievances. This Commission had been working under the able leadership of Sugatha Kumari, who has helped to clear the women’s place in society. The new Chairperson of the Commission, Justice D. Sreedevi, a legal luminary, would give the Commission a greater legal colour.

In the final analysis, it can be stated that women in Kerala are becoming progressively powerful in the political, social and economic spheres. In this age of computer technology, where one needs to keep up with the pace of development, the Malayalee woman has reacted smartly. Social service has been an integral part of the growth of the Feminine Capital of Kerala; which with a wider prospective can lead to greater national integration. With more and more knowledge and awareness through information technology, the Malayalee woman can reach the greatest heights possible.


SAROJINI MENON. Teacher of Economics. Involved in social service activities, particularly, the upliftment of women. Until recently, had been the secretary of the District Women’s Council in Thrissur.

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Teacher of Economics. Involved in social service activities, particularly, the upliftment of women. Until recently, had been the secretary of the District Women’s Council in Thrissur.

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