NEW DELHI — Women are critical to a thriving rural economy, especially in developing countries such as India. Despite anti-discrimination laws, women in India have historically received second class treatment, especially in rural areas. Women’s self-help groups (SHGs) initiated 30 years ago safeguard rural women against thinly veiled bias and serve as their multifaceted support system.
With approximately 70 percent of the population living in villages, rural women support India’s economy in more ways than what appears on the surface. Their overall contribution to society as primary caregivers and managers of health and nutrition cannot be overemphasized and though the government is cognizant of their tremendous impact on elevating the rural economy, they still lack the consistent support needed to meet their full potential.
Women’s self-help groups are alliances wherein women empower each other through support, education, encouragement and financial assistance to achieve their personal and professional goals for a better future. SHGs are comprised of the poor village or tribal women who form a financial savings co-op and are often supported by national, international NGOs, local governments and social work initiatives. Each member contributes a small monthly or biweekly fee set aside to be used as loans to members when needed.
Self-help groups have been consequential in promoting economic growth for its members who were previously stuck in a cycle of poverty. Observations of SHGs such as Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh Projects in India demonstrate SHGs abilities to promote financial independence among women by allowing them to participate in marketplace trade, become entrepreneurs and earn livelihoods.
Besides providing a self-sustained dependable reserve of funds for its members, SHGs also foster positive relationships with commercial banks and microcredit institutions. The banks and SHGs enjoy a symbiotic relationship through a successful program, Self-Help Group Bank Linkage Program (SBLP) initiated in the 1980s. While the members of the groups have easy access to financial assistance, the banks benefit by acquiring new business in the form of individual savings accounts and loans. It allows women who could not previously open accounts to do so with the validation of their group.
The Bank of Maharashtra’s branch in Firsipur is currently funding more than 400 groups, lending approximately $1,600 per group, and has its own NGO to collaborate with the SHGs.
Besides enabling women to participate in moneymaking ventures such as acquiring a flour mill, setting up a market stall and opening a sari shop in Urali Devachi Village in Pune, the loans are also used for investment in healthcare and education. Self-help groups also inspire women to become vocal members of their community. As local representatives, they represent the marginalized groups and share their perspectives. According to the Livelihood Improvement Project in the Himalayas, members of women’s SHGs were elected heads of 170 local governments out of the 669 in the region.
Strength in numbers is a phenomenon often put to test when competent women trying to support their families are denied job consideration. Even under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, they are refused work because according to some, they are weaker and less capable compared to their male counterparts. But with the backing of their group, women have been able to successfully fight discrimination and secure work opportunities.
Moreover, self-help groups play an indispensable role assisting poor rural women to receive lifesaving healthcare. SHGs also educate women regarding maternal, newborn and child health. This includes spreading awareness about kangaroo care, a highly effective method of preventing hypothermia among newborns. According to a study in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there was a 24 percent increase in kangaroo care and 14 percent rise in exclusive breastfeeding among SHG members. Also, a greater percentage of women attend village nutrition days and ensure timely immunizations for their kids. Additionally, SHGs educate women on the benefits of family planning, help them overcome societal constraints and space their pregnancies.
Besides enhancing women’s prospects, SHGs also promote community development through distribution of funds, resources and technical assistance. Villages in India suffer from lack of resources, infrastructure and funds. Women run, self-funded alliances backed by banks allows the rural population to take control of their futures by investing in their own growth.
With the support of NGOs and private humanitarian organizations, SHGs are transforming bleak villages suffering from malnutrition and poverty into thriving communities. For instance, an SHG supported by Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) and the Ford Foundation has transformed Teliya village in rural Jharkhand. Through investment in developments such as new farming techniques, renovated roads, new irrigation equipment, year-round crop planning and a new sanitation system with toilet installations has enhanced the quality of life of the 77 families in the village.
The 11th President of India and recipient of India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said, “Empowering women is a prerequisite for creating a good nation, when women are empowered, a society with stability is assured.” Women’s self-help groups have an incredible potential to promote socio-economic development in rural India. With a majority of India’s population in villages, they can have a profound impact on reducing poverty and enhancing the quality of life of all Indians.
– Preeti Yadav