Sanra with Sindhu Tai and Asha Tai, two of the oldest SHG members in Vetalli, Maharashtra; also the former members of a Mahila Mandal in Khed.
“Find a purpose, the solution will follow”Sudha Tai, managing trustee at Chaitanya.
It’s been ten months since I joined Chaitanya as a fellow. It is a powerful organisation working from a small town of Rajgurunagar in Khed, Pune. I felt lucky to get a chance to revisit the head office here before my fellowship ends in the next three months. I was accompanying our new team members who were there to understand the SHG framework of the organisation and implement the same in their field areas back in the villages of Madhya Pradesh. It was now the right time to know the system better as to why there was a need for such an organization to begin it’s journey here, what factors were responsible for its success or at times, failure; and what made anyone work here while others opted not to. With a bag full of such questions, my journey of knowing Chaitanya began, once again.
Surekha Tai, the Administrative Trustee, once told us the story of Sudha Tai coming to Rajgurunagar in 1980s and working with 14 Mahila Mandals, each one being a group of 20-50 women associated with an Aanganwadi. The women used to come out of their households with their savings at 10pm and the meetings used to go on until 5am. They would put pillows on the bed and covered it with sheets so that their spouses wouldn’t know of their absence. No one supported the women to participate in such gatherings. The money they saved was taken by their husbands to be spent on alcohol and other things. But women knew the importance of savings, and it became necessary for them to come together and be in groups.
Once a discussion was held in these 14 Mahila Mandals to know if savings are helpful or not, as the women were saving only 1 Rupee per week. Moreover, when they had applied for a loan, the bank had rejected due to their poor risk-taking ability. The confidence was low but the Mahila Mandals decided to help each other by giving loans internally. However, they soon realised that they are saving too less and that the bank’s interest at 4% doesn’t matter a lot. Subsequently, they increased their saving and started giving loans to their own members, the interest on which came back to the groups.
Sudha Tai joyously told us that in 1999, women from these 14 mandals decided to visit Bhimashankar (a Shiva’s shrine in Maharashtra) to discuss their strategy for the groups. They figured that they were missing out on a lot of governmental schemes and thus, decided to form smaller SHGs (self-help groups). The next step was to have all the groups under one entity that is called a federation. So, they divided themselves into three sub groups (each group comprising of a few SHGs called a cluster), continuing to meet in their respective areas. A 3 tier structure of SHG-Cluster-Federation thus formulated.
In one of the conversation with Kalpana, my mentor, I asked her the meaning of women empowerment according to Chaitanya, to which she replied, Chaitanya facilitates activities where women learn to:
- Form an association
- Money management
- Access information
- Make decisions
- Access and control resources
- Challenge the inequality by raising voice
“Their role should change from asking permission from family to informing about their decision to them.”
As per a story she told, once, a husband of an SHG member asked her not to go for the group meeting, to which the woman replied, “ये जो भैंस खड़ी है, इसे मैं समूह में दे देती हूँ, जिसके पैसे से ये आई है|”, pointing out how women, over the years, have realised the importance of being in a collective. They have moved from just listening to and abiding by the decisions, to voicing their dissent and opinion. When a dam was being built in Rajgurunagar, the women wanted loan for farming purposes as the construction of dam would open up the opportunities for better irrigation leading to better farming. Being sceptical about loan repayment, Sashi Rajagopalan, the then board member at RBI and NABARD decided to visit along with the representatives from Friends of Women Word Bank (FWWB). They reached around 9 PM and saw the women coming for the meeting late in the night. They got the needed assurance and developed trust for granting them the loan.
The crux of the successful functioning of Chaitanya and SHGs even today, is not just savings and access to credit but a lot of other factors mentioned above. Savings can be just a starting point or an excuse while the main motive lies in building a collective and helping each other grow in a multi-dimensional manner.