In March this year, as part of India Fellow placement, I was informed that I will be working with an organization called Chaitanya WISE (Women’s Integrated and Synergistic Empowerment) for the next one year. I was to live in Indore and travel to rural parts of Madhya Pradesh. A quick Google search and inputs from the program team told me that Chaitanya worked on women empowerment through Self-help groups (SHG) and federations. They promote financial independence among women, primarily in rural areas of Maharashtra.
Terms like Self-help Groups, SHG Federations, Micro-finance, Financial literacy or even Empowerment were new to me. I didn’t know how should I be feeling. There was excitement in knowing that 10 fellows had worked there before me, including India Fellow’s co-founder Anupama, and at the same time, I was terrified thinking about the high level of expectations the organisation would have from me. As usual, I tried to keep calm on the outside and was ready to explore this new world waiting for me.
All the information was a bit too much to take in. I was nervous during the entire train journey to Indore. I had no clue what I was getting into, and was constantly questioning my choice. On reaching, my mentor, Ms Kalpana Pant briefed me about the organization and asked me to visit a few districts in Maharashtra where Chaitanya has been successfully working for the past 25 years.
As it was the month end, she said that there are some Federation meetings lined up, and attending them would give me an idea of how we have been working successfully for so many years. She said that it will also allow me to understand what we can do in Madhya Pradesh to make sure our activities are sustainable. It sounded like an exposure visit and I had no idea about what to expect from a “Federation Meeting“.
It was crucial for me to know what SHG Federation model looks like. Well, here’s what I learnt. SHGs typically have 10-20 members. Now, 10-20 SHGs form a cluster at village level with 150-300 members and then, 200-400 SHGs make a federation with a total of 3000-5000 members.
On my way to Maharashtra, I read up as much as I could, on Chaitanya and Self-help groups. The organization had facilitated the formation of Grameen Mahila Swayamsiddha Sangh (GMSS), the first federation of self-help groups (SHGs) in Khed block of Rajgurunagar, Pune. It was initially an informal association which was later registered as a charitable society. I reached there after stopping at Sinnar block in Nashik and Junnar block in Pune. Federations at all three places had strong and independent women leaders whose stories gave me goosebumps. I started to realize the meaning of ‘Empowerment’ and how access to finance plays an important role in the process of empowering women.
Rajgurunagar is also where the head office of Chaitanya is located. It’s a small town that has seen many women rise and shine. After the other federation meetings, I was wondering what this place will have in store for me. Being the first and oldest collective of women in Maharashtra, I really didn’t know what to expect. After reading a lot of Marathi and mugging up some basic words & phrases, I went to the meeting. As I sat with a lady who would help me with the language, they all welcomed me and asked to stop them anytime if I did not understand a word or wanted to know more. They had been together for 25 long years now, and were strict in conducting meetings. No cross talking from my end was entertained.
Towards the end, I took permission to speak to women about their experience with Chaitanya. As expected, my Hindi didn’t help everyone to speak up initially. I urged them to speak in Marathi assuring that I will figure it out. The stories didn’t stop then. Women spoke of how coming together has led them to solve village level problems like alcoholism (daaru bandi), school teacher absenteeism, domestic violence, water shortage and much more. One lady told me she knew nothing about banks and that she isn’t much educated too, yet she now handles accounts of her cluster, does the audit and even goes to the bank regularly to get the work done. Her husband has now given his accounts for her to handle.
Being a part of the group made them realize they are not alone. This encouraged them to attend meetings regularly, not just for money, but for each other’s support that made them stick together. A lot of them had never traveled alone in buses and auto-rickshaws, and now they commute for 20 km just to attend the federation meeting every month. The kind of training they have received has gained them self-respect, recognition, decision making power in their family and village, courage, confidence to try new things and most importantly an understanding bunch of women who will be there in good times and bad.
“Ab humein kisi cheez se darr nai lagta. Humein pata hai humme itni kabiliyat hai ki hum usse nipat sakte hai.”
– Kavita Tai*
Before coming here, I had a lot of single stories about self-help groups and finance. When I got to know about SHGs, I thought that they are all about savings, loans, micro-finance, bank, etc. but during my exposure visit to Maharashtra, I saw another side of it. Through the groups, women are able to voice out their feelings, frustrations and express joy. They realize that they are also worthy of the choices they make and chances that life offers, that opportunities are not restricted to men alone.
Unity is strength indeed. The things you may not be able to do alone can be achieved when you have the right kind of guidance, support and exposure. Economic stability is the goal but in process, women understand that they are also capable of speaking up, making decisions and living a life they want to live. It’s not Gender but Desires that should play a role in deciding what we wish to do in our lives.
*Name changed to protect identity