Is Livelihood only linked to generating income for people? Or do we also take into consideration the social and cultural aspects?

Since before joining Centre For Social Action as a Fellow and even after being designated as Livelihood Consultant for about 10 months now, I always associated Livelihood only with income generation. For me, the only way to look at one such successful opportunity was to see if a person is earning enough money through any income generating activity. Currently, I am a part of an initiative where we encourage, train and facilitate the Self Help Groups (SHGs) in villages of Raigad to make products like Ragi Laddoo, Papad and Chutney, and help them market in Mumbai. This was started to curb migration and provide livelihood opportunities within the village itself.

After working closely with the women Self Help Groups in Maharashtra, I have realized how each group is different from the other and even within the groups, every individual’s expectations from the initiative varies. They have come together for the same goal but have different needs and aspirations. The women who we regularly interact with, become the face for us. We work with them on encouragement, empowerment, training to be confident and identifying themselves as entrepreneurs. With multiple sessions, resource persons and exposure visits, we feel that we are doing our best and expect equivalent results but get disappointed and sometimes even irritated when things don’t happen the way we envisioned.

Initially, it was difficult to find people interested in making products. When we formed SHGs and began working with them, I struggled to keep the women interested as they would not turn up while a sale was already planned.

It was difficult to understand why a woman earning more money by becoming a part of this initiative would still be willing to go to a brick kiln where she has to toil in the heat with her entire family including kids. Why would she go back to working for lesser money and not be willing to earn through a structured business model where she’s also the owner.

All these questions kept coming to me until recently when we went for an exposure visit to Ahwa in Gujrat. We visited a few enterprises started by Self Help Groups that are supported by Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). Most of them are involved in running a bakery, a poultry farm or even a hotel with minimum supervision from the organization. In conversation with the staff of AKRSP, Mr. Harpreet Singh, I was eager to ask whether they faced any difficulty in getting the women together or if a lot of them left after they started.

He told about how they began, the procedures they followed and laid importance on how essential it was for them to know the family of each and every member of the SHG, to understand how much support they may expect from them and their socio-economic background. When I thought about it in the context of women I’m working with, I realised that maybe we missed out on knowing more about, other than their names and villages.

With a bit of research and personal interactions, I got to know that most of the decisions are made by the family as a unit, especially the husband. In a lot of cases, it’s the husband who doesn’t support the woman, or the family is not okay with her selling products to earn a living. Sometimes, the responsibilities of doing the household work, taking care of children and dealing with water crisis in the village end up with her taking a backseat. It’s not as simple and straight forward as I thought. A continued intervention was needed at all levels, not just financially.

I had failed to realise the complex interconnections and kept on racking my brains on how to better convince the SHG members to get in the business of making and selling food products.

Google defines livelihood as ‘a means of securing the necessities of life’ and therefore requires a broader understanding of the needs, background and aspirations of people as it includes all aspects of their lives. Answering my own question in the beginning of this write-up, I now feel that the economic, social and cultural aspects play a huge role in generating livelihood opportunities for people owing to their high influence. It is important for people like me to deeply understand, research, collaborate and spend ample time with the community before planning the course of action. It seems like the basic pre-requisite for any project but sometimes, in order to reach the goal faster, we tend to forget and skip these necessary steps. This way, the results last longer.

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