“Pichla mahina kaisa raha, didi?”
“Theek hi toh tha. Aur kaisa hi ho sakta hai?”
When I learnt that I will be working with Chaitanya WISE during my fellowship, I could not wait to attend my first Self Help Group (SHG) meeting. Since women empowerment is the end goal, I was curious to know how each SHG meeting that a woman attends, contributes to her empowerment. Though I was aware of the financial benefits of being a part of an SHG, I was also aware that money was only a small component of the meeting.
So was it just access to finance and the subsequent increase in bargaining power that facilitated empowerment? Or was there more to the meeting than met the eye?
I was of the impression that, in these meetings, empowerment could only be facilitated in a direct way with heavy-duty conversations about patriarchy and the like. However, I quickly realized this approach would be futile especially in the initial stages of the meetings. To my surprise, I observed that simple conversations, which neatly fit the definition of a small-talk, can significantly facilitate empowerment. A small-talk is especially effective in tackling a specific form of suppression that manifests itself in the life of woman.
Albeit limited, following is an account of my observation of how simple conversations in an SHG can especially address this issue.
To contextualize, a self-help group (SHG) can be formed for a multitude of reasons. However, the SHGs that Chaitanya works with, are savings SHGs or ‘bachat gat’ as they are called. An SHG can have 10 to 20 members who meet once a month to collect a fixed amount as monthly savings and deposit it in a bank. Not only does this give women an opportunity to open a bank account, it also helps inculcate the habit of saving each month which is elusive, especially in a low-income household.
The corpus deposited in the bank grows larger each month, and after a few months, it is large enough for the members to take a loan from. The loan taken is then repaid with an interest which is the earnings of the rest of the group on their savings. One of the many benefits of an SHG model is that it serves an alternative to local moneylenders and expensive loans offered by micro-finance institutions. While giving access to financial instruments such as a loan might seem like the only advantage of the savings SHG, the benefits of this model reach well beyond that ambit. There are advantages which are a lot more subtle and take years for even showing the slightest of signs such as the facilitation of empowerment.
To understand how SHG model facilitates empowerment, it is first necessary to understand how suppression manifests itself in the life of a woman. From my experience of attending meetings so far, I have realized that suppression boils down to a basic element – a lack of space or agency. Most women that I have interacted with so far, do not believe they deserve a space – a space for themselves, a space to assert their needs or the space to legitimize their emotions.
This realization first arose during a meeting where we were all gathered to discuss how a jewellery making task will be distributed among women. This was the second meeting Sarita* was attending in a day. She seemed awfully withdrawn. After her introduction, which sounded fine, my colleague asked her, as a way to cheer her up, “Itne udaas kyu lag rahe ho, didi?”. Though she continued to be silent, another member answered on her behalf and informed us that Sarita had lost her mother the previous day.
Needless to say, my teammate and I went speechless and I wondered why she didn’t mention it to us during the first meeting. In fact, I was wondering why would she even show up for the meeting. The option of not showing up could be easily taken by her without her having to face any consequence whatsoever. What followed next, were Sarita’s tears and an account of a heart-wrenching story of how her family had disowned her and how she could not visit her mother even for the last time.
Expressing her self-doubts out loud perhaps helped her release the heaviness she was carrying through the day. Moreover, her statements sounded like admissions she was making to herself than to any one of us. As I sat there listening to her, I could not help but wonder when was the last time she let all this out. She did not believe that she deserved a space to vent, which probably explains why she dutifully attended both the meetings and participated in the conversations despite not wanting to do it.
It occurred to me, it is perhaps this space that the meeting is creating for women who otherwise do not think they deserve it. While the agenda and the structure of the meeting is fixed, it is often the unintended ‘small-talk’ that coaxes women to express themselves. Had it not been for the unsuspecting follow-up question my colleague had asked, we would have just assumed that Sarita probably had a lot going on that day and would have lived under the impression that the meeting was a success. The point of the meeting, in fact, was not jewellery-making. It was perhaps that this meeting might just make Sarita feel lighter today.
Not all examples, however, have a clear denial of space and emotions as in the case of Sarita. In another meeting, when asked how their previous month had been (a question that is usually asked in an SHG meeting), the members gave the standard response that a standard ‘small-talk’ question elicits – it was fine, or it was good. While my colleague was noting their responses down (another common practice in an SHG meeting), I asked the members what they meant by ‘fine’.
“Acha tha ka kya matlab hota hai, kuch toh hua hoga na“.
Confused by my question, the members were naturally not taking this follow-up seriously. As I was gladly attributing this awkwardness to my lack of experience in conducting a meeting, I heard a member say,
“Kal toh mera jee kar raha tha ki bas main thodi der ro loon. Maine bachhon ko bola kamre se bahar niklo aur main kamra bandh kar ke bas rone lagi“.
Mortified by this admission, Zarina* was laughing as she was narrating this story almost as a way of indicating how silly she could be. She thought it was hilarious that she could do something so ridiculous. The other members, understanding why she would feel this way, laughed along. I, on the other hand, was letting her story sink in and wanted to applaud her for asserting her need for a space, albeit unknowingly.
“Toh isme sharmane wali kya baat hai didi, rone se man halka hota hai“.
Though everyone was still taking this as a joke, I tried to reinforce the idea that she was welcome to cry and that we are here to listen to her.
“Humara kandha hai na rone ke liye“, some of the other members added.
What surprised me was the fact that they did not think that any answer apart from ‘it was fine’ was even valid. Though the reasons for that sentiment may not necessarily be rooted in oppression, the fact that women do not feel entitled to a space is apparent on many levels. It may be as subtle as denying their space to emote or as conspicuous as denying their space in the important decision her family makes.
In this case, too, Zarina’s story had followed a simple conversation rather than a heavy one about empowerment.
The reason, I believe, small-talk is effective is because women are often not at the receiving end of such questions. That is, these so called small-talk conversations that I may have had a countless times with friends and strangers alike is something that the women I have interacted with do not have the luxury of having. A simple question that asks them to explain their day or their opinion is sufficient to evoke a very confused and embarrassed look from the respondent. It is perhaps also the attention that is new to them which explains why they nervously chuckle and say ‘Mujhe yeh sab nahi aata‘ with the hope of escaping the torture.
However, once they are comfortable, I often see them sharing details about their day or opinions even when they have not been asked. For a lot of us, these questions are permanently embedded in our routine which makes it harder to acknowledge their importance. But for those of us who do not get a chance to have these conversations, it can serve as a motivation to finally express ourselves. I would like to believe that the resultant confidence is an indication of them realizing their right to space and that this trickles down to other aspects of their life.
In Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, most women view SHG meetings as a savings activity, where the belief is that the money should reach the meeting, even if the member does not. Moreover, given most women are extremely time-poor, it is no surprise that they are reluctant to engage in any discussion that isn’t absolutely necessary. Any conversation that is unrelated to money entails patience, a lot of awkward silences and blank (and even frustrated) stares.
At this stage, I have not had enough experiences to conclusively confirm my hypothesis of the link between these conversations and empowerment of women, but I can only hope that slowly but eventually this space is created, one small-talk at time.
*Names changed to protect identity