Self-help Groups Give Women Hope
by Margo Salamon
Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
Photos on this page show women in a village in India going through a mapping process to discover what the community’s most pressing needs are
WHILE the 189 member nations were meeting for the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York, USA, to agree on the Millennium Development Goals, on the other side of the world Lakshmi’s life was filled with insecurity and everyday struggle. A 30-year-old widow in India, with two small children and no education, she worked in the fields, constantly struggling to provide for her children and herself. Without social support, opportunities to get a better job or hope for a higher wage, she had no reason to believe things would ever get better.
But three years ago she was approached by Salvation Army officer Captain Mani Kumari and encouraged to join one of the women’s self-help groups in her village. Today Lakshmi is not only president of this group but also the owner of a small tea shop, which she was able to set up with the support of a loan accessed through the group. The shop provides a small but sufficient income for Lakshmi and her children and gives her a sense of independence and self-worth.
Captain Mani, who has been working with women in The Salvation Army’s India Central Territory for 30 years, knows exactly how difficult life can be for thousands of women in India. She knows that many of them, especially those who are unemployed or disabled, widows or single mothers, face everyday struggle, insecurity and fear for the future of their families.
Self-help groups have become popular among the poorest women in India. They are small, informal gatherings which help women to make savings and obtain loans – otherwise inaccessible to the poor in India – which can be used to establish small businesses in order to generate income. However, self-help groups also serve another important social purpose – they are forums where women can meet, share their experiences, discuss their problems and support one another.
Captain Mani first set up a self-help group in 1980. Today there are 43 groups operating in villages in the India Central Territory. Each group consists of about 20 members, along with a president, secretary and treasurer. When a woman joins the group she signs the constitution and agrees to terms and conditions, which usually refer to making regular savings and repayments of loans.
The women themselves decide how much they will contribute towards their monthly savings and how high the repayment rate will be.
In the group joined by Lakshmi, the women agreed to save one rupee a day (about US$0.35) which was giving the group 600 rupees every month, from which they were able to take small loans. During their monthly meetings they discuss individual loan applications, share their experiences of setting up businesses and assess the business plans of the individual members.
After one year of regular saving the women are eligible to open up a joint bank account and access the bigger group bank loans offered by the government and banks. However, not all self-help groups are eligible for government loans. In many of these instances The Salvation Army provides funds which are then used for the initial loan.
Many well-established self-help groups extend their activities by organising training which provides women with knowledge and skills needed to set up small enterprises. Training offered by the groups in India Central teaches women handicrafts and how to make candles, sew saris and set up a shop. Other groups in India offer training in practical skills such as agriculture, animal rearing and milk production. Women are also often taught basic literacy and numeracy skills, necessary for maintaining their pass books, where they record their loans and repayments, and running a small business.
Lakshmi feels privileged to have had the opportunity to meet The Salvation Army and join the self-help group initiative – as do thousands of other women who have been given such an opportunity in India and other parts of the world. However, there are still millions of women who suffer inequality, deprivation, poverty and abuse and whose lives depend so much on the decisions made during summits like the one in New York six years ago.
And as Lakshmi’s experience shows, with a little support, commitment and goodwill, gender equality and empowerment can be achieved. However, whether all of those who committed themselves to this goal will fulfil their promises is still to be seen.
Margo Salamon works in the Projects and Development Office of The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters