Skip to main content

Covid-19 and oppressive gender relations: Self-help groups as 'instruments of change'

By Moin Qazi*

The Covid-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of potentially biblical proportion and has convulsed societies like never before .Yet some sectors have proved resilient even in these challenging times. The sturdiest among these is the self help group movement in India.
Self-help groups (SHGs) are India’s most powerful conduit for incubating and empowering women to move from subsistence to sustainability. The pandemic has amplified their social and economic resilience and shown how they can effectively articulate a meaningful grassroots response to such a crisis. These groups have risen to the extraordinary challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic.
They have been meeting the shortfall in masks, sanitizers and protective equipment, running community kitchens, fighting misinformation and even providing banking and financial solutions to far-flung communities.
The NABARD SHG Bank Linkage Programme, which is the primary conduit that links these SHGs with commercial banks, now covers 124 million rural households. Considering that a rural family is normally a unit of, say, five members, we can assume that half a billion Indians have been covered by this programme.
These 124 million households hold some Rs 260 billion worth of deposits with the Indian banking system, and have availed loans worth nearly Rs 1,000 billion. Alongside, over 4 million Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) received financial assistance to the tune of over Rs 831 billion from various banks during the previous year.
Self-help groups are different from Joint Liability Groups. SHGs are savings oriented groups consisting of 10-20 members from similar socio-economic background. JLGs consists of 4-10 individuals who band together to avail a loan from a financial institution. While SHGs are primarily savings-based JLGs are credit based.SHG is a powerful vehicle for empowerment; JLG has little role in empowering members.
As grassroots village-based financial organizations, often comprised solely of women, SHGs have proven to be vibrant, participative, business-oriented and community-based institutions that have the potential to resurrect moribund rural economies. They are playing a crucial role in promoting a shared agenda around education, health, finance and agriculture and making affordable loans available where debt lurks in most rural homes.
SHGs offer a safe place to save money, the chance to borrow small amounts on flexible terms and serve as a strong support group. This mutual aid organization helps the members achieve more together than they can alone and becomes self-propagating over the course of time.
In the development discourse, empowerment is a process of internal change, augmentation of capabilities and collective mobilization of women with the purpose of changing the construct of subordination connected with gender. Empowerment signifies increased participation in decision making. Societal perceptions and constructs of females about their role are often the biggest barriers to change because they shape women’s perception of themselves. 
The relationships the women build among themselves in these collectives and their shared values, and often their common sense of identity, have helped in changing their self-perception and enhance their individual confidence.
Through membership in these groups, women gain much through the solidarity they share: They are able to gain a voice in family decisions, become financially independent and finally break out of poverty. The sisterhood is so close-knit and persuasive and the sorority is so intense that women start thinking of themselves in a different way. The organizing process itself is empowering and gives women a voice and brings validity to whatever they do. Women realize that they are part of the bigger economy and society and what they do has a lasting influence. 
Women gain much through the solidarity they share: They are able to gain a voice in family decisions, become financially independent
Contrary to what many believe, the poor are not too poor to save. There is enough savings potential within a group to enable people to meet their basic needs, and those small sums can make a big difference. Commerce has a profound ability to make people dissolve their differences and work together. When accessible finance reaches women, the benefits are particularly sustainable. Women channel money into solving more fundamental issues.
The running of an SHG is a great lesson in governance. It teaches the value of discipline, both financial and procedural, and broadens the horizons of its members. During their exposure to the groups, and with the outside world through the group, women become savvier about how to marshal their forces and are also able to gain a better knowledge of the system. While the base issues are the same, how we are dealing with them is different.
SHGs have proven to be an effective instrument for changing oppressive relationships at home, gender and tradition-related, and in society. This is especially true for those relationships arising from caste, class and political power, which have made it difficult for the poor to build a sustainable base for their livelihood and to grow holistically. Depending on the family dynamic, it would be hard to know how much a husband may be influencing or forcing a wife to sign off on something she doesn’t agree with.
This model generates a unique stock of social capital through the process of regular group meetings, which is instrumental in transforming the status of women, both within the home and the community. While credit support is at the core of the SHG movement, the social impact is much more than the economic impact.
An increase in self-worth is a benefit that comes with the formal recognition of SHGs. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals and catalysts for health, literacy, financial management, agriculture, leadership, livestock and more. Combining groups through participatory training is making women better equipped to challenge discriminatory norms and raise public awareness about various gender issues.
A vast majority of female leaders in Panchayat Raj Institutions, a form of local rural government, have come from these collectives and the most successful sarpanches, the head of a village, have had their grooming in them. Many of these self-help groups are now part of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and are prominent entrepreneurs, bringing prosperity to their communities.
They have transitioned from self-employment to diversify their ventures, mentor thousands of others to get on the path of entrepreneurship, aggregate into value chains and are proof that investing in rural women entrepreneurs can be a solid strategy for transforming villages. They are demonstrating that their concerns are central to the planning process.
One of the crucial elements in group learning is the risk-sharing capacity that membership of these groups enables. It becomes easier to approach female farmers with improved knowledge and practices on sustainable agriculture practices when they work through groups. 
Women have the knowledge and understanding of what is needed to fix the ecological problems that unsustainable practices have led us to. The knowledge and capability of women can be leveraged to make agriculture both resilient and sustainable.
Women are galvanizing their communities to harvest rainwater, dig wells, build check dams, de-silt ponds and repair hand pumps. This has resulted in increased drinking water, better irrigation, healthier crop harvests and most importantly, fewer treks to fetch water. Self-help groups have also set up the grain banks to check hunger among tribal people who are often trapped in slavery on account of debts they run up for procuring food when they are out of work.
Policymakers must recognize that women’s empowerment is not only a right but is closely bound with justice and development. Empowering women is a long and challenging journey. It starts with helping them reflect on their situation, inspiring them to realize their rights and motivating them to share experiences with other women in similar conditions. Leadership development, training and economic empowerment can create robust social capital, which is a prerequisite for an equitable world.
---
*Development expert

Comments

TRENDING

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

How lead petitioner was rendered homeless when GM mustard matter came up in SC

By Rosamma Thomas*  On January 5, 2023, the Supreme Court stayed a December 20, 2022 direction of the Uttarakhand High Court to the Indian Railways and the district administration of Haldwani to use paramilitary forces to evict thousands of poor families occupying land that belonged to the railways.  Justice AS Oka remarked that it was not right to order the bringing in of paramilitary forces. The SC held that even those who had no rights, but were living there for years, needed to be rehabilitated. On December 21, 2022, just as she was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, researcher Aruna Rodrigues was abruptly evicted from her home in Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh – no eviction notice was served, and nearly 30 Indian Army soldiers bearing arms were part of the eviction process. What is noteworthy in this case is that the records establishing possession of the house date back to 1892 – the title deed with the name of Dr VP Cardoza, Rodrigues’ great grandfather, is dated November 14

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Tax buoyancy claims when less than 4% Indian dollar millionaires pay income tax

By Prasanna Mohanty  In FY18, the last year for which disaggregated income tax data is available, only 29,002 ITRs declared income above Rs 5 crore, while Credit Suisse said India had 7.25 lakh dollar millionaires (the wealth equivalent of Rs 8 crore and above) that year. Often enough, the Centre claims that demonetization in 2016 raised tax collections, improved tax efficiency, and expanded the tax base. Now RBI Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Ashima Goyal has also joined their ranks, attributing the “claims” of rising tax collections in the current fiscal year to “tax buoyancy” brought by the demonetisation . Do such claims have any basis in official records? The answer is unequivocal. The budget documents show the tax-to-GDP ratio (direct plus indirect tax) increased from 10.6% in FY16 (pre-demonetization) to 11.2% in FY17, remained there in FY18 (demonetization and GST fiscals), and then fell to 9.9% in FY20. In FY22, it improved to 10.8% and is estimated to drop to 10.7% in

Gandhian unease at Mahadev Desai book launch: Sabarmati Ashram may lose free space

By Rajiv Shah  A simmering apprehension has gripped the Gandhians who continue to be trustees of the Sabarmati Ashram: the “limited freedom” to express one’s views under the Modi dispensation still available at the place which Mahatma Gandhi made his home from 1917 to 1930 may soon be taken away. Also known as Harijan Ashram, a meeting held for introducing yet-to-be-released book, “Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi's Frontline Reporter”, saw speaker and after speaker point towards “narrowing space” in Gujarat for Gandhians (as also others) to express themselves. Penned by veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai, grandson of Mahadev Desai, while the book was planned to be released on January 1 and the meeting saw several prominent personalities, including actor-director Nandita Das, her scholar-mother Varsha Das, British House of Lords member Bhikhu Parekh, among others, speak glowingly about the effort put in for bringing out the book, exchanges between speakers suggested it should be rele

Why no information with Assam state agency about female rhino poaching for a year?

By Nava Thakuria   According to official claims, incidents of poaching related to rhinoceros in various forest reserves of Assam in northeast India have decreased drastically. Brutal laws against the poachers, strengthening of ground staff inside the protected forest areas and increasing public awareness in the fringe localities of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the State are the reasons cited for positively impacting the mission to save the one-horned rhinos. Officials records suggest, only two rhinos were poached in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve since 1 January 2021 till date. The last incident took place probably in the last week of December 2021, as a decomposed carcass of a fully-grown (around 30 years old) female rhino was recovered inside the world-famous forest reserve next month. As the precious horn was missing, for which the gigantic animal was apparently hunted down, it could not be a natural death. Ironically, however, it was not confirmed when

Civil rights leaders allege corporate loot of resources, suppression of democratic rights

By Our Representative  Civil rights activists have alleged, quoting top intelligence officers as also multiple international forensic reports, that recent developments with regard to the Bhima Koregaon and the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) cases suggest, there was "no connection between the Elgaar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon violence." Activists of the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) told a media event at the HKS Surjeet Bhawan, New Delhi, that, despite this, several political prisoners continue to be behind bars on being accused under the anti-terror the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Addressed by family members of the political prisoners, academics, as well as social activists, it was highlighted how cases were sought to be fabricated against progressive individuals, democratic activists and intellectuals, who spoke out against "corporate loot of Indian resources, suppression of basic democratic

Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas   Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes. Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total

Bangladesh 'rights violations': US softens stance, fears increased clout of China, India

By Tilottama Rani Charulata*  In December 2021, in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the United States imposed sanctions on seven former and current officers of the force, alleging serious human rights violations. Benazir Ahmed and former RAB-7 commander Miftah Uddin Ahmed were banned from entering the US. RAB as an institution was also canceled the support it was getting from the US and its allies. At the same time, those under the ban have been notified of confiscation of assets held abroad. The anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, RAB is the elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar, and has been criticized by rights groups for its use of extrajudicial killings and is accused of forced disappearances. The government of Bangladesh has been insisting about lifting the ban on RAB, but the US had till recen