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Subsistence to sustainability: Empowering women through self-help groups model

By Moin Qazi* 

In the development sector, the focus on efforts to empower women is growing, but COVID-19 has put the hard-won progress in the field at risk. The shadow of this pandemic falls on women by way of loss of employment opportunities. Women hold the majority of insecure, informal, and lower-paying jobs.
There is also a rapid increase in unpaid care work done by women and girls during the pandemic. In all spheres, from health to the economy, livelihood security to social protection, COVID-19 has had a greater impact on women and girls.
The discourse about development accepts that empowered women are a powerful solution to most problems of impoverished societies. Governments and development organisations keep exploring new approaches to make women resilient. While new ideas are welcome, there is a need to upscale and fortify existing solutions. The self-help group (SHG) model, which has become quite popular in India and other emerging countries, is one such platform.
Self-Help Groups (SHGs) are India’s most powerful conduit to empower women to move from subsistence to sustainability. Sudha Kothari is a pioneer of this model in Maharashtra. She was also my mentor in the 1990s when I piloted the SHG experiment in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. 
When we met again, at her headquarters in Rajgurunagar close to Pune ten years later, I found her organisation had become a vibrant hub for women development leaders from all over Maharashtra. It appeared that a lifelong romance with SHGs was an inevitable milestone in Kothari’s personal and professional life.
Kothari was a brilliant student and her social chromosomes nudged her to work in rural areas. She was filled with a restless urge to foster change by leveraging grassroots institutions through frugal innovations. Her exposure to the work done in this field by Dr. Parmeshwar Rao, Shashi Rajagopalan, and Rama Reddy made grassroots social and economic reengineering a lifelong passion for her.
Kothari’s first brush with activism came in 1988, when she noticed, in the course of her travels through villages, that informal groups called Mahila Mandals (women’s associations) were being promoted by government agencies.
Kothari was disappointed to find them largely inactive. They were more like social clubs that were loosely structured and lacked an inspiring agenda. She was an early believer in the transformative power of credit and considered it an important instrument of socio-economic change.
She was convinced that an important objective of the SHG route was to make women successful micro-entrepreneurs. The more cohesive, well-trained, and durable the village clusters are, the greater the chance of improving the lives of their members, bit by incremental bit.
One of Kothari’s most pioneering contributions is collectivising SHGs by federating and integrating them into an inclusive value-chain. By federating, it means she clustered them, which gives them a larger pool of savings to leverage, more negotiating power, benefits of economies of scale, access to credit and insurance, sharing of assets and costs, opportunities to upgrade skills and technology, and a safety net in times of distress.
She believes that well-organised federations are a precondition for achieving the long-term sustainability of the SHG movement. Federating also introduces greater transparency and professionalism to the groups. Moreover, it enables members to see their work through an entrepreneurial lens and reposition federations as more robust institutions.
Kothari has been actively promoting community-based institutions of women at the village, block, and state levels.
Her model has four pillars:
  • Institution-Building: The institution platform has a three-tier structure starting from SHGs, and then federating into Village Organisations and finally into larger block-level organisations. A fourth level, super federation (MahaSangh), represents the combined interests of all the federations and helps improve the sustainability of the federations.
  • Federations: Large block-level groups owned and managed by women that allow for an open exchange of ideas, information and experiences. They provide financial services and linkages with outside institutions. Contain around three to six thousand members.
  • Village Organisations: Focused intermediate platform composed of 150-300 members (10-20 SHGs) to address social issues. Assistance is taken of federations or any additional support.
  • Self Help Groups: Primary unit of development (village-level) that provides a rudimentary platform to share information, financial services, legal advice, and the like. Generally conducted in small groups of 10 to 20 members.
“The beauty of the SHG model is that you can do so much with it,” says Kothari. “It is built on the capacity of women to take ownership, to take their work forward, and to have agency. The model is not limited to savings, credit, livelihoods, training and managing finances. These women bond with one another, become more aware of the world around them, and learn to fix norms, how to prioritise, and take decisions.”
Kothari’s first experiment took the form of Gramin Mahila Swayamsiddha Sangha (GMSS), which she set up in 1993. This was the first federation of SHGs in Maharashtra which is still running vibrantly. She simultaneously set up an NGO named Chaitanya as a vehicle to nurture other self-help groups. Surekha Shrotriya, a social crusader, was the first to join this mission.
Kothari recalls: “Participation in decision-making is a key element of any empowerment process. From the beginning, the idea was not to replicate already-existing institutions promoted by the government but to create new institutions that could be managed by women and that addressed their more fundamental needs.”
She adds: “The process of organising to share and review information provides women with opportunities for systematic planning. The central idea is that women should take charge of their development and manage the processes to best fulfill their needs. The process makes them real agents of development.”
Sudha Kothari is one of India’s most acknowledged authorities on SHG federations. is best-equipped for this role
Through Chaitanya, Kothari has promoted 40 federations owned and run by women. They are all professionally-run, efficient, and sustainable. Saarthi is the confederation of all these federations and provides a common platform for them. It provides support services such as MIS, audit, loan linkages, and capacity-building.
These collectives -- the SHGs and federations -- are now the torchbearers of multiple social mutinies. They have furrowed the male-dominated power grid in villages and are pulverising patriarchy at its foundation. The path and pattern allow for local variations but they are otherwise pretty set—bring women together, create capacity and capabilities, facilitate financial inclusion, enable beneficiaries to access government schemes, employ appropriate technology, promote small-scale enterprises, and connect produce to market.
Underpinning it all are savings and credit.
Many of these women are now at the vanguard of their local government leadership and play an influential role in rural governance. Whether as champions of change or just members, these women and their collectives have demonstrated an important truth: in social development, the so-called weak gender is the stronger one, and communities are the better off for it.
Kothari is one of India’s most acknowledged authorities on SHG federations and she is best-equipped for this role. She holds a PhD in sociology and has a rare blend of strong grassroots and institutional experience. She combines academic rigour with a practitioner’s zeal. Her prescriptions combine deep research with profound lessons drawn from ground realities.
Kothari emphasises continuous training, capacity-building, and member-awareness programmes to reinforce the key elements and solidify relationships between members, field staff, managers, financial institutions, and directors. This can help federations become viable, member-controlled, and self-sustaining.
The agenda of a federation constantly evolves, but the core focus is usually three broad directions -- promoting and strengthening livelihoods, ensuring women’s rights, and securing justice.
Kothari and her team use innovative approaches to reframe the agenda and improve design features to make federations more resilient and responsive to changing contexts. These federations are among the most trusted allies of women. That is why they need to be revitalised by integrating technology and new governance structures while guarding their traditional ethos and philosophy.
The hallmark of the SHG model is its simplicity and flexibility in both structure and processes. This flexibility, Kothari believes, should be the norm for federations too, so that they too become self-managed and, of course, as vibrant and ubiquitous as the SHGs. Government and development sector stakeholders should act now to strengthen this time-tested model. Women in India, and around the world, have never needed it more.
---
*Development expert

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