There’s the pandemic you know about all too well. It is taking a heavy toll on lives and livelihoods. Then, there’s the shadow pandemic, which is rapidly unraveling the limited but precious progress the world has made toward gender equality in the past few decades. This shadow pandemic can be seen in the rolling background of this progress with the loss of employment for women who hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs and the rapid increase in unpaid care work for women and girls. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impact of COVID-19 has been exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their gender.
It is time that apart from the search for a vaccine and medicines for handling the virus and its disease, we focus on strengthening institutions and mechanisms that can help in combating the shadow pandemic.
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.
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.
A typical self-help group consists of 10 to 20 poor women from similar socioeconomic backgrounds who band together for financial and social services. 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, whose members pool their expertise and part of their savings, 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.
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 offer of SHGs
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 more likely to drive the shift to sustainable practices because they have the knowledge, skills, capability and ambition to effect change. Traditional norms dictate that men are often the first choice when it comes to making decisions on various ecofriendly technologies. While men maintain this primacy, it is actually women who can best capitalize on these decisions and strive to achieve long-term goals.
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.
The good governance
Women’s empowerment and gender equality have a catalytic effect on achieving human development, good governance and harmonious dynamics between the environment and human populations. Women bring more empathy and inclusiveness in their advocacy and problem-solving. We need to capitalize on this and their caregiving, educating and nurturing abilities. The self-help groups model has shown how women have benefited from the leadership role they have been given in several arenas. In turn, they have used their new roles to solve many of their community’s problems,
These groups are now torchbearers of so many social mutinies. Like termites, they have furrowed the male-dominated power grid in villages and are pulverizing the whole patriarchal foundation. Where once the participation of women in public meetings was an anathema, it has now become a ritual. Self-help groups have become powerful economic locomotives and have enabled women to find new confidence, agency and purpose. Transcending their ascribed roles, they have dispelled the myth that women are good just for homes. The groups are seen as an entry point for other social activities, from school committees to watershed councils. As they mature, the group sparks and spearheads meaningful and enduring changes by addressing community issues such as abuse of women, the dowry system, alcohol abuse, educational quality, inadequate infrastructure and more.
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.
*A scholar based in Napur and a Ph.D. holder in economics