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India: Poor women spearhead change in rural Andhra Pradesh

November 14, 2006

November 14, 2006 - In India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a rainbow-colored group of illiterate rural women gather together on the ground in a village home, the vivid colors of their saris glinting brightly in the harsh summer sun.

The women speak out freely, the stories of their lives spilling out. Brought up in the downtrodden Dalit community who have for centuries endured agonizing social exclusion, and married young to men of their families’ choosing, they survived by eking out a precarious existence, laboring for trifling sums to support their husbands and children. Apart from the constant economic hardships, as women, they faced further discrimination in India’s strongly patriarchal rural society.

These women are now at the forefront of a silent social and economic revolution. The change has been brought about by the Andhra Pradesh government’s decade-long World Bank-supported anti-poverty program that focused on empowering the rural poor - particularly the women – to transform their lives by bringing them together into Self Help Groups (SHG) where, with the strength of the group behind them, they could stand by each other in times of need, save tiny sums, and take small loans to build their own micro-enterprises or meet their families essential needs.

Breaking the cycle of poverty

Poor and unlettered Janakamma is now the proud mother of a certified chartered accountant. Equally impoverished Kalawathi has bought two bullocks, built a new house, and is sending two sons to college. The women understand the value of being able to stand on their own feet for they know what it means to be helpless, hungry, and poor.

Janakamma narrates how she first borrowed a paltry 150 rupees from the local women’s SHG to feed her family. She had then been resigned to her fate and had little hope of ever escaping the clutches of poverty. Steadily borrowing and repaying over the years, this thrifty woman not only managed to earn a better living but also put aside Rs.120,000 - a princely sum for her - to help her son study for a professional chartered accountancy degree.

“I never had any opportunities to improve my lot in life, so I was determined to give my son a better chance than I ever had,” she says with firm conviction. Janakamma’s investment in her son’s education has paid off handsomely. He now earns a sizeable Rs.20,000 a month in a prestigious white collar job, enabling his once-impoverished family to pay off their debts and live with economic security for the first time in their lives.

The women’s belief in the power of education extends beyond the traditionally favored sons. Having suffered themselves as poor, uneducated, and downtrodden women – the lowest of the low - they are equally intent on giving their daughters a better start in life by regularly sending them to school.

Taking up gender issues in a patriarchal society

Although at first, the men were hostile and unsupportive of the women’s activities, and the women themselves feared taking on the unknown responsibilities of the SHGs, their success in providing their families with secure incomes has earned them new-found respect within their communities.

Coming together as a group has also given them the confidence to take on the deeply entrenched gender biases of an age-old patriarchal society – from fighting the evils of the dowry system, to standing up against child marriage, girl child labor, and domestic violence, as well as freeing the women who lived trapped lives as concubines for powerful men. And their successes have become beacons for others to follow.

Taking HIV+ persons and the disabled along

With memories of their own exclusion still fresh in their minds, the women are now reaching out to those who are even worse off than they were. They have welcomed HIV positive women into their fold - far more than their more sophisticated urban counterparts – and are spreading awareness about AIDS, as well as actively fighting the stigma, denial, and social isolation that invariably come with the disease.

The disabled - who are discriminated against and excluded even by the poor - have also been recently incorporated into SHGs of their own to help them earn a living, access treatment and rehabilitation services, and build an inclusive mindset within the larger community.

“If we work together, there is nothing we cannot do”

Collective effort has been the clincher for women’s success.  The women live the program’s motto: There is nothing that we cannot do if we strive together. Kalawathi spells out the profound lesson she has learned at the helm of affairs of one of the SHGs, “Only when each member of the group prospers can we individually stand to gain,” she says reflectively.

“Vision and leadership in the government, in the program, and on the ground, are essential to implement and carry forward a task of this magnitude,” says Varalakshmi Vemuru, the World Bank’s joint Task Team Leader for the project. “Building grassroots institutions of the poor can help bring about the deep and enduring social changes that are the foundation for lasting economic empowerment.”

With more than 600,000 SHGs operating in Andhra Pradesh, covering 87 percent of the state’s rural poor, the women in their rainbow-colored saris glinting brightly in the harsh summer sun are the new face of change in rural India.