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FEATURE STORYApril 11, 2020

In India, Women’s Self-Help Groups combat the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic

The World Bank

Ms. Farhat, a Self Help Group member working at Koel Apparel Park, Palamu, Jharkhand. Women’s self-help groups (SHGs) have come to the fore as foot soldiers in India's fight against COVID-19 (Coronavirus). So far, more than 19 million masks have been produced by some 20,000 SHGs across 27 Indian states.

Photo Credit: Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India

Women Self Help Groups in India have risen to the extraordinary challenge of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. They are meeting shortfalls in masks, sanitizers and protective equipment, running community kitchens, fighting misinformation and even providing banking and financial solutions to far-flung communities.

With 1.3 billion Indians in the midst of an unprecedented 40-day lockdown to defeat the coronavirus, the collective strength of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) has come to the fore.

In over 90 percent of India’s districts, away from the limelight of the cities, SHG women are producing facemasks, running community kitchens, delivering essential food supplies, sensitizing people about health and hygiene and combating misinformation.  

“The women’s movement that started as a leap of faith some 15 years ago has proved to be an invaluable resource in these difficult times. Our partnership with the Indian government in building social capital among the rural poor has paid off in spades,” said Gayatri Acharya, who leads the World Bank’s $750 million support for India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission. NRLM is India’s flagship program to reduce poverty by mobilizing poor rural women into self-help groups and building community institutions of the poor.

Over the past two decades of the Bank’s association, India’s SHG movement has evolved from small savings and credit groups that sought to empower poor rural women, into one of the world’s largest institutional platforms of the poor. Today, 67 million Indian women are members of 6 million SHGs.

Women at the center of development has been an important story in South Asia. In these extraordinary times, when we are all united in our fight against the Covid 19 virus, these women’s groups are playing a critical role
Junaid Ahmad
World Bank country director in India

Meeting the shortfall in masks, sanitizers and protective equipment

Now, more than ever, these women - many of whom escaped poverty through the SHG route and know what it is like to be destitute and poor - are living up to their motto of self-help and solidarity.

Groups across the country are working furiously to make up the shortfall of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). In Odisha, for instance, poor rural women who were once engaged in stitching school uniforms are sewing masks instead. Over the past couple of weeks, these women have produced more than 1 million cotton masks, helping equip police personnel and health workers, while earning something for themselves.

All told, more than 19 million masks have been produced by some 20,000 SHGs across 27 Indian states, in addition to over 100,000 liters of sanitizer and nearly 50,000 liters of hand wash. Since production is decentralized, these items have reached widely-dispersed populations without the need for complex logistics and transportation. 

Running community kitchens

With huge numbers of informal workers losing their livelihoods during the lockdown and food supply chains getting disrupted in some areas, SHGs have set up over 10,000 community kitchens across the country to feed stranded workers, the poor, and the vulnerable

In Kerala, the Kudumbashree network, one of the country’s earliest community platforms of women with 4.4 million members and several years of catering experience behind them, were the government’s natural choice to run a number of these kitchens. Given the massive nature of the challenge, these groups have dramatically ramped up their efforts and are now running 1,300 kitchens across the state, while also delivering food to those in quarantine and the bedridden. 

In Jharkhand, where poverty is high, SHGs - being the closest to the ground - are helping district administrations identify pockets of hunger and starvation so efforts can be made to ameliorate them. 

Raising awareness

Importantly, the SHGs are helping curb rumor and misinformation. "The women are systematically using their vast network of WhatsApp groups to ward off chaos and confusion, providing critical support to the government in this hour of need. The recent devasting impact on migrant labor, where huge numbers of suddenly out-of-work families started walking back to their villages hundreds of miles away, shows how critical it is for authentic information to filter down to the grassroots,” explained Varun Singh, the Bank's social development specialist. 

Women's groups are also disseminating Covid related messages among hard-to-reach populations. In Kerala, Kudumbashree is spearheading the government's Break the Chain campaign by raising awareness about hand hygiene and social distancing through mobile phones, posters and weekly meetings. In Bihar, one of India's poorest states, Jeevika - the state's SHG platform – is spreading the word about handwashing, quarantine and self-isolation through leaflets, songs, videos and phone messages.

Women are also running help desks, and delivering essential food supplies to the elderly and the quarantined. In Jharkhand, where large numbers of people migrate to other states to work, they are running a dedicated helpline for returning migrants and other vulnerable families.

Providing banking and pension services

Since access to finance is critical for people to sustain themselves during the lockdown, SHGs women who also work as banking correspondents have emerged as a vital resource.  Deemed as an essential service, these bank sakhis have continued to provide doorstep banking services to far-flung communities, in addition to distributing pensions and enabling the most needy to access credits into their accounts through direct benefit transfers (DBT). Banks have given these women special orientation and provided them with financial incentives to enable them to continue to work during the lockdown.  

"Women at the center of development has been an important story in South Asia. In these extraordinary times, when we are all united in our fight against the Covid 19 virus, these women's groups are playing a critical role,” said Junaid Ahmad, the World Bank's country director in India.

"Across the country, women's SHGs have risen to this extraordinary challenge with immense courage and dedication,” summed up Alka Upadhyay, Additional Secretary in India's Ministry of Rural Development, which manages the NRLM.

"Their quick response to food insecurity and shortages in goods and services shows how this decentralized structure can be a vital resource in a time of crisis.  The strength of India's rural women will continue to be essential in building back economic momentum after the most critical period is over.”

Women's SHGs are being supported by Government of India's National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) which is co-financed by the World Bank. NRLM has scaled up the SHG model across 28 States and 6 Union Territories of the country, reaching more than 67 million women. The women have saved $1.4 billion and leveraged a further $37 billion from commercial banks. 


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