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How Women In India Are Able To Help Each Other Through Self-Help Groups

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In a country of over 121 crore people, where 83.3 crore live in rural areas and the rest stay in urban areas, only about 22% of the population is considered to be below the poverty line. The continuing urbanisation has indeed contributed to creating more opportunities for the people. On the other hand, some sectors like agriculture have also suffered. However, the question remains the same – how do we make India more self-sustainable?

During my recent experiences, while working with Chaitanya in tribal/rural areas of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, I was able to dig deep into relevant statistics, government schemes and their impacts. Our special focus is on educating women and promoting savings as a habit. One such scheme is on micro-finance, which has been debated enough by economists and banks. However, it has indeed shown strong positives.

Muhammad Yunus, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize and author of “Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty”, said:

“When a destitute mother starts earning an income, her dreams of success invariably center around her children. A woman’s second priority is the household. She wants to buy utensils, build a stronger roof, or find a bed for herself and her family. A man has an entirely different set of priorities. When a destitute father earns extra income, he focuses more attention on himself. Thus money entering a household through a woman brings more benefits to the family as a whole.”

What Is A Self-Help Group?

A self-help group (SHG) is a voluntary association of men or women in similar economic conditions. The members of the group make small savings for a duration of time until they have enough capital in the group to start their own lending process. These funds can then be utilised for lending purposes (to members or other people). In India, many SHGs are linked to banking institutions for the delivery of micro-credit.

Self-help groups are popular and famous in India and South-East Asian countries. In Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus developed this concept (along with those of micro-credit and micro-finance) for the poorest of the poor, who were ignored and shunned by banks when it came to lending tiny sums of money.

In India, SHGs first emerged within the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) in 1985. Here is a quick timeline of the journey of SHGs in India:

1. 1987: The National Bank for Agriculture And Rural Development (NABARD) provided MYRADA with a grant of ₹1 million to enable it to invest resources in identifying affinity groups, building their capacities and matching their savings after a period of 3-6 months.

2. 1990: RBI accepted the SHG strategy as an alternative credit model.

3. 1992: NABARD issued guidelines to provide the framework  for a strategy that would allow banks to lend directly to SHGs.

4. 1992: SHG-Bank Linkage Programme was launched.

5. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Empowerment Project, an IFAD-supported project implemented through the Tamil Nadu Women’s Development Corporation, was the first project in the country, around 1990, to incorporate the SHG concept into a state-sponsored programme. Since then, SHGs have been associated with women.

Why Are They Needed?

Let’s look at the poverty circle. Women have always been given a secondary status – be it at home or in society. Women still remain poorest of the poor and can never break free from this cycle. Above all, a poor woman is vulnerable, insecure and lacks knowledge.

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Why Are Women Not Empowered?

They lack four basic things:

1. Knowledge

2. Finance

3. Power

4. Opportunity

Self-help groups fulfil the four criteria cited – thereby making them financially stable and also granting them a sense of empowerment.

Here, I would like to share another excerpt from Dr Yunus’ book:

“Women experience hunger and poverty in much more intense ways than men. If one of the family members have to starve it is an unwritten law that has to be the mother.

A poor woman in our society is totally insecure – insecure at her husband’s house… She is insecure in her in-laws’ house for the same reason she was in her parents’ house…”

She has nothing to call her own. She cannot read and write and it is possible that she has never been allowed out of her house to earn money, even when she wanted to. So, when she is given even the smallest opportunity, she struggles extra hard to get out of poverty to build up her financial security.

Let me share a real-life story with you.

She worked as a sweeper and used to clean the area around a bank. She saved a very small amount of money (₹10) in the same branch every day for 11 years. Her persistent approach ensured that she had savings for the bad days. Today, she has her own house in Pune, with savings worth ₹11 lakh.

This is the story of Anuradha Tai. More importantly, we also want a million other empowered women in rural India to have such a story.

A version of this post first appeared here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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