A team of AIF Fellows traveled to Rajasthan to visit with social enterprising women from rural villages. In one village, women spoke about their work with the Srijan organization, which helps to empower rural women to start Self- Help Groups (SHG). Srijan came to this village in 2005, where many women lacked awareness of organizing, self-empowerment, and were largely illiterate. They did not have the confidence to speak on their own behalf and left most public speaking up to the men.
Srijan helped to organize a small group of women into an SHG with the idea of empowering women to create their own enterprises. At first, a group of 10 women took part in a program where they could get one or two buffaloes for 7,000 rupees.
Once they got buffaloes, they faced problems of disease in their livestock. Initially, veterinarians were called, but they charged high prices. Srijan helped by sending women leaders to training to learn basic livestock care strategies such as de-worming and how to give antibiotics. Now, local women can care for routine live- stock issues and call veterinarians for bigger issues. Similarly, they lacked information on proper farming techniques. Again, leaders were given training on pests, how to plow properly, how to fertilize, and seed effectively. Before, they would sow 10 kilos of corn and now do only 4 kilos with a high output.
With more buffalo and cattle, they were able to sell more milk. Yet, they faced an issue where villages would have a male who would weigh and sell the milk to the distributor. While women were milking their livestock, men would take the milk to be sold. This left the women without any understanding of the profit or access to the money they worked for. The women decided to take responsibility by weighing, selling the milk, and redistributing profits to their families and the collective. Now, male members are waiting to receive money from their wives!
As more SHGs sprung up in communities, they moved onto forming larger, more complex organizational structures. At the lowest level are individual SHGs, then a group of five to ten SHGs form a cluster, and then the federation is the umbrella organization that represents all the clusters. Currently there are 424 SHGs, 35 clusters, with 4,500 members.
One large issue was that bank managers often- times neglected poor women. Banks were initially hesitant to give loans to individual SHGs because they lacked faith in the small group of women. When the women started making money and organizing into larger groups with more social and financial power they garnered more respect. Banks started giving loans and some women made small shops or bought additional buffaloes, which became success stories that helped convince more banks to provide ad ditional loans. With more access to markets, they’ve been able to see the benefits. For example, during demonetization, many people had scarcity of money, but everyday they were depositing 2 lakh rupees while people stood in line to withdraw. Many loans were defaulted during this time, but the women’s organization didn’t ever default and were depositing money.
The main agenda behind the Srijan foundation was to uplift the women and collectivize into an organization to enhance the livelihoods of all members. Additionally, with the help of Srijan, they helped to develop community leaders. They got information about their rights, fight for their wages, are able to speak for themselves, and give training to others. They created community resource advisors to teach women from other districts how to create SHGs. These advisors are making 700 per day and 21,000 monthly. With their earnings, they are contributing 200 rupees per day back to the federation because they have such high ownership of the federation that they are collectively building.
We spoke with one woman who developed from a SHG leader to a federation leader. In her village, they started a SHG in 2002 and she joined with little encouragement from her family members. What could a woman who had been pulled out of education after the 5th standard and was illiterate provide? She was encouraged by other women to participate and she did. In her organization, she was recognized as a good worker and was elected to move up to become a secretary for the federation. Again, her family discouraged her, but other women helped push her forward. She learned to functionally read and take accounts and was again promoted up another level. Her story was published in the local paper and her family now recognizes her noble work.
Earlier, no one in their village dreamt that illiterate women could run an organization. Now, many are functionally literate and run their organizations in a way that makes Srijan proud. It is not easy work and many other groups in other districts failed, but their SHGs and federation continue to thrive. They are confident that they can lead the way and empower more women to fight for their rights and improve their livelihoods.