Posted by Rupal Kulkarni

Just 30 minutes outside Udaipur city, in the tribal villages of south Rajasthan, there are incredible stories of women demonstrating financial innovation in the face of extreme hardship. Most of these women belong to migrant families – the men migrate to nearby Gujarat and Maharashtra to work in construction, hotels, mines, brick kilns, small manufacturing units, and such. In the absence of the men for long periods during the year, women have devised inventive financial instruments to meet their needs and manage their household’s finances.

Shanta bai uses her earthen gullak to save up for planned expenditures

Shanta bai’s husband Manoharlal migrates to nearby Gujarat to work as a cooking helper and their family depends on the irregular remittances that he sends. Shanta bai had to find a way to manage the fluctuations in cash availability at home and began using an earthen piggy box or a gullak.

In the absence of the men for long periods during the year, women have devised inventive financial instruments to meet their needs and manage their household’s finances.

Each time she makes a purchase at the local shop, she puts in the remaining coins into this. Once it gets filled up or whenever she needs the money, she shatters the piggy box and either deposits it in the bank or uses up the savings. She often uses the gullak to save up for planned expenditures. Usually a few days prior to any festival this gullak would have an accumulated balance of Rs. 2000-3000. The money in the gullak can be accessed only once by breaking it; there is no way of making small withdrawals at regular intervals. Thus it is well suited to plan for known expenditures in the future and also creates a good discipline of savings according to Shanta bai.

Women like Gangli bai also report putting wheat/maize seeds into their gullakusually seeds from a good farming year. Part symbolic, part pragmatic, this act of saving up seeds is to ensure that in a bad year, they would have good seeds; that in bad times, they would have something to fall back on.

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Kamli bai’s koti and mattresses serve two distinct financial management purposes

We see other women using less obvious cash storage techniques. Women like Kamli bai for example use kotis. These kotis are mud structures built against the wall for storing food grains like wheat and maize. Many women in the region such as Kamli bai store the remittances that they receive in these structures, ensuring that the money is spread out for a few months until the next remittance arrives.

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Also read: My Ongoing Personal Journey To Financial Literacy As A Woman

Sometimes, she also stitches the money into little hidden pockets inside her mattresses (pictured on top of the koti), taking it out only in case of absolute emergencies, thus maintaining a clear separation between money meant for daily expenditures and a corpus meant for emergencies. Some older women such as Movni bai reported digging up holes in the soil to store excess cash, leaving very subtle signs for future reference and digging it back out when needed. Women across these villages use multiple tools such as these, both to manage regular daily cash requirements and to save up for short to medium term goals.

Movni bai sharing on digging up holes in the ground to save surplus cash for various purposes.

Some of these savings methods may seem primitive, but they serve a very important purpose. For several of these women, banks are a 2-3 hour journey away and therefore some intermediate instrument to aggregate small savings makes each trip to the bank a more worthwhile exercise. Further, these informal instruments, help smoothen cash flow volatilities and create emergency reserves that are readily available. For women living in extreme poverty with precarious financial lives, liquidity and timely access to money is far more important than returns.   

Partapi bai’s silver jewellery used to leverage debt in times of need

Narayani bai from Dhaulighati village uses yet another tool for savings. She saves with a collective intent – she accumulates money and on-lends it (at no interest) to her neighbours, relatives and friends in need. For her, this is a trusted savings and safekeeping mechanism, with ease of access to her money whenever she needs it. Additionally, it is a means to build social capital and goodwill, which enables greater access to informal community credit in the future.  In fact, her house was constructed in this manner – incremental savings coupled with pooled labour and multiple credit relationships in the community.

Rearing goats as a form of insurance

Partapi bai exemplifies the risk management abilities of tribal women in the geography. Each time she accumulates some surplus money, she purchases silver jewellery. Often, in times of need and during health emergencies she has banked on silver to leverage additional debt. She also maintains at least 8-10 goats as a form of insurance. In times of extreme distress, these are sold off to generate more cash and tide over sudden shocks in the family.

Women across these villages use multiple tools such as these, both to manage regular daily cash requirements and to save up for short to medium term goals.

Many of these informal financial instruments are far from perfect. However, there is a lot we can learn as financial service providers and development practitioners from these informal mechanisms that rural women from migrant communities employ to meet their financial needs. Balancing liquidity with returns, multiple tools to manage risk, diversifying savings and building an emergency corpus are all important financial principles that these women teach us.

Also read: Women’s Financial Autonomy Increases The Profitability Of Microfinance Institutions

Women are natural innovators. Historically, a paucity of opportunities has made women resourceful, resilient and inventive. Women also tend to embrace and create mechanisms that foster an ethic of reciprocity and collective well-being. With the right platforms, therefore, we can harness the natural instincts for innovation among women such as Shanta bai, Kamli bai and Narayani bai to create instruments that impact financial well-being and build collective wealth.

Rupal Kulkarni is the CEO of Shram Sarathi – a pioneering financial institution working on financial inclusion of seasonal labour migrants and their families. For more information, please visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

Photography credits to Rupal Kulkarni

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