Matters concerning the empowerment of women are often spoken in abstract utopic terms, as an objective of the future. While the state machinery continues to function as a patriarchal tool, it would be remiss to not recognise and discuss the policies built for women’s autonomy, in independent India.
Some frameworks have been empowering women, especially at the grassroots level. One such structure would be women-led Self-Help Groups (SHGs). According to a 2021 government press release, around 70 lakh SHGs, engaging 7.66 crore women, are functioning across India. The report goes on to mention the release of support funds and seed money. Yet, the picture could not be hazier as most of the surveys and press releases are often ways for the State and its machinery to show that they have performed their duty, with no follow-up or amplification of the voices of the beneficiaries.
What is a Self-Help Group (SHG)?
It can be defined as a self-governed, peer-controlled information group, of individuals similar socio-economic backgrounds. An SHG is characterised by the collective desire to achieve a common purpose. The earliest instance of women’s SHG can be traced back to 1972, when the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), led by Ela Bhatt, in Ahmedabad started working with marginalised women who were self-employed; helping them organise and secure their businesses and income.
In 1983, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank sowed the idea of micro-finance, lending small loans to individuals without credit-net. In the 1990s, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) initiated schemes to support SHGs in India, followed by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowing SHGs to open savings accounts in 1993. One of the earliest formal government programs dedicated to SHGs was Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) in 1999.
After its failure, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) was launched, as late as in 2011. Women SHGs as per DAY-NRLM consist of 10-20 persons, with the exception of groups in difficult areas, groups with disabled persons, and groups formed in remote tribal areas (where an SHG can be formed with 5 members).
Even lesser spoken about than the ever-elusive empowerment of women, but in platitudes, are the fate of survivors. My research on SHGs led me to the threshold of an important intersection. I had the chance of speaking to a non-profit developmental organisation and a couple of SHGs, with the common link of gender-based violence.
As we speak of patriarchal depravity in convoluted circles what happens to the survivors of domestic violence, sexual crimes, and trafficking? The Ujjawala scheme, established in 2007, lays down plans and directives for the prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors. Yet, a 2014 study led by the Sanjog Initiative showed that less than 4 per cent of the pollees have access to government aids for rehabilitation. Bureaucracy, trauma and a system bereft of empathy constitute the surface issues.
Have SHGs facilitated some survivors to navigate their way to reconditioning? What are the roadblocks in the way to empowerment? How can SHG policies be better equipped?
Trafficking survivors: SHGs, gender-based violence, and empowerment
Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra (GGBK) works majorly with the marginal rural and coastal belt SHGs, a few of which are led by trafficking victims. When asked about how SHGs have helped trafficking survivors, Subhasree Raptan, Program Manager at Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra (a non-profit organisation working works with survivors of gender-based violence along with climate change and disaster-affected communities said, “There is a lack of opportunities for survivors and I think SHGs have provided a way to find economic independence and a voice.”
According to Trisha Patra, survivor and member of the Nirbhaya SHG, “We have been actively working to help and involve trafficking and other gender-based violence survivors. We, with the aid of GGBK, have been conducting programmes for awareness to help build leadership and empower us with the knowledge about our rights.”
GGBK’s intention has been to encourage SHG members to function independently and keep the space collaborative in every sense. Beneficiaries are encouraged to take autonomous decisions and work with authorities. Many of the survivors did not have a chance to attend school, while members like Piu Mandal and Anupama are graduates.
The community-based formation of SHGs allows space for learning and exchange. A member of Bandhan Mukti SHG, Anupama Mandal, a survivor of trafficking states, “A lot of women in our groups did not know how to read or write. But now they can sign their names. Some of them can write and read as well. There are women in Bandhan Mukti now who can even maintain the accounts books.” GGBK is currently running a survey to understand how the members are fairing in banking activities outside the loan processes.
Subhasree adds that gender continues to play a role. A woman’s money becomes everyone’s money by default. There are multiple cases when the loan money has been used for personal use. Piu recounted, “When we first availed loans there were families with no earning. So the women who ran businesses spent all of their earnings in service of the family.” But this is not monolithic.
“There are many cases where women are actively running businesses with the loan and successfully” responds Subhasree. Piu continues to say, “Because of SHGs, a lot of us have been able to stand tall independently. As trafficking survivors in need of cognitive rehabilitation, we needed certain tools and support. We did not receive that from the government but through SHGs we have been able to sustain ourselves. If the government can connect survivors to such SHGs I think we have a better chance of moving forward.”
SHG Loans, infrastructure and training
SHGs are able to conduct microbusinesses and group businesses with the help of subsidised loans (meaning the government pays partial or full interest on the principal amount). The Nirbhaya SHG with 11 members and the Bandhan Mukti with 12, majorly have members involved in individual businesses concerning textile, stationery and agricultural products.
On being asked about seeking a loan for their SHG, Anupama said, “We faced challenges from the RPs (Resource Persons) who dismissed us based on the fact that we were not from the same village and that we did not have any guarantee for repayment.” With the help of GGBK, they were able to obtain the loan under the Anandadhara scheme, arguably the most dependable for SHGs.
In West Bengal, NRLM was launched as Anandadhara by the state government on 17th May 2012. Soon after the successful and timely repayment, they were contacted by the same bank for a larger loans. Anupama chuckled lightly, “We originally borrowed 1.5 lakh and they came to us with an offer of 2.5 lakh.”
With members using loan money for personal needs and businesses weathering difficult seasons, what happens when someone is unable to pay the monthly instalment? Trisha replied, “We pool money from other members to pay the amount on behalf of her. Our payment date is the 10th. So we tell the defaulter that you can pay us back before the month ends. We have never had problems with this format. At the most, the member has paid the cumulative amount next month.”
A loan can only take a business so far. Women of SHGs require skill-based training and administrative help to build successful businesses. Urban entrepreneurs are often byproducts of glossy B-schools. What tools are we equipping grassroots] entrepreneurs with? “SHGs do get training from the government, especially skill-based”, Subhasree informs.
GGBK’s aforementioned survey is also studying the benefits and required improvements needed in these training programs. “We plan to inform the stakeholders of this study’s results. Oftentimes, singular voices go unheard or lost in the bureaucratic chain. We spoke to a few SHGs in Sunderban and realised that a lot of them do not know how to apply the pieces of training they have received. Individual skill training is not enough,” she continued, pointing out that SHGs need comprehensive guidance for sustainable growth.
Trisha brings to attention, “One of our primary needs is a room. We want to do some businesses as a group. We do not have a space where we can come together and make the products we wish to sell. Even right now, there are many amongst us good at making handicrafts, but we do not have storage space. We can also plan our marketing strategies if we have a room.”
Many SHG members live in single-room set-ups and renting secondary space is too expensive for them. Subhasree confirms, “A lot of SHGs dream of running group businesses but they do not have the space to build one.” GGBK is trying to raise the requisite fund to build a room for the SHGs working with them. But such sporadic efforts are not tenable. Only a systemic effort can ensure the secure future of SHGs. Subhasree reflects, “SHG is not a new structure but there are many systemic gaps that need to be fixed.”
Pandemic and natural disasters
The pandemic brought SHGs to attention for their contribution to small-scale production as well as the weight of loan debt. A 2020 report by the World Bank states that more than 1.9 crore masks were produced by 20,000 SHGs across 27 Indian states, in addition to over 1,00,000 litres of sanitiser and nearly 50,000 litres of hand wash.
A few months later, The News Minute reported that several SHG members from different districts of Telangana stated that the pandemic had pushed them into debt. Upon being asked about the pandemic’s effect Subhasree replied, “I know multiple SHGs struggling to repay loans post-pandemic. Like, if an SHG is based in Sunderban, their business also takes place in the same area. But affected by the pandemic, Yaas and Amphan spending capacities have been deeply compromised.”
Beneficiaries have struggled to rebuild houses, provide food and manage children while taking care of their business. Banks were approached by SHGs to provide them with time and they were heard. Piu says, “One of the biggest benefits we received during the pandemic was that we were not bound to pay the principal amount and allowed to pay just the interest, around Rs 100 or something. We paid the principal amount as we were able to pay, three months at a go or all at once on the last month.”
The pandemic and cyclones left a lot of houses in disrepair. “There are many women who are using the loan money to fix their household needs like repair or construction,” Subhasree also adds, citing that this is not a tool for sustainable economic empowerment. Institutions like GGBK are trying to guide women towards more maintainable income mechanisms. But in whatever way the loan was used during the Covid crisis, it changed perspectives for many people.
Trisha observes, “Women are often belittled on the basis of financial dependence, we are told you are a girl, I am feeding you, clothing you… these conversations have changed.” In the Covid years, the loan and savings of SHG members came to the rescue of their families. “One of our beneficiaries bought a Toto for her husband with the money from SHG. It was a moment of success because she was able to be a provider, an equal partner.”
The future of SHGs
Major stakeholders in SHGs include all Self Help Group Promoting Institutions (SHPIs) i.e., promoters, donors, financiers and the SHGs themselves. The role of stakeholders outside the SHG unit is crucial. Subhasree says, “SHG formation goes through many steps. It is important that they stay motivated, and receive support and correct information.”
Clear and accessible information and steps will help many interested women. Piu bolsters this with their personal experience, “We need the cooperation of the stakeholders. The struggles we had to overcome in getting the loans were a huge challenge. We ran from pole to pole, meeting BDOs and chairmen. Sometimes we would be asked to come back after a week, or two. If the authority figures involved, like BDOs and Gram Panchayat, are more supportive we can move forward faster.”
Sensitisation of authorities regarding gender-based violence survivors can ensure the application of available provisions. Anupama adds, “We were even told that because you are survivors, rescued from trafficking, we have nothing for you.” Subhasree explains further, “I have heard many stakeholders say that these women won’t be able to repay the loan, there is no benefit in lending them the money. Bandhan Mukti faced something similar, especially because they are trafficking survivors. They were asked to bring a guarantor. What kind of system are we building where women are tasked with fetching a guarantor? How is this sustainable?”
One of the most important needs of the hour is to listen to them. SHG members, old and new, have inputs and reviews on the existing processes. As outsiders, we can comment on better loan grants or such, but it is the members who can tell us about the required changes. Anupama states the problems with selling their products. “We are in need of networks to be able to sell our products beyond our area. We often make quality products that are beyond the spending capacity of the customers in our vicinity. Making it difficult for us to make profits. Our budgets do not allow us to take our business to the city,” she remarks.
There are governmental provisions for fairs and markets for SHGs. But there is an obvious gap in the schemes and their execution. The stakeholders involved must be able to communicate the problems on the authority-level with respective governing bodies to resolve the grassroots problems. The issue of the middleman has been a long-existing one, especially in rural business sectors. SHGs face the same adversary. “There are many artists amongst us who excel in zari work but they do not get the payment they deserve. Middlemen take the lion’s share” Trisha adds sadly.
SHGs are majorly collaborative in functioning. Beyond individual units, SHGs also have been able to collaborate cross-institutionally. “We have seen SHGs help each other,” Subhasree says. As new SHGs are formed, older SHGs often inform them how they had gone about doing business. “It is not always possible to physically meet. So we instead documented their ideas and inputs as video.” The video became a resource and inspiration for SHG members as they circulated it amongst themselves.
Newer SHGs gather ideas and confidence from shared experiences. Piu concurs, “We keep informing and checking with each other about our learnings.” But their SHG has not received any training, as is generally conducted by RPs. “We have been told that once we are eligible for the loan of 3.5 lakhs, we can avail of this training.”
According to a 2017 NABARD Annual Report, 45 percent of the SHGs in the country have not been able to get access to credit linkage even once. The stakeholders and red tape system make the state services difficult to avail. Group needs are varied both in skill requirements and instruction models, and formalisation fails to address diversity.
A 2008 report submitted to the Planning Commission states that the programme had realised that people were poor not because they did not work, but because they work in low-productivity sectors. There is a need for a market analysis of product performance based on distribution area and a skill-programme designed according to social contexts.
SHGs being autonomous, community-based bodies, their structure can facilitate required support and space for rehabilitation of women and survivors of gender-based violence. With emboldened SHG structures, the government can also ensure the improvement and empowerment of such marginalised groups.
Author’s note: All important terms like stakeholder or cognitive rehabilitation have been used as spoken by each interviewee. The rest has been translated from Bengali
Featured Image Source: Economic and Political Weekly