Women in India face challenges most people never will. In a society where by law women have equal rights to men, it often doesn’t seem that way. Women and young girls can face unchecked discrimination and violence.
Just 59% of rural women in the country are literate, according to a 2014 Catalyst study. And women made up only 26% of rural workers in 2009-2010, the study showed. When women in India do work, they’re paid 62% of a man’s salary for equal work, according to Catalyst. In 2011, the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report showed that “the persistent health, education and economic participation gaps [for women] will be detrimental to India’s growth”.
Amid these odds, though, some women are making great strides. Here is the story of one woman who, with no formal education or experience, lifted an entire village from poverty by empowering the women around her.
Shantha is a dynamic, graceful woman from southern India, who grew up extremely poor and married even poorer. She struggled to support her two children and eventually was unable to make ends meet.
Today, several decades later, at age 53, she has a concrete house with ‘mod-cons’ unheard of in many rural Indian villages: a television, a fan, a bed, a stove. She also has a son who works as an engineer — one of the most respected careers in traditional Indian society.
From the confines of a conservative rural India, which likes to keep its women at home, Shantha (who, like many women where she lives, doesn’t use her last name) was forced to carve out her own path. She has successfully lifted not only herself and her family out of poverty, but also other women in her village and helped women in neighbouring villages do the same.
Her incredible journey, from stultifying poverty to community-wide influence, began with small steps. A volunteer job at a local government office gave her experience of working in an office and networking with government workers and business people. It exposed her to a wider world beyond her immediate family and community. Shantha took the salary-free position – that paid nothing aside from bus fare - in hopes it would parlay into a bigger opportunity further down the road.
It worked. At the government office, she heard a new idea for a women’s “self-help” group. It was based on the model of microfinance. In this case, each member of the group contributes an equal amount of money, which is then matched by the bank. The group can submit business ideas to the bank and if approved, they use the pooled funds to get a business going and use part of their revenues to repay the loan over time. Interest rates are highly subsidised.
“I was the only one excited about it. But I knew I should start it in my village.“
She needed 20 women, contributing 10 rupees each, to start the group. With most in the village living in poverty, it wasn’t an easy ask. It took Shantha two years of persuasion and creativity to convince the women to join in. She knocked on the same doors over and over and offered the women new ways to find scarce money, such as selling a bit of leftover rice for small change which could then be used for their contribution.
But that was just the start of the obstacles in Shantha’s way. She had to open a bank account in order for the fund to qualify for the “self-help” loan. But the bank wouldn’t take her seriously because she was a woman, she said. After six months of trying, she approached her former colleagues at the government office and asked for advice. “They said I should approach the bank with all the women, and be more forceful,” she recalled. “They said I need to learn to deal with such issues myself.”
A week later, now with a bank account, Shantha’s microfinance group was off the ground. Their first business: buying cows to sell milk.
“Today, we have a great track record…with the bank,” she said. “Today, the bank trusts us more than they trust most men in the village." And those in the group are loyal to one another. “The women recognise the fact that there are several of us…and we are all responsible for each other,” she said. “So everyone pays on time.”
Shantha’s earlier volunteer work in a government office continued to pay off. In 2009, her former colleagues told her about a Chennai-based bag manufacturer looking to outsource the packaging part of its business.
Shantha jumped at the chance of steady and more significant work for the women in her village.
Her former colleagues helped her liaise with the company and she used the microfinance group model to rent a space and get started. Over the years, Shantha has recruited more women to package bags, many of whose lives have been transformed by the employment.
Finding women who could benefit became Shantha’s passion. Running into possible hires at the local market or just walking by them on the street, Shantha would try to talk them into joining the group.
Today, 26 women work at the packaging unit. Over eight hours a day, they package more than 5,000 bags each week.
The women in the group are able to contribute to family income, break free from poverty, and in some cases escape dangerous situations. Krishnaveni and Adhilakshmi are among the women who say their lives have been transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. For Krishnaveni, that included escaping an alcoholic husband who once set her on fire.
Shantha’s son, Manikandan, said he remembers how hard his mother worked to start the group — and the impact she had on his life.