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Originally produced for UNICEF



Breaking caste barriers

A key factor in successful formation of women's groups in the villages was the identification of local women with some education who were willing to train and work as group leaders. In Chauhatta Village, Bihar, the agreement by Chandrakanti to take on the role of group organizer was critical. The same was true of Meera in Hazaribgh and of Kushnuma in the Bargain Slum in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. In many cases, such women had to overcome considerable opposition and even violence from family members who were opposed to their engagement in these activities.

Women from poor higher caste families faced greater opposition from their families in their efforts to join groups that did women from lower caste families or from tribes. Fears that it would be physically dangerous for the women to take part in such activities were compounded for high caste women who were considered at risk of becoming "unclean" or "contaminated" through association with low-caste women group members. In contrast, the relatively greater success of the self-help groups in Jharkhand seems partly due to the less discriminatory attitudes towards women in tribal cultures. About 22% of the population of Jharkhand is tribal.
Staying away from home for residential training workshops posed particularly intense fears for many families.

When Khushnuma, a Moslem from the Bargai slum in Ranchi, participated in a residential course, her husband gave his full support and visited her every evening during the training. However, her father-in-law objected strongly and called for an investigation by the Moslem community. When the investigation failed to criticize Kushnuma, conflict within the family came to a head and her father-in-law abandoned them altogether.

Fears about safety, contamination and propriety seemed to act as far stronger inhibitors of the participation of women in group activities, than the idea that they were incapable. Yet the women were often treated with ridicule, became subjects of jealousy and gossip, and in some cases were accused of witchcraft – all social strategies designed to inhibit change and maintain traditional power relations. The same was true of tradition that restricted the movements of high caste women, and taboos such as the one that led some women to believe that they would become sick if they picked up a pen. By joining the groups, the women were changing the definition of their roles. Bonded labourers were even becoming landowners and developers. Lower caste women were turning up at government offices and demanding services and their rights. Locally, it presented a major upheaval of social and economic relations.

The willingness of women to put up with intense social disapproval sometimes occurred because the woman was the only member of the family to have received any education, or because she had been brought up in a relatively liberal home but had married into a more conservative one. Whatever the source of the courage involved, it was usually the prospect of freedom from the clutches of moneylenders that was the driving force and motivation for the women, and ultimately brought acceptance of the women's groups by the men.

In Ranchi, the process was somewhat different. Although the women were able to manage savings through thrift, they had not formed effective bank linkages and had not been able to access loans. Instead, it was their capacity to bring development to the community by accessing government services that gave them prestige. The respect they won in the Bargai slum, for example, was ultimately sufficient to exert remarkable influence in reducing family violence in the community.

The formation of the first group in any community was always the hardest. Once the first group had been established, and begun to provide itself, other women came forward. Pramila Devi whose life was eventually transformed by involvement in the scheme, was not permitted by her husband to join the first group in the village, but was allowed to join a second group after some of the women in the first group began opening small shops. In her village the men used the access of their spouses to credit to build up small businesses, but the women were still responsible for the accounts, loan repayments, banking and savings.

In all cases, it was the capacity of women to deliver valuable services and economic gains to their families and communities that was the source of change in their status. Women repeatedly stressed how they had won respect, individually and as a group. Their husbands now sought their opinions on many topics when previously they would never have been consulted. Access to their own money changed the way their families viewed them. As a group, they were becoming a force to reckon with in village, panchayat and block politics.

The consequences for the daughters of women involved in the groups seemed considerable. "A daughter is born from the same womb as the son so why should we not care for her equally," said a woman in Rasoiyadhamna village, Hazaribagh. This represented a major shift in attitudes. In all the CCA communities, women said that all their daughters were now going to school whereas previously none of their children had attended. Pramila Devi said that life was very different for her three daughters. "Before, I depended on my in-laws for everything but now I can give my daughters milk and snacks myself."