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Originally produced for UNICEF

Forming alliances

Partnership started with an alliance between women’s groups,commercial banks, local government, non-governmental organizations and UNICEF which lay a foundation for social change. The banks provided low-cost group loans to the women, helping to reduce dependence on extortionate moneylenders and in some cases to support the establishment of small businesses. The women's groups not only helped to improve the family economy through low cost credit for small businesses, but were also assisted by the local organizations and through local government services to organize and stimulate village development in favour of children.

Getting the banks on board: The commercial banks were encouraged to participate in the programme by NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development). As an allied organization of the Reserve Bank of India, NABARD provided funds to the commercial banks at reduced rates in order to allow them to provide loans to the self-help groups. But as one NABARD executive explained, while women's self-help groups had a near 100% record of loan repayment, the small profit margins for the commercial banks meant that their participation on the scheme was a matter of altruism rather than good business. Inevitable their response was mixed.

District selection: Districts for CCA activity were selected by UNICEF based on key indicators of female literacy, imbalances in the male:female ratio that indicated extreme bias against women, geographic isolation and political polarization between rich and poor, higher and lower castes. The presence of an active Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in the district with experience in working with self-help groups was another essential factor. Four NGOs became involved in running CCA activities in nine districts of Bihar and Jharkhand. Their role included identification of blocks and villages to be included in CCA and group formation in the villages. To accomplish this, women group leaders or coordinators from the communities were identified and trained in group organization, thrift and credit and child health and development. NGO teams worked closely with these leaders as they began persuading other women in their communities to join groups and to practice thrift. Generally this began with the women saving a handful of rice daily. The week's collection of rice was sold, and the proceeds entered into the group savings account under the women's name.

The women's groups were required to meet weekly and these opportunities inevitably led to discussion of issues affecting their communities and their children. The NGOs encouraged the women to find their own solutions to the problems they identified while also providing information about various rights and entitlements for themselves, their children and their communities. For example, in one village in Patna District, women decided that access to safe water was a problem and decided to try to raise the funds among themselves to install a tube-well. The NGO team advised the women that according to recent legislation, all villages had a right to water. On the advice of the NGO, the women went collectively to the local government offices to discuss the issue and subsequently were successful in obtaining a tube well for their community that was funded by government.

After two years, the women's groups were encouraged to form clusters each consisting of about ten women's groups, and the clusters to form federations, some of which had several thousands members. By January 2001, three CCA federations had been formed. The federations are legally constituted bodies registered either as a society or a cooperative. As a cooperative they have the right to make a profit. The federations can also take the initiative in helping to form new women's groups and so expand their membership. By the time a federation is established, the news has usually spread and group formation in that area tends to become demand driven. At this stage the NGOs can withdraw and move on to villages where the strategy has not yet been applied.

The capacity of NGOs to withdraw from a community, leaving behind a thriving independent women's group allied with a supportive federation, is the key to the sustainability and replicability of the approach. Some NGOs entered the communities with a clear exit strategy. Others were less clear about their withdrawal and may have developed a sense of dependence among the women's groups that made it harder to leave.
CCA is a strategy of the Government that aims to encourage bottom-up planning and greater responsiveness from its own line departments. In Bihar and Jharkhand, the respective Secretaries for Rural Development have an oversight role. The District Magistrates in Bihar and their equivalents, the Deputy Commissioners, in Jharkhand, are the key administrative officials responsible for ensuring positive response to the women's groups among services throughout their districts.

Local government: Each district is divided administratively into Blocks, and it is at the Block level that the real convergence of the women's groups, the banks and the line departments occurs. Block Level Task Forces (BLTF) were formed with representatives from health, education, police, water and sanitation, welfare, banks and other services. These were supposed to meet on a monthly basis with representatives of the women's groups from the cluster level and /or their federations. Here the women could air grievances and problems, such as the failure of a teacher to show up for work at school. It provided opportunities for the women to insist on the government services that had already been promised to their communities. District Level Task Forces (DLTF) were also established to oversee the performance of all the Task Forces at block level. In Bihar and Jharkhand, the BLTFs ran very well for a couple of years but then fell apart. They were due to restart with a new focus the following year.