A silent women revolution is underway in the villages of Uttar Pradesh: Over 15 lakh women have organised themselves for their development and taken their destinies in their own hands.
The idea of ‘Self Help Groups’ (SHG) in development discourse has been widely accepted and adapted all over the world. It is generally accepted as an effective tool for extending micro credit to the poor, usually women, and encourages entrepreneurship among the people. Building on existing social networks and the power of the group for exceptionally high repayment rates, the idea has demonstrated that poor can be organised into viable and sustainable business models.
However, when Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) adopted this model and began organising the women into SHGs, they were not content to use the model only as a liability group to deliver credit without collateral security. Instead they saw the tremendous power of the group and the strength that comes through collective organisation and therein lays the genesis of an innovative idea. This idea was: adapting the SHG model to address multidimensional aspects of poverty, alter the model from just credit facilitation to deliver range of comprehensive services from health to education, in the process work to break social hierarchies that exist by using gender as a unifying force, and thereby transform the very socio-political landscape of rural Uttar Pradesh.
As of date over 15 lakh women have been organised into over one lakh SHGs across 275 blocks in 42 most backward districts of Uttar Pradesh. The strength of the programme lies in its ownership and execution by the community. Women from the community who are identified as best practitioners are trained as Community Resource Persons and play a lead in running programmes based on provision of health care, education, sustainable agriculture and livelihoods.
Swasthya Sakhis or Community Health Activists have been facilitating safe deliveries, ensuring immunisations, spreading awareness of best practices for mother and child and empowering the community to access and demand better health services and nutrition. Women in the SHGs have been actively involved in demanding toilets and the programme has facilitated hygienic practices around menstruation besides challenging the taboos around the same.
Several hundred crore rupees of credit line has been accessed by the SHGs most of which is utilized on income generating activities and livelihood enhancement, especially livestock and agricultural activities by the women. Thousands of women across the project area have been trained in making organic compost, which retains the fertility of the soil while increasing yield. An Ajeevika Sakhi each has taken the responsibility of disseminating the awareness and technology around soil testing, composting, kitchen gardening, systems of wheat and rice intensification, and vaccination of cattle, through formation of Kissan SHGs.
Training sessions about the Panchayati Raj and its election processes led to around 1000 rural women of the programme, with no prior political experience, to contest the recent Panchayati Raj elections in Uttar Pradesh. Over 350 women won and went on to take leadership role in their community, prioritising their needs, and emerging as decision makers in a context where women are sometimes not even allowed to leave their homes without a veil. The training to prepare women for greater political participation is on-going with a self-replicating strategy; women who win, in turn help the others in their community, not just in terms of accessing their rights and entitlements but in becoming future leaders in their own right.
Yet the greatest impact has been indirect, is non-quantifiable, but vital for this silent revolution. This has been achieved through four ways:
Firstly, collective strength of the women through SHG organisation has been much greater and impactful than the mere sum of its parts. Coming together on a common platform with common concerns has activated their agency and aided unlocking of their potential.
Secondly, support systems and safety nets generated through SHG networks have provided the women impetus to overcome immediate poverty and plan for themselves and their families on a longer term basis. Through social mobilisation achieved by the strength of the collective, women have demonstrated that poor can overcome poverty through their own institutions and have a strong innate spirit of volunteerism.
Thirdly, coming together of women has created a common space for listening and questioning. This questioning has led to challenging the antiquated customs like dowry and veiling, and has enabled women to find a common powerful voice. Through this challenge they have changed the way their families perceive them, gained respect both inside and outside of their homes, and led to perceptible shift in the gender relations in the village.
Most importantly, in a landscape which is primarily feudal and the primary way of grouping has been on rigid caste and class lines with deep hierarchies, inequalities and discrimination, women based SHGs have introduced a novel alternate way of organisation. A way which is based on gender, which is enabling instead of disabling, which increases access to rights and entitlements and works on the principles of inclusion rather than exclusion.
This is the silent revolution which is taking place in the villages of Uttar Pradesh. It is led by lakhs of rural women. It is powerful, and transformative.
It is challenging rigid social norms and inequities and proliferating new ways of coming and working together for realising the collective strength of the women. It is changing the way in which men and women, and young people think about gender relations, poverty, society, knowledge and power and it began with the simple idea that a small group of women together can change their destinies.