Crises often bring unexpected opportunities. The pandemic, one of the most defining global crisis of our times, was no different. While some enterprises perished under the weight of the lockdown, others shone brighter. A few self-help groups (SHGs) in India come under the latter category. While many of us retreated into our homes, women from 20,000 SHGs across 27 states produced 19 million masks, 100,000 litres of sanitiser and 50,000 litres of hand wash at the peak of the lockdown, according to the World Bank. While this is an impressive number, it took a pandemic for us to recognise the industrious nature of our rural women and the great opportunity that lies in integrating them into the workforce.
Despite being one of the most hardworking demographics in our country, rural women are left out of the formal workforce due to illiteracy, social norms and lack of access to formal education and employment.
SHGs overcome these hurdles by creating an ecosystem that nurture their skill and embolden their dreams. What started off as local credit groups that also enabled savings and small loans, have today evolved into a powerful agency that empowers households, makes women financially independent and in many cases, reclaim a life of dignity. At present, there are more than 6.6 million SHGs with 72 million members in India according to the Ministry of Rural Development—making them a significant contributor to rural incomes.
However, lack of managerial capacity and absence of financial, IT and digital infrastructure, coupled with social barriers, creates barriers for their growth. At the same time, the growing market for local, home-grown products also poses an opportunity for the SHGs which we must collectively leverage by focusing on a few key areas.
Financial literacy: I recall a conversation that I had with an enterprising young lady named Kavita, the president of an SHG in Raigad. Kavita’s SHG, Asha Mahila, sells papads and vegetables. When they started out in 2018, she tells me, the women were worried about keeping the earned cash at home because, ‘wouldn’t the books tear if they kept stuffing notes into them?’ The concept of a bank account was alien to the women of Kavita’s SHG – each of who owns a bank account today and is also in a position to manage the SHG’s bank account. A course in financial literacy changed the way these women perceive banking–from an intimidating institution, to one that offers security.
The National Rural Livelihood Mission’s (NRLM) financial literacy and counselling of financial services is an admirable step in this direction and we must ensure it reaches women in the most remote villages. Mann Deshi Foundation has done exemplary work in introducing more than 90,000 women to bank accounts. They have even helped make digital banking, cashless apps, ATMs accessible and connected the women to larger markets and financial infrastructure. Ela behn’s SEWA is another exemplary organisation.
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Digital literacy: According to the National Family Health Survey [2019-2021] only one in three women in India have ever used the Internet – i.e. 33 percent of women in the country, as compared to 57 percent men. This is a serious issue as digital literacy today is integral to any enterprise. The success of the Internet Saathi program by Google in collaboration with Tata Trusts is testimony to how women can leverage digital tools in rural areas. Together, the program has created a cadre of digitally aware women who now use the Internet to learn new skills, connect with customers, expand markets and so on, adding to livelihood sources in little villages across India.
Preserve traditional knowledge: Many of the SHGs in India are focused on nurturing traditional techniques and recipes such as making handicraft articles, traditional paintings, jewellery, pickles, papads, ladoos and more. They’re guardians of generational culinary and artistic wealth otherwise lost in the urban landscape. Promoting these through SHGs ensures that these practices are kept alive. Traditional materials such as bamboo and hemp are gaining popularity again and therefore offer great opportunity to leverage traditional knowledge around them.
Capacity building and market linkages: It is encouraging to see National Rural Livelihood Mission’s (NRLM) commitment to “Mission 1 lakh, 2024”, where the Ministry has pledged to help women farmer producers and clusters by linking them with e-commerce giants and local markets at the domestic level. The NRLM’s Mahila Kisan Shashaktikaran Pariyojana enables this by promoting agro-ecological practices and bringing down input costs, and currently serves 3.6 million women in the country. More e-retail companies now have a section dedicated to produce and products crafted by SHGs, offering local products a global market.
Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission’s Umed Abhiyan or Maharashtra government’s MAVIM show how exercises in capacity building, mentoring, promotion and scaling can boost prospects for a ‘home-grown’ business to become a competent player in the market.
Technology, financial literacy and very importantly, the right guidance and mentoring can help elevate the status of SHGs in our country. We must make them a strong force that can compete with established brands and ensure sustained income of up to Rs25,000 to Rs 30,000 per annum for each member. With the right mentoring, SHGs can create a cadre of strong, independent women that can change the narrative of our rural India–socially and economically and do it with a sense of joy and a deep commitment to their village community.
The writer is the co-founder of the Swades Foundation & works full time as its Managing Trustee & Director.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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