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A bazaar of hope and courage: Local women take charge

ILO’s Work in Freedom programme has helped women in remote rural areas access local livelihood opportunities, and take charge of their economic well-being without having to migrate for work.

Feature | 09 February 2017
Chhattisgarh, India  (ILO News) - The women of Baneya village in Sitapur block of Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh, are beaming with confidence. They have been successfully running and managing the village haat (a local bazaar) which used to be dominated mainly by men. They make a weekly collection of INR 1,500 – 2,000 as fees that they charge from the vendors for setting up their stalls in the market. These women belong to a self-help group (SHG) named ‘Maharani Mahila Swasahayata Samuh” (this translates to: the queen women’ health group). They bagged the contract for running the bazaar for INR 40,600 from their panchayat (local governing body) for a period of one year.

Samarthan, an implementing partner of ILO-DFID Work in Freedom programme, started to work with women and local communities in the villages of Chhattisgarh.

The ‘Work in Freedom’ (WiF) programme is a five year multi-stakeholder initiative that aims to reduce vulnerability to forced labour among the migrant women (working in the garment and domestic work sector in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Jordan and Lebanon). It is funded by DFID, United Kingdom, and implemented by International Labour Organization (ILO). The programme uses an integrated approach to support mobility by choice, fair recruitment into jobs, and dignity and protections of rights at work."

Their work entailed empowering the local women to undertake mobility by choice, making informed decisions about migration and also exploring local livelihood options. Many women in the villages of Chhattisgarh migrate to nearby towns or distant urban cities like Mumbai, Delhi and others because they lack any other livelihood options. Some even take loans from the local moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates and fall into the debt trap. Few are stuck in poverty because of no other source of income. To enable mobility by choice, it was important that the women are made aware of their options on home turf regarding earning their living. They also needed to be informed of the various social protection measures provided by the central and state government under different schemes. Samarthan was reaching out to these self-help women’ groups on these various issues.

The Samarthan team found out that most villages had SHGs that were initiated by the anganwadi workers (workers who typically deliver services under government-sponsored child-care and mother-care centres in India). When the team started to contact these SHGs it realized that many of them had been engaged only in offering credit services. Their record-keeping was poor and these SHGs hardly met and discussed their community issues and needs. Some SHGs approached Samarthan for support. The women wanted to be trained to run these SHGs productively and many expressed an interest to understand how to run their own local businesses. Also most SHG members were widows and had been battling great financial challenges.

Malti Soni, a field outreach worker of Samarthan, was determined to make these SHGs active. Regular meetings were conducted to train and motivate the members. Financial literacy trainings were conducted to help these SHG to maintain records of monetary transactions with the banks. Malti also assisted some SHGs to establish links with nearby Gramin Banks (rural banks). Every member of the group started contributing INR100 per month and with 10-15 members in the group, soon the savings deposit in the bank began to grow. The women began to avail small loans against this deposited amount from the bank at a much lower rate of interest.

Sumila of the Maharani SHG says “Earlier I couldn’t even write my own name. Today, I can do my own signature. I feel very happy. And, I am thankful to Samarthan for this”.

Samarthan team motivated the SHG members to give local livelihood options a shot. The women got to learn that an auction was being conducted of the village bazaar by the village panchayat and they saw this as a golden opportunity to pilot their own village market. Soon they contacted the Samarthan team for their assistance. After many rounds of discussions, the group members decided to participate in the auction and they also won the bid. The good news was that now any earnings and profits from the bazaar for a year would be theirs. As per rules, the SHG was asked to deposit the pre-bid amount of INR 10,600. At that time the group only had INR 10,000 in their accounts. Samarthan suggested the members to organize a quick meeting and work towards raising the balance amount. However, the bigger challenge was to deposit another additional amount of INR. 30,000, for which the SHG was given barely a month’s time. Yet again, Samarthan stepped in to inform them of a bank loan and it facilitated the documentation process to avail this loan. Soon everything worked out and the money was deposited in time to the Panchayat.

This was no small feat. But then the women of the village were acutely aware of the socio-cultural restrictions and patriarchal mind sets. Most felt very hesitant to go to the market. It was always the men who ran the bazaar. The women started to fret about how the vendors will react to their presence, and whether indeed they would have the mettle to negotiate and collect money from these vendors, who too were mostly men. Samarthan team helped these women to tide over their fears. They briefed them about the processes of fee collection and management of the bazaar.

Today the Maharani SHG is raking in money from the bazaar. The SHG expects a profit of INR 40,000. What more, the members feel relieved that they no longer have to run to the local moneylenders for small loans and are able to cope with their urgent needs. Most women say that this business makes them feel economically empowered. The Maharani SHG has got an “A” rating in the grading of the bank. They have also received an amount of INR 15,000 from the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) of the Government. This is an addition to the INR 20,000 which the members had already saved till now in their bank accounts.

The meetings at the SHG are now livelier. Women huddle around in their meetings to discuss passionately about politics, social issues, and their rights and entitlements.

The president of Maharani SHG Rat Kumar Chauhan says “I was the only who was literate in my group but Malti Didi has now taught everyone to write their names. Today, we all do our signatures rather than putting our thumb impressions”. She adds, “We get to also hear a little less about domestic violence. We have changed and now we feel confident to speak to the men or even those who are from outside the village”.

Today, many such functional SHGs have become the vehicle of change for the poor and the marginalized in the villages of India.

The strengthening of the SHGs is the need of the hour. They can serve as a powerful platform for women to come together, and voice their demands on varied issues. Today, SHGs are able to offer solutions regarding livelihood, literacy, health, mobility, rights, and other socio-political issues. A step at a time, these rural women are challenging the traditional notions of womanhood, taking charge of their financial well-being and creating a grassroots movement.