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India: hope dawns as women beat poverty

On the eve of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (17 October), women around the world are organizing against poverty. In India, hundreds of self-help groups provide one example how women, with the support of unions and the ILO, can mobilize to improve their lives.

Article | 15 October 2004

CHENNAI – Some 75 kilometers from Chennai, formerly known as Madras, Kanchipuram, the "city of the thousand temples", is one of India's seven holy cities and an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. Near one of its temples, a woman named Neela is selling souvenirs from a small stall. Aged 41, this smiling young woman sees herself as a survivor. A survivor of poverty.

Her first husband, a truck driver, died leaving her one daughter who then also died. In line with tradition, Neela "was remarried" to a man almost twice her age and they now two daughters and two sons. "If it were not for the project, I suppose I would have had to send my children out to work", she sighs.

"The project" – for Neela, the words seem to have an almost magical ring. The same goes for hundreds of other women we meet on the trail of the "self-help groups" set up with the backing of a team from the ILO Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV). These groups now ensure a trade union presence in the most remote areas of southern India.

Neela is a pioneer. With her union's assistance, Neela set up the first self-help group in 1997. She and about 20 other women from Keesavarayampatti decided to set aside a rupee per day (1US$ = 40 rupees). The money was kept in a chest belonging to the group. Six months later, they had about 3,600 rupees in the kitty – enough to raise a bank loan. Later, with the assistance of the ILO, the group was able to buy 15 cows. "Before that", Neela recalls, "we didn't have enough milk for our village and our children used to drink black tea. Now, they drink fresh milk, and we even sell some milk on to other villages." Fired by this success, Neela went on to organize about a 100 more women. Today, the Indian National Rural Labour Federation (INRLF) has more than 300 self-help groups.

So the goal of organizing Tamil Nadu's rural village women was met. That challenge had been set the year before by the lawyer and ILO activist Susamma Varghese. She soon became a key actor in a project financed by the Danish government and implemented by the ILO Bureau for Workers' Activities.

The aim of the project is to integrate women from the rural sector into the unions. This is all about new organizing, but it is also a response to a pressing social need. "Rural village women are the most vulnerable group in Indian society", Susamma explains. "As for their living conditions, many of them see the poverty threshold as a distant horizon. Generally, they are far below it."

For many of these women, the first goal is to break free from money-lenders who demand interest rates of up to 10 per cent a month. Often, the victims of this usury are just one step away from debt bondage. They have to work without pay until a supposed debt is finally purged. Parents may indebt themselves for life in order to give their daughters a dowry and a wedding that does the family proud, to send a child to a good school or to provide a decent funeral for a loved one.

The great majority of bonded labourers are from the dalit ("untouchable") or adivasi (indigenous) communities. The debts they contract rarely exceed 10,000 rupees, but repayment through work can take many years, and this duty can even pass on from one generation to another, without the bonded labourers' ever knowing how much has finally been paid.

But these days, thanks to trade union support and appropriate training for all members about micro-credits, the self-help groups are working. Six trade union organizations are taking part in the ILO project. Almost 1,200 groups, each consisting of about 20 women, meet weekly or monthly in several dozen Indian villages. And a multiplier effect seems to have set in: since January, more than 50 new groups have been formed.

"Before, the banks just didn't want to know. Now, they are seeking us out and offering us special loan terms. If you can get two thousand rupees together, you can raise a loan of 8,000 at reasonable interest rates", explains Neela in Kanchipuram. For most of the self-help groups, collective action plus a small helping hand from the ILO has made it possible to start up income-generating activities, such as cattle-raising, weaving or baking. Freed from the clutches of the usurers, the women in these groups are now bringing money into their households.

While the incomes generated have certainly put the groups on a stable footing and made the project more sustainable, the real benefits are to be found elsewhere. Now, the village women can make themselves heard and defend their interests collectively.

"One of the first aims of trade union education", notes Susamma Varghese, "is to inform these women about their entitlement to benefits from the government or the social security funds." Thanks to this information, 45 retirees who are related to group members now draw pensions worth 9,000 rupees a month (Rs.200 per person per month). Sixteen women get a widow's pension of 3,200 rupees a month and 27 people have benefited from family planning services. After representations from the groups, four villages have been connected to the power grid and 162 toilets have been installed. Loans, ration cards, education grants, housing aid, assistance for disabled people … to many women, these services seemed beyond their reach. Now, the groups are making sure they get used.

With the help of their union federations, the groups can also enroll their members in the social security funds. Working women are now in the funds covering the construction sector, agriculture and the informal economy. These schemes provide benefits in case of maternity, marriage, occupational accidents or death.

"The trade union side of our activities is essential", explains A. Raam, President of the Rural Workers' Organization (RWO) which organizes rural workers in particular in Sivagangai District, to the south of Trichy. With some 400 groups, the RWO is a well-respected institution in the district. In the RWO and the five other trade union federations, every member pays dues of 2 rupees a month. "Because they join on this basis, the women workers will very quickly demand that their organizations show results, and they will also be more likely to participate in union activities", Susamma says. "So it's also a school for democracy."

Today, throughout Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, the self-help groups have woven themselves into a real network. Increasingly, they are coordinating their activities, under the stimulus of Varghese and her team in the field. Altogether, the unions now have more than 100,000 members, in addition to those in the groups. This year, their activities focused on workers' rights, but their structures also help with vaccination and literacy campaigns and the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"Never before can the ILO have been so close to the grassroots", says Luc Demaret from the ILO 's Bureau for Worker Activities. In India, as elsewhere, the fight against poverty starts with collective action. Varghese concedes that this is still just a drop in the ocean, but adds "a drop plus a drop plus a drop ..."

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