Tribal women dancing
I recently returned from visiting our work in India for the first time. It was a truly wonderful and inspiring experience, giving me an even firmer belief in the quality of the work we do and the difference it is making to the lives of people living in rural poverty in India.
What particularly struck me on my trip was the power of the Self-Help Group (SHG) to bring about lasting change to people’s lives. SHGs, which reinforce the strong ties of kinship, neighbourliness and community, provide the building blocks for the representative federations that emerge out of FYF’s work. These federations, composed of SHG representatives, ensure the sustainability of our work long after the project has ended.
Breaking the poverty cycle
“We needed money to treat my child who fell sick so we have had to go to the money lender. When we couldn’t pay the money lender back my family lost some of our land to him. Swequani Tudo, PAHAL project, Jharkhand
Because we are not making enough money through our fields due to our land and water problems we need to get money by doing other activities. I get income from making leaf plates, from wood cutting and from working on other people’s land. I also took out a loan from our Self Help Group of 1400 Rs to buy two pigs. When these pigs are big I will be able to sell the meat for 100 Rs / Kg.
Me and the other women in the group feel much stronger now. We are making our own decisions where, in the past, we depended on male members of the family.”
Swequani Tudo with her pigs
The first project we visited was in Jharkhand, where our five year PAHAL project working with 6,000 women began at the beginning of April. The project builds on an immensely successful two year pilot project working with 1,800 tribal women.
We were taken by each of our partner organisations (each of which are headed by tribal women) to visit four of the villages where the pilot project has been running. We were greeted in each village with flowers and dancing and then lots of excited women shared stories about all that they had already achieved through the Self Help Groups.
What really stood out for me was the difficulty of the situations these women had faced, and how, in such a short time, so much had already changed. This was especially exciting given the fact that, with the Big Lottery Fund grant, we will see even more substantial change in their lives.
Our excitement about the next five years for the women we met in Jharkhand was confirmed on visiting another two project partners, Pepus and Sabla in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India.
A group of women we met at the Pepus project, which is reaching the end of a five year project supported by the European Commission and the Innocent Foundation, showed all that could be achieve by working creatively together.
“We used to migrate to work in brick kilns. Even so we struggled to have enough money to eat and to clothe and educate our children. Chamela Debi, Pepus project, Uttar Pradesh
Now we grow watermelons together and we don’t have these problems. We had training on business planning and decided to use melon growing to earn an income. Together with 15 others I leased 12 acres of land to grow watermelons. Now we earn double what we put in. We use the profit to repair houses, educate children and to save in the banks”
Chamela Debi and her fellow watermelon growers
Chamela also told me that her relationship with her husband had greatly improved now that she was bringing in an income to the family. This shift in gender relations was most clearly reflected in what she told me about her two daughters: “My elder daughter married early but now we are more aware and have more money. Our younger daughter wants to go on to higher education and both my husband and I are happy for her to do so.”
The Sabla project, which is working with 1,500 women through Self Help Groups, is a fine example of how women are being empowered through their participation in Self-Help Groups. Meenu Tyagi, the director of Sabla, is an immensely inspiring and dedicated woman who has done so much to empower 1,500 women in Rae Bareli, one of India’s poorest districts. As a result a number of women spoke out confidently about the issues they face to Sonia Gandhi at a rally last year.
Many of these women have also been elected to the Gram Panchayat, the local level government in India. As elected members of the Gram Panchayat they are in an excellent position to ensure that the rights of women in their communities are fulfilled.
“One of our group, Rameshwri, has also been elected as a member of a Panchayat. She has already managed to achieve a lot for us. Because of her hard work a road has now been built to our village, four women have gained access to land that wasn’t being used, four women have built houses through the Indira Wass scheme and she helped a woman who was struggling due her husband’s illness to get a job cooking in the midday meal scheme.” Click here to read more about Rameshwri and all she is achieving.
Rameshwri with her fellow SHG members
Long lasting change
At Pepus and Sabla we also met the members of the Federations, the representative institutions that emerge out of the SHGs. The Federation members are currently being trained to take over the running of the projects after FYF funding ends. It was great to see how strong and capable they already are of managing the revolving fund that supplements the SHG savings fund and to hear about their innovative business plans for the future.
A fortified fundraiser!
It was great to come back from my trip and go pretty much straight in to supporting our fantastic Flora London Marathon team on Sunday 26th April. I was able to inspire them with a bit about the work I had just seen in the nerve-wracking lead up to the big day and add to the elation of the post Marathon party by sharing more about how their amazing fundraising efforts really were going to help bring about long lasting change in some of the most marginalised communities in India.
Visit our Facebook page to see more photos of my trip.