Banding together, Indian women change their villages

A group of women's collectives in rural India use their newfound wealth to change their communities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Phulbasin Yadav and 11 other women set aside $3 a month to start a business, skeptical elders turned the town against them.

When Ms. Yadav learned to ride a bicycle, traveling between villages to set up health clinics and offer hot meals for children, her husband threw her out of the house, saying she was ignoring her duties at home.

And when she and her colleagues won the contract to run the local market, the businessman who lost the bid promised to kill them.

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Business in Sukuldhain had always been a man's world. But today, Yadav is president of a districtwide network of women's groups with businesses ranging from mines to concrete works – totaling half a million dollars in assets. And, sometimes, when she comes home from hard day at work, her husband has tea and a hot meal ready for her.

Now in a position of power, these groups have begun to change the district one village at a time. They have stopped 570 child marriages, by Yadav's count. They have offered dowries to poor families whose daughters would otherwise be shunned. They have paid for school uniforms and taken over fair-price stores that were cheating poor villagers.

In short, they have done exactly what they were intended to do, says Dinesh Shrivastava, who championed the groups when he was district collector here several years ago. "Women are the best agents for social change," he says. "They have made a revolution."

In a country where government corruption and inefficiency often hamper progress, Shrivastava's program is an example of how politicians can be a force for good. "This is a first step toward good governance," says Rajkumar Rai, head of the local office of CARE, an international aid organization. "It is very grassroots."

The challenge is maintaining it. The new district collector is not nearly as supportive as Mr. Shrivastava was, group members say, and men are increasingly trying to exploit the void by taking over women's businesses.

"We need strong women," says Yadav. "That doesn't happen everywhere."

It happened in Sukuldhain. Yadav was a cattle herd when she first read of Mr. Shrivastava's plan in 2001. The former collector of Rajnandgaon district wanted women to form self-help groups in their villages. Members were to lay aside a certain amount of money each month – the amount was up to them – and then use this money for good in the community.

In the beginning, Yadav thought small. "There was some opposition from the elders, so I said, 'Let's show them that we're not doing anything wrong.' " So they cleaned the village, and "it began to work," she says.

What has followed is essentially an entire subeconomy run exclusively by women who take loans from banks or the government to fund increasingly ambitious projects. In the village of Moher, five women's self-help groups manage and cultivate 116 acres of farmland that generated a $1,500 profit last year. In Dhaba, a dozen women in brightly colored saris mix cement – stirring the sludge with wooden-handled hoes and pouring in gravel that they balance delicately on their heads.

Sold at $2.60 each, the roadside markers they are making will not bring riches. But the women no longer have to work in someone else's field. And sometimes there's a little extra money. "Before, I never would have [had the money] for this necklace," says Kamlabai Joshi, the head of the group, fingering a beaded necklace with dangling golden hearts.

But Yadav aims higher. From her spare, earthen-walled house in Sukuldhain, she has used self-help groups as the means to bring a mother's sensibilities to matters of money and society. When a local handicapped man defaulted on a loan, the local group paid his debt, allowing him to keep his home.

With Shrivastava's assistance, self-help groups have also held health clinics and blood drives, taken over distribution of the free government midday meals served to children, and now run the district's fair-price stores – shops that sell government-subsidized goods to the poorest villagers.

By selling items in the local market for higher prices, "They were making money and fleecing the people, so I said, 'Why not give them to women?' " Yadav says.

But in rural India, where more traditional views of the roles of men and women still hold sway, change has not come easily.

For 20 years, the same man had run Sukuldhain's local market. By winning the annual auction to manage the market, he took responsibility for its organization, and in return was able to collect taxes from merchants.

To Yadav, this sounded like an ideal business opportunity, and her self-help group won the auction with a bid of more than $1,200.

Then the threats started. "He said, 'If you don't leave within a week, I'll kill you,' " recalls Yadav.

One woman left the group. The others soon found themselves hounded by a pack of young boys calling out insults that Yadav won't repeat. When women from the group went to collect taxes from merchants, they refused.

Shrivastava offered Yadav police protection. But instead, she turned to the women of her group. When collection day came, they all went together, each carrying a bag of rocks to ward off any thugs. Within a few months, the harassment stopped.

At least until the problems started at home. "Because I was getting involved in work, my husband started beating me and saying I wasn't doing any work [at home]."

He wanted the wife who had helped him as a cattle herd and served the family. Yadav decided she was no longer that person. "I said, 'What I am doing can help many people in the area.'"

So he threw her out of the house. For good measure, his father also threw out Yadav's mother-in-law, who was a member of the self-help group, too. Remembering nights spent sleeping outside, Radhia Bai can now manage a smile.

"I always felt that she was doing right," she says of her daughter-in-law.

So, too, did the government. There is a room in Yadav's house given entirely to plaques, commendations, and awards that she has won during the past six years. One included a gift of some $2,500 – a significant factor in her husband's decision to let Yadav back into the house.

"My husband understood that what I am doing is helping our family," she says. "Now he respects what I am doing."

The $2,500 is being used to help 35 local children pay their way through school, and now, when Yadav is out, her husband cooks and cares for their four children.

There are challenges ahead. At a cleft in barren, sunburned hill outside the village of Kohka, a dozen men break stones from the rock wall with sledgehammers. This is a mine ostensibly run by self-help groups, but the village chief – a man – steps forward to talk about the operation.

Sonu Ram says he has connections in the business that women don't, so he's helping the mine connect with middlemen. When she gets back to the car, Yadav shakes her head: "It is a bad thing."

But soon, her thoughts are racing to new schemes and bigger plans – setting aside a food bank for poor families to use for weddings or setting up businesses to make and sell incense or paapur, an Indian food.

"We go to work all day and get only 20 rupees (50 cents)," she says. "Why not start our own business?"

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