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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 / May 10, 2007

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

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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.

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.