Banding together, Indian women change their villages
A group of women's collectives in rural India use their newfound wealth to change their communities.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?"