After Prof.Md. Yunus won the Nobel Prize there are interesting debates on micro credit Number of women from SHGs has become Panchayat representatives and every Government announces schemes for SHGs. So SHGs have become very important.
Every state Government has it’s own plan for SHGs. Andhra has the Velugu project, Kerala has Kudumbashree and Neighbourhood groups, Tamilnadu has Mahalir Thittam. But West Bengal is the only state to have a cabinet minister who is coordinating with different agencies to streamline the SHG network.
The Government of India has proposed an ACT to monitor NGOs and SHGs by NABARD which in the proposed form is being opposed by many. The main contentions are interest rates cannot be left to the market, NGOs cannot be allowed to take over the role of banks like mobilizing deposits, the legislation should include NBFCs and Sec-25 of the Companies’ Act which are involved in microfinance, and there should be wider debate before re-presenting it to the parliament. The bill has been referred to the Parliament Standing Committee on Finance to which many NGOs and Peoples Movement and the committees report is awaited.
In Andhra the Government had to ban some big NGOs for their malpractices and unscrupulous ways of collecting loans. Andra has the largest number of groups and the VELUGU project of Government. The groups increased due to government intervention and not through Micro Finance Institutions alone.
As per NABARD report there are 26 lakh SHGs credit linked to the banks as on 31st September, 2006. Majority of the groups now are in the Southern states but in north too they are expanding. There are at least 4000 NGOs involved in mobilizing these groups.
Various studies have said that these groups work as excellent tools for mobilizing women, meet their small credit requirements and create togetherness. On the other hand studies also state that not much of empowerment is taking place and at times the debt burden is becoming a double burden on the women. The successes of micro-enterprises are also diminished because of the effects of globalization. In spite of huge powerful foreign funded NGOs like BRAC, GRAMEEN, PROSHIKA and ASA working for 30 years as parallel Governments in Bangladesh poverty still exists on a large scale. We also have a situation where in many regions, MNCs like Hindustan Lever are marketing their products through groups saying they are economically empowering them.[The sales women from SHGs are called Sakthiammas – a real abuse of the concept!!]. Now Reliance group has announced it’s plans to enter micro finance and Bharti which is bringing in Walmart through back door has also announced it’s plan to enter micro finance.
In the last 12 years the People’s Science Movements also have gained a good experience in the field and there are 22000 SHGs under PSMs in 15 states.
So it is high time to study the experiences, understand the problems and needs of these groups critically look at the Government Schemes, performance of NGOs, the perception of World Bank etc and plan strategies for action. The experience of the PSM sponsored SHGs is we hold significantly different from both government sponsored and some of the other NGO sponsored experiences and we need to study this as a distinct sub-set and build on it.
Type of SHGs
There are 6 different models of SHGs as per official records. They are
1. Grammeen model where the focus is on credit and not savings and where there are stringent rules from day one and the focus is not on empowerment or even active intervention in livelihoods.
2. The SHG –Bank linkage model where the NGO plays as an intermediary between banks and the SHGs.
3. NGO- Bank model where the NGO gets the loans and lend to groups with a service charge.
4. Micro Finance Institution model where the MFI s are Non Banking Financial Companies which have shifted their priority from service to the poor and aim at profit. They consider Micro finance as an Industry and are against any subsidies which are also the WB vision.
5. The cooperative federation model pioneered by Cooperative Development Foundation, A.P.
6. The federation model where federations are formed with elected EC members from the members by the members and in some cases with the help of NGOs which withdraw after some time.
We classify these groups into 4 types broadly. They are
1. Groups promoted by large NGOs with foreign funds including indirect WB funds. There are more than hundred of them but only a handful is very large.
2. Groups which are directly or indirectly under the control of the State Governments through women’s development corporations which mostly try to depoliticize the groups and keep them under their control but use them for political gains of the ruling party.
3. Groups promoted by religious and communal organizations like SEVA BHARATI of RSS and many religious groups.
4. Groups promoted by Right based NGOs and People’s movements.
Pros and Cons: The Continuing debate
Many radical academic critiques assess the role of SHGs as a ploy of the World Bank and dismiss any potential of these groups for either women’s empowerment, or poverty alleviation or promotion of social change. They see these groups as a form of dominance and even of further exploitation. To support this contention they point out that credit charged by most groups are much higher rates( typically 20%) than commercial credit available from banks to industry( 9 to 14 % typically); that it promotes consumerism and indebtedness, that there has been in this period a sharp decrease – almost a drying up of rural credit flows and socially prioritized lending policies and banks are asked to operate on the principle of profitability, and also that banks enter this areas because of the good returns. They would also point out that the poorest women usually get excluded from these groups and the loan amounts are so small that no real employment generation can be based on this. The World Bank and donor groups often project SHGs as the key strategy of poverty reduction when in fact they have little impact on poverty levels. There is also a critique that participation in such groups dissuades women from participation in struggles- something that often government run groups actively and openly promote- often discriminating financially against women who take part in protests.
Such radical critiques are often dismayed by the fact that despite the devastating nature of the arguments they have put forth not only are these groups continuing to grow and flourish, there is an increasing acceptance of working with these groups in all types of genuine peoples movements- even those who started with a very skeptical position initially. It is not World Bank which started micro credit but different agencies in developing countries like Bolivia, Indonesia and later Bangladesh, India and others. World Bank is trying to co-opt them and influence their policies.
The views of those democratic movements and progressive NGOs do not disagree with the radical critique in all aspects. The majority of such groups would agree that SHGs cannot remove poverty. They insist that the SHGs have the potential to be used as an instrument of empowerment; it could also be used for building hegemony by the dominant classes. What happens in a particular network, they would contend, depends on the approach of the NGOs. And genuine Peoples Movements and NGO groups with village level presence witness and respond to the obvious fact that on the ground their women are happy to be members of these groups- even if ideologically they remain uncomfortable with participating in SHGs and even if they are unable to explain it in classical political theory. .
Let us examine some of the reasons PSMs give for explaining their participation and defining the role of SHGs. Then we would go on to see how other sections perceive and shape SHGs and finally we would conclude with what the implications are for future action in participating and shaping the growth of these organizations.
SHGs As Spaces For Women’s Social Participation
• The opportunity to come together with others as part of the SHG provides an important space for women to come out of the house and participate in collective action. The logic of collective action and women’s orgnisation is that it would go beyond credit to addressing larger issues that touches women’s lives. Such addressing larger issues will proceed some distance- but neither be sustained nor very effective unless there is a more conscious democratic leadership available. If such a leadership is available then the steps that SHGs take beyond credit have the potential to enable women to move on to join the larger struggles towards social and economic justice. SHGs, as the model of micro credit most popular in India, are recognized as superior to the Grameen model in that the need to use micro credit based SHGs for a more autonomous model of collectives with a mandate larger than savings and credit, and build it as a larger membership based structure is much more common in the Indian experience. However even in India the thrust to restrict SHGs to be a collection of women working on credit rather than a collective working for justice is predominant, especially in the numerous government sponsored groups.[There are exceptions too].
• Experience from across the country also shows that the social perspective of the sponsoring organization is an extremely significant factor in determining the nature of of SHG network that is built up. Hence NGOs committed to social justice seek to enable SHGs to pursue this objective despite the compulsions of pace, systems and targets which micro credit tends to demand. NGOs have recognized the value of SHGs in providing a formal institutional structure to women’s collectives, which might otherwise have been more amorphous. One key element of going beyond credit to collective action on women’s rights is the process of networking into a larger organizational structure. Some NGOs, the PSMs in particular have made the process of federation of SHGs to enable them to fight for economic and gender justice related issues, the key element of their strategy. However State sponsored SHG based programmes which limit the programme to access to credit and subsidy that too for meeting specific, immediate needs of a section of poor women, almost always find larger network objectionable and insist on the lending agency dealing with each group as a separate entity. (The semantics of this is worth noting. PSMs used to call their work as building credit cooperatives –implicitly indicating a larger organizational framework- the cooperative. The government promoted name that has taken over and that we too are using in this article – is self help groups- emphasizing the atomization- ‘self help”)
• There is an absence of processes of building a collective to work towards social change. SHGs are designed to function as groups to ensure efficient transactions and repayments on a limited credit based agenda. This works against the inclusion of issues such as domestic violence, sexual and reproductive rights and political participation. Such issues are then addressed by women `in spite of’ rather than as a legitimate agenda of SHGs. SHGs thus become spaces for monitoring and peer pressure to conform to existing rules and norms rather than collective forums for struggle and support for justice.
In theory the state is open to the use of SHGs for educational programmes especially literacy and continued education programmes. However such educational programmes as they exist now are not providing the learning space for accessing information, undertaking analysis and reflection. Most Continuing Education programmes of the government have become SHG promotion interventions, with a narrowly defined and poorly implemented educational dimension. There is also an absence of serious efforts to provide literacy opportunities to women members of SHGs and this often leads to the concentration of power in the hands of the more literate, and better – off members of the group.( Intra group differentials in class and status are minimal and not as damaging to larger goals as some critiques make out. However such differentials to exist and in the lack of a conscious strategy to address them – can even grow.)
IMPLICATIONS OF THE CENTRALITY OF CREDIT
The PSMs have been conscious and made non credit dimensions a conditionality of their work on SHGs. However PSMs do recognize that success on the credit front is central to the success of the programme- irrespective of the approach on larger organization and empowerment of women. There are reasons for this and we need to understand and maximize credit flows- not speak of limiting them
• Our knowledge of women from economically marginalized sections of society shows that women do need credit. Access to credit through SHGs has meant that women have the resources to meet crisis related needs. It has also meant a reduced dependence on moneylenders- where the usual interest rates are in the 60 to 100% usurious levels. While academic critiques emphasise the high rates of interest charged ( about 20%) as compared to what banks provide- they seldom note that poor women have no access to bank credit at all; that they are comparing it with other available sources where the rates are not only much higher and where repayments are extorted even by violence. If the lower rates of credit become available to poor women and banks change lending policies then automatically women would reduce their group rates.[MALAR in Kanyakumari has reduced the rate to 18% from 24% and for directly linked bank loans the Interest charged is 8.5% only] Nor is it true that by participating in SHGs, the demands for better credit policies to reach the poor is blunted. For millions of marginalized women from the weaker sections taking on a task of changing government lending policy is so far removed and unreachable a goal, that asking them to forgo an immediately available relief for what is perceived as an impossibly distant ideal- is cruel and thankfully rejected by the women themselves. Women’s organizations have started demanding lower rate of interest.[4%]
• There is also recognition on the part of the family that the women are enabling access to credit. In credit networks there is also access to a larger organizational structure. In a small way it contributes to a changed perception of women’s role in the family and outside, even when limited to credit transactions alone.
• The value of micro credit for poor women needs to be located in a context in which women struggling with poverty do not have many options for reducing their economic vulnerability. In the struggle for survival women find themselves in an increasingly difficult macro-economic context, with the State failing in its duty to provide the necessary avenues of economic justice, including poorly conceived and unfairly implemented development schemes. The very fact that millions of women are participating in these programmes and even after long years of participation are willingly and happily associated with these programmes, testify to the fact that despite all its limitations, given the choices available- this is one of the few avenues of coping with poverty ( as against rising above poverty) that is available to them.
• Credit however is only one of numerous components required to enable women to address their concerns related to justice and equity. Yet credit has been magnified to an extent that it is presented as the single solution to myriad problems. Exaggerated claims are made about the benefits of micro credit by the state and other players such as banks, international finance institutions and corporations. There is a superficial tinkering with the economic reality of women’s lives. Micro credit does not address the fundamental factors underlying women’s gender and economic subordination. SHGs in themselves can never be designed to enable women to understand and negotiate patriarchy, unequal distribution of resources and other forces of social, cultural and economic oppression. These latter are inputs that a democratic force must bring in from outside to give such a character to SHGs- they are not inherent in them. [In Tamilnadu there is a close alliance between the SHG federations of TNSF and AIDWA and for local struggles the SHG women use the AIDWA platform.]
• SHGs are largely unable to impact economic status because a) the input of credit is too limited and b) because they fail to address existing livelihoods related realities. For example, the interventions do not address issues related to land-based activities. SHGs do not address the women as marginal farmers or as landless agricultural wage labourers working in informal tenure arrangements. The problems become more acute when the women are working as share croppers with no help from husbands, who migrate seasonally in search of work. Instead entrepreneurship is promoted without consideration of the livelihoods context and without provision of forward and backward linkages. Seldom are serious efforts made to promote collective enterprises. Promotion of entrepreneurship in fact creates greater vulnerability for these women who are near the bottom of the economic ladder, in the absence of support structures to negotiate with market forces and survive in the face of corporate invasion of rural markets.
• The poorest of the poor are mostly excluded from the purview of SHGs because of their inability to save regularly. This has implications for the ability of SHGs to benefit dalits, tribals, migrants and other marginalized groups. This trend is even more worrying given that the insistence in government led programmes that SHGs be small, manageable, homogenous units, often means divisions being made along the lines of caste, class and religion within the larger community of women.[Kerala’s Kudumbashree programme has launched a special scheme called ASRAYA for the disadvantaged families which is unique]
• SHGS are also not designed to address the intersection of caste and gender, and the subordination of dalit women. In mixed caste groups the position of Dalit women is weak. Exclusive Dalit groups do provide the same empowerment opportunities for women in many areas but segregation as such is not challenged.
• Even in the case of economically stronger sections, the benefits from access to credit do not imply that women can exercise control over loans, assets etc. Though in the majority of cases women do decide or take more roles in such decisions than before, there are significant numbers in whom her name is used to access the loan, but the decisions would remain within the patriarchal order. In such instances the burden of repayment would however primarily borne by the woman. There are even reported instances of violence against women who are not seen as being able to perform their `duty’ of accessing credit sufficiently.
• It is often forgotten that without land reform, quality education, adequate healthcare and employment opportunities there will not be any major social change.
Credit and the stereo-typing of women
• There has been an argument that “Micro credit institutions view women as disciplined, docile, easily accessible clients, who operate on the principle of avoidance of shame and discipline each other”. Further it is alleged that “ Micro credit today is fashioning yet another image of the ‘good woman’ – one who, at the cost of working even more, saves regularly, repays conscientiously and ensures that other women do too. In a context that has little to offer, women reach out to access micro credit but what it offers to them is better captured by `membership’ rather than `citizenship’. This failure to enable citizenship rights is explained by the narrow, uni-dimensional nature of strategies, which claim to provide solutions to complex, deep-rooted inequities through the single input of micro-credit”.
• In such a view it is not a coincidence that the vast majority of the recipients of micro credit the world over are women- it is the game plan itself.
• It is difficult for progressive activists working with self help groups in villages to refute such skillful phraseology of radical academics- or given the need to be truthful to their own experience accept it – leading to considerable ideological bewilderment and a state of organizational confusion where such organizations grow as organizations based on this work but yet consciously undermine its worth especially in its leadership levels. There is no doubt that Micro-credit policy made in the corridors of corporate financial institutions would seek to evolve such a game plan of molding women into docile clients- not as a conspiracy- but in the very way that such institutions work. However as Saldhana points out in his brilliant assessment of the literacy programmes – “the intentions of the dominant do not necessarily convert into the praxis of the sub-altern”. Corporate finance may perceive and want to shape women in such a way- but there is little evidence that women actually get so shaped. Women with membership have far greater chances of moving on to citizenship than women confined into family walls- irrespective of what big business would have them do. And indeed all the exceptions that we hear of women having to taken to anti- arrack agitation in one village, having fought domestic violence in another, having started a cooperative in a third- are in such a perception not exceptions at all- but the rule. That women are not passive substances on which others act – but they too make decisions- though not necessarily at the pace that we would desire and given time and a continuing viable programme , these exceptions would be significant enough.
• A progressive characterization that is able to incorporate its practice into its theory would perhaps be articulated thus: “Corporate finance and policy makers had long neglected women as credit recipients preferring only to deal with the male “ head of the household.” Indeed there was and is insufficient recognition that women also contribute to family incomes. Independent of the World Bank and financial institutions some NGOs and peoples’ groups hit upon disproving these stereotypes and established that women are good credit managers and can save significant amounts. Observing these financial institutions moved in to replicate these early successes in a major way, and while doing so seek to shape these institutions to suit their perspectives. So do each of the main sectional interests (players ) do so. But eventually the women at the core of all these strategies are not passive- they do have interests and they too contribute to shaping it – and the advance that they make are real advances to them which we need to respect and help them build on – and not demolish with great intellectual sophistication.( it would be interesting to explore the forces within progressive organizations that leads to this divergences between its intellectual position and its practice).In the next section we explore the various sectional interests that shape micro-credit policy.
Sectional Interests shaping MICRO CREDIT policy
The arena of micro credit has several powerful players; most of whom strongly claim that micro credit stands to benefit poor women. This claim shrouds in a veil, a number of, often divergent sectional interests.
• One reason why the State wishes to promote SHGs is closely related to the larger phenomenon of the withdrawal of the State as part of neo-liberal processes of globalization. The State through its promotion of SHGs can claim to have promoted women’s empowerment. SHGs also provide the State with a means to evade accountability with respect to responding to the education, health and livelihoods related needs of the poor. The implications of such an evasion for the poor are particularly harsh given that they are already dealing with the distress unleashed by forces of globalization.
• By claiming that micro credit (fed by the meager resources of poor women) leads to women’s empowerment and poverty reduction the State attempts at a popular level to absolve itself of the responsibility of investing in processes and services required to meet these objectives. We need to challenge the claims of the state that it is empowering women in SHGs through information. The information provided is too limited to enable women to make informed decisions on critical aspects that govern their lives.
• The second main interest for the state is that it can see self help groups as a low cost instrument for the delivery of development messages (some of which run contrary to the interests of women) and for implementing developments programmes. In fact SHGs may even subsidize the development interventions of the State and are used as easy forums for achievement of development targets of the government without the transfer of resources to the poor that is needed to meet the requirements of social justice. Examples of wrong usage in development schemes abound. In some places members of SHGs were given unpaid tasks which are essentially extension of their domestic roles such as cleaning schools and even toilets. They are made to participate in targeted population control interventions without even access to information about the rationale, benefits and dangers related to the tasks demanded of them.
• A third and growing reason for state interest is shaped by the recognition of its mobilisational possibilities. SHGs are viewed as avenues to rent a crowd at lesser rates for political rallies and more commonly for ruling parties’ political grand shows. Increasingly self help groups are being recognized as important vote banks for political parties- at least no party can afford to be seen as aloof or hostile to it and even where they are not interested enough to support it, are looking over their shoulders to ensure that the opponent is not making mileage from this mobilization.
• Panchayats often dominated by local landlords and traders see the groups as a vote bank that needs to be lured or at least neutralized. Schemes like SGSY that come attached to SHGs have created another opportunity for corrupt officials to get a cut from the subsidy released and therefore they bring the unwelcome attention of local vested interests and pressures on the SHGs.
• The relationship of fundamentalist forces to such mobilization is interesting. In principle there is nothing that prevents fundamentalist forces from building SHGs in states ruled by them or elsewhere and use it for propagation of their ideology. Indeed there are many major attempts that are now available for examination. However the fear that this will really materialize in mobilizations of women for literacy, or community health work or in credit cooperatives seems to have been over stated (though the last word on this has yet to be spoken). Such forces at the local level are represented by the local elite and the limits they set on such mobilization are so sharp that beyond a very minimal level of functioning they would be unwilling to let such organizations of weaker sections grow even if there are potential ideological gains to be made. Perhaps this explains why after decades of planned penetration of the tribal areas by fundamentalist forces some forms of intervention like schools, charitable hospitals, free medical treatment etc are preferred over some others. Perhaps…
Banks and Financial Institutions
For banks SHGs provide
a) A means to gather the savings of the poor to increase their cash flow to some extent.
b) Show disbursal to rural and weaker sections at incredibly low risks and comparably high rates of return.
c) Cover their retreat from all other forms of rural credit to which they were earlier committed.
Women members of SHGs ensure that banks can increase the volume of credit disbursed, minimizing their risk because of the phenomenally high rate of repayment. This stands in sharp contrast to the rates of default on the part of men, in particular middle class and elite men, as well as some large companies. The transaction costs for banks are greatly reduced since SHGs provide ready made clients and ones who will perform the task of monitoring each other. Banks tend to forget that the poor are paying interest on the credit that they take, and that the terms of the transactions need to be negotiated with their clients.
Often the banks are lending without proper evaluation and credit assessment to fulfill targets.
• In Andhra Pradesh the State Government has directed banks to lend at 3% to SHGs and get interest loss compensated by the state government. But big NGOs are opposed to this.
• SIDBI, RASHTRIYA MAHILA KHOSH, NATIONAL MINORITIES DEVELOPMENT FINANCE CORPORATION, THADCO and other such agencies receive loans from funding agencies including international funding agencies and on lend to NGOs. SIDBI promotes the WB line of converting NGOs into NBFCs, RMK needs revamping with more efficient staff and branch offices, NMDFC AND THADCO are corrupt and other Government agencies do not have a vision.
• ICICI Bank has promoted Micro Finance Institutions which avail loan from the bank and on lend to NGOs at a higher rate which has come in for criticism.
• Corporations such as Hindustan Levers and Amway are using SHGs to market their products in an effort to capture even more of the rural market. The rural market is dispersed and considerable investment is needed to access these markets. In many areas rural markets have not been penetrated by big capital and still it is the local economy and local manufacture that predominates. To corporate business SHGs is a potential entry point to such rural markets- displacing local manufacture with city made goods and in an era of increasing penetration of television creating new wants and accentuating false desires( baby foods, fairness cosmetics for example) that lead only to further impoverishment of the rural poor. The announcement of Reliance, Muthoot Bankers and Bharti indicates the potentials they look at.
The International AID-Funding agencies
• Donor agencies are impressed by the relative visibility of results that SHGs provide and also by the fact that compared to a lot of things they fund, this at least happens. Many donor agencies also view SHGs as a means to ensure that NGOs achieve the goal of financial self-sustainability- an important, often mythical, goal in donor consideration. Some donors, extending this logic and seeing that sustainability is not being achieved at small scales are pushing NGOs to convert themselves into Micro Finance Institutions or Non Banking Financial Companies. The results of such a move – still largely in its infancy are uncertain- if indeed they do take off. A study of 36 organisations has shown that most of the MFIs are dependent on subsidy even up to the scale of 80% but they talk of sustainability. The World Bank and many funding agencies see micro finance as an Industry which should be done with a profit motive and the Government and Banks should withdraw from the field leaving it to market forces.
The role of SHGs in the changing discourse of development and social justice
The significance of what the emergence of SHGs implies cannot be captured only by adding the sum of the parts. It has implications for the very nature of discourse on development and social justice. There are now many contending discourses on development and the process of social change that this entire experience is forcing a re- appraisal of.
One is the discourse of the dominant. In this discourse the onus of overcoming poverty is being placed on the poor. The presentation of this discourse is that with a dose of credit the poor will turn into entrepreneurs who can pull themselves out of poverty. This would leave unacknowledged and unchallenged the systemic inequalities that lead to poverty. This discourse would also seek to mould the idea of social change to one which is a narrowly defined, instrumentalist development agenda of the State- at odds with the real interests of women. The idea of the `collective’ is refashioned into a mere coming together of women for the purpose of saving. The intensive processes of mobilization, trust, solidarity and perspective building, reflecting on actions jointly undertaken are no longer required under such a discourse for a collective to emerge. The quick fix nature of the solutions being offered is not merely low cost – it also seeks to actively mould and control the nature of social change.[Let us not forget that IRDP provided credit to 54 million households but hardly removed anybody from poverty.]
The other is the discourse of rejection. Here the self help group is at best a ploy of legitimising globalization in popular perception and retreat of the state and at worst an active device of further subjugation and exploitation. The task of the radical is to expose mercilessly every attempt at programme involvement and improvement as but another move of the dominant in their relentless quest for domination and seek to build women’s organizations only outside and in opposition to such self help group as mobilization.( Curiously it is some of the radical external funding agencies that have taken such a position most stridently)
The third discourse that actually guides practice of groups like TNSF, even if it has been poorly articulated in grand theory, is to see the self help group as a terrain of engagement, negotiation and struggle. What is essentially a people’s programme is captured and replicated by the dominant for extending its agenda. What results is that different sectional interests vie with each other to pull the programme in different ways and to the extent that poor women are able to access a leadership that has a radical change perspective their strength at the negotiation is strengthened. Given the limited options women are only too happy to participate in it and indeed can hardly refuse participation. The point is in their winning increasingly better terms of participation – and that should be the central agenda of democratic involvement in self help groups. The role of radical critique in such a discourse is not only to expose the exploitative and subjugator elements, but also to defend and extend and maximize the real gains that self help groups can make for weaker sections of society Other wise like what has happened to rural banking and cooperative banking we land up leading the opposition when it exists and leading the defense after its gone!!
Even as we recognize that the impetus for the promotion of credit is driven by the suppliers of credit, in collusion with the State, we should also recognize and respect the fact that poor women need credit. It is true that in the face of very limited options of survival and few spaces to come together, SHGs have provided women mobility, greater confidence and the potential to act collectively. Despite the multiple interests of powerful players and their efforts to mould them into good women, women have demonstrated agency and signs of subversion. The DWCRA members of AP did indeed contribute to the downfall of a state government that they saw as having failed to respond to their struggle for survival. It also needs to be recognized that it is poor women who need to be central to determining whether and what form of micro credit works in their interest.
What we NEED?
• Data needs to be made available by the State as to the impact of SHGs on the lives of women in terms of levels of poverty and change in the status of women. The indicators used to measure these changes need to be clearly spelt out.
• Investment in building capacities of members of SHGs must increase. These need to be broadened from managerial, efficiency related inputs to include issues such as gender, caste and social equity, violence, political participation and health. These learning opportunities are essential if SHGs are to be transformed from spaces that are `given’ by the State to rural women, to spaces that are `taken’ by them towards meeting an agenda that they themselves have determined. The State also needs to provide women with information about its policies and programmes, especially those related to anti-poverty, health, education, employment and social justice – including the systems it has set in place towards ensuring that these work in the interests of poor. SHGs have to be provided learning opportunities, which can enable them to determine strategies that can best serve their interests, which could include the need for micro credit. Sustained literacy needs to be made available to members of SHGs.
• We SHOULD oppose the claims of the State that the mere creation of SHGs is enough. The State needs to invest resources towards meeting the needs of poor women with respect to health, education, child care and livelihoods. Changes in policies are urgently required in order to ensure that poor women have effective control over means of production, including their own labour and natural resources. The government needs to fulfill its commitment to guaranteeing employment in a manner that recognizes the centrality of women in the struggle for survival and covers the rural poor across the entire country.
• We should demand that the State stop its tokenistic use of women’s organizations. The government needs to create mechanisms to ensure that women’s organizations (including SHG federations with experience of work related to gender justice) can actively engage in policy formulation, planning, budgeting, review and monitoring, including expenditure reviews – at all levels.
• We can demand that SHGs are given rights to collective resources like ponds, fish tanks, trees, quarries and grazing land.
• We should demand that the State provides services that are essential for women to exercise their rights such as legal services, shelter homes and child care services. SHGs must not be viewed as the providers of services that are the responsibility of the state.
The women’s movement and other progressive movements have always engaged critically with discourses of development. We critiqued the welfare approach for its invisibilization of women, or limiting their roles to those of beneficiaries. We opposed the development approach when it evoked the participation of women in the existing development paradigm without providing the space for women to determine the nature of development. Historically, women’s groups and NGOs have demanded women’s right to credit. What we have now however is a scenario in which the agenda of economic empowerment of women has been reduced to the singular component of savings and credit. Even as we demand actions from the State, we can interact with the right based groups and guide them
• By promoting more inclusive agendas within SHGs
• By seeking to address the economic agenda through the promotion of equitable and sustainable livelihoods strategies rather than being driven by the availability of credit alone.
• By exploring alternative strategies that allow women to determine their collective initiatives and address their political, reproductive, economic, health, education, child care and bodily integrity interests, rather than being limited by the prescriptive norms of SHGs, and enabling women to negotiate these.
• By continuously striving to draw attention to poor women, who should be at the heart of the discourse on micro credit and SHGs. There are many benefits, both tangible and intangible, that micro credit offers to the many players. Women are contributing much to the family, the community, the State, the banks and corporations. There is however not much that is being invested back for the women. This investment is essential and long overdue, not only to redress the imbalance, but to enable women to understand and determine the nature and form of SHGs themselves.
• It is sad that the proposed Micro Finance bill also does not address these issues.
(Article by Shri. Thomas Franco, General Secretary, Tamilnadu Science Forum)