Over the past two weeks I’ve begun the earnest work of my summer internship project. The goal of the project aims to assess leadership development among women-run microlending groups facilitated by my hosting agency Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS).
Microlending and Self Help Groups (SHGs) have had their day in the sun in India. In some communities, they have brought a shining light, offering low-interest credit and an escape from the traditional predatory moneylenders to rural families who make their livelihood through small-scale agriculture and daily wage labor. Other communities have found them to be a scorching burden, as mismanaged groups squander families’ savings, convince women to invest in unrealistic entrepreneurial schemes or offer a cycle of debt that is only slightly better than that of the local lenders. SPS has managed, overwhelmingly, to avoid the shadows cast by misguided lending institutions and has facilitated the founding of thousands of all-women SHGs. Though they serve primarily as a collective financial institution, they have also proven to be a powerful platform for women’s empowerment.
The SHGs are made up of 10-20 women in a given hamlet, a small section of a village. Through the guidance of SPS, SHG groups elect internal leaders and form clusters – made up of approximately 12-15 Self Help Groups. Beyond the cluster level, Federations have been formed. Federations oversee a geographic region that in some places encompasses nearly 4,000 women – and their families. Leaders are drawn from the clusters and elected to manage the federations, an overseeing body that allows the women to discuss and confront larger sociopolitical issues affecting their communities. The range of influence of each Federation becomes increasingly significant in the tangible successes of their collective efforts.
(Above: Jyotsna, an SPS employee and my guide, explains to me the nuanced answers given by tribal women during our interviews.)
My project will draw from a series of interviews with selected members of three different Federations. I am just this week completing round one of my interviews and am learning many details about the lives of these women. As the women share their stories universal lessons of poverty, hardship and family life emerge. The stories also contain details that give insight into the unique culture of rural India including agrarian livelihoods, the influence of the caste system and the dynamics of the patriarchal family. It has been fantastic to travel to and from our temporary home to the various villages that these women inhabit. In the future I will delve further into the women’s concepts of self-image, their understanding of local politics, and their limitations to affect change.