The Leader, The Empowered, and The Fighter: A Collection of Powerful Case Studies

Throughout my time in India, Andrew and I collected many powerful case studies from a number of men and women. We spoke with several mitaans, including one from the city of Dewas that made great strides for women in her community within a four year period. We interviewed women in an adult literacy class to learn more about the ways in which education empowers them. We also chatted with a woman who overcame seemingly insurmountable hardships to become financially independent. I have shared these stories below (you can also find the complete versions of these case studies and others on the SPS website: http://www.samprag.org/).

Left to Right: Andrew, Prasann, SPS professional, Ranu, Sasha, and me.

Left to Right: Andrew, Prasann, SPS professional, Ranu, Sasha, and me.

The Leader

While walking home, Ranu would frequently pass by Samaj Pragati Sahayog’s Dewas Office. She was familiar with the concept of Self-Help Groups, as she was a member of an SHG from another local organization and had many friends and family, including her mother, who belonged to SPS-run SHGs. After much consideration, Ranu decided to contact SPS four years ago for a position as a mitaan. Only three years later, she was promoted to senior mitaan of the area, in which she overseas 4,400 families.

Although Ranu has had a successful career as a mitaan, she has also faced a number of challenges. Her grandparents and extended family failed to support her desire to work and gain independence. Additionally, SHG members outside her immediate neighborhood were hesitant to fully trust her and were difficult to communicate with. Despite these initial adversities, Ranu has excelled in her position due to her perseverance, as well as parental support. Ranu’s father helps drive her to and from work, allowing her to work late into the night. Additionally, her mother helps take care of her children by preparing them for school and cooking meals. With the emotional and physical support of her family, Ranu, a widow, now earns enough money to put her two children through school.

Aside from the important role SPS has played in her own life, the organization has also enhanced the lives of those in the community. For example, the SHG program serves as a platform to encourage women to leave their homes that otherwise wouldn’t do so due to sociocultural norms. This has allowed women to further engage with one another in different capacities, and has increased the concern they have for one another’s wellbeing. Consequently, many of the women now partake in the “Knock Campaign” against domestic violence. Once alerted that an SHG member is abused, older members will confront the perpetrator. This neighborly concern has also manifested itself in other ways. Not long ago, a member’s husband passed away. The community responded to this tragedy by setting money aside to donate to her so that she could purchase groceries to support herself, her two children, and her widowed sister-in-law until she found work.

Ranu has also been involved in a number of successful initiatives in her community. She established 200 gas connections in her cluster and rallied 200 women to speak to local officials about garbage that failed to be removed, which caused health problems. In the past, attendance at these events has led to other improvements. For example, the women spoke to the local official about collecting their ration cards, which they were entitled to but not receiving. Within two days the government distributed the welfare cards. The influential senior mitaan also opened 100 savings accounts during a single cluster meeting, by inviting the bank manager to attend.

Families of SHG members are also recognizing the importance of SHGs in their communities. Husbands, in-laws, and parents view SHGs as vehicles to distribute information and access easy credit. As women are the mediums by which families have access to these resources, women are now respected and involved in decision-making processes. Children also benefit from SHGs. Ranu works with local girls in the Kishori Manch Program, which engages girls in educational activities about sanitation, home life, and school life to reduce the number of child brides. Ranu is a powerful force in her city of Dewas.

The Empowered

Bhuri is a champion for change in her village of Punjapura. She has been a Self-Help Group member for the past six years and a federation leader for the past four. During her time at Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bhuri has contested local elections and, more importantly, established a night school to empower women.

In 2013, Bhuri had the opportunity to visit another community in the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh, as part of an SPS exposure visit. While there, she attended a nigh school session, in which she saw older women learning to read and write. The women of Punjapura had often criticized adult literacy classes, as they felt that it would be nearly impossible to teach new concepts to older members of the community. In Bhuri’s eyes, however, age was not an acceptable excuse to neglect one’s education, as was made evident by her U.P. exposure visit. Upon returning to her village, Bhuri mobilized women in her community to attend the newly established night school, which was the first in Punjapura and in the Gartnichi area. SPS, along with her federation, searched for a teacher, as well as covered the expenses of blackboards, writing utensils, and books. The cluster also supported the night school financially, as all of its members are eligible to attend.

The night school has not only bolstered the literacy rate of women in this rural community – many of whom have never attended school before – but has also empowered them. Women can now sign and fill out bank notes, read important letters and documents, read dates, count to three hundred (they could only count to 25 or 30 previously), and help their children with their homework in order to more directly support their education. Of the women that have access to cell phones, they can now dial numbers and write text messages, which allows them to communicate with professionals, friends, and family, as well as dial emergency numbers if need be without the help of others. SHG members enrolled in the nigh school program have become independent and self-sufficient.

The night school has also dramatically increased their self-confidence. Prior to partaking in the classes, the women were unable to sign their names. At local government meetings, which happen bi-annually in Punjapura, men would grab their fingers, place them in ink, and press their digits onto government attendance sheets and papers. The women saw this process as incredibly humiliating and degrading. Other individuals would also taunt the women at these meetings due to their educational capacities. Now, women enter the sessions with confidence and have even begun collaborating with local officials on the night-school program. They have gained unparalleled respect from their community, including from government and bank professionals. Women have also gained the confidence to tackle other community problems, such as alcoholism, due to their enrollment in the program.

The importance of the night school to the community is made evident by the lengths women go in order to attend class. The class ranges from 10 to 16 students, some of who travel over 1.5km at night to attend the school, and runs six days a week from 8:00pm to 10:00pm. Women also attend the two-hour long sessions after spending a long day working in the fields and completing their household chores. Bhuri, however, would like to see an increase in attendance, which is affected by these factors, as well as social pressure and false concepts concerning adult literacy (e.g. older women cannot learn or there aren’t any benefits to attending night school). During Bhuri’s mission to encourage women to attend the night school program, she has knocked on door to door, as well as provided women anecdotal evidence about the program’s successes. For Bhuri, an education is not only a means to becoming literate, but also serves as a vehicle for female empowerment.

The Fighter

Kunwar joined the Self-Help Group Program over a decade ago, so that she could access loans more easily, as well as adopt saving habits. At the time, she separated from her husband when her youngest son was only 3 months old, and was disowned by disapproving parents that forced her to live in inhumane conditions. By joining an SHG, Kunwar was able to provide a better life for herself and her children.

When she joined the SHG, Kunwar only had Rs. 20 of savings. Now, however, she has enough savings and earnings to pay for her children’s educations, including the costs of sending her daughter to study nursing in Ujjain.

Kunwar has benefitted from a number of loan programs provided through the SHG Program to purchase land, building materials for her home (e.g. plaster, roofing, etc.), latrines, a refrigerator (which she uses to store soda and popsicles to sell), and a sewing machine. She also used a mix of loans and savings to purchase thirty poultry, pay her for her children’s education, and establish a shop that sells foodstuff, cutlery, and bangles. In the future, Kunwar would like to purchase additional poultry for eggs to sell at her shop.

Despite her success, she has also faced a number of difficulties. Community members outside of her SHG thought that she was generating money illegally to afford private education, as well as construction materials and items to build her home and small enterprise. Furthermore, they questioned her interactions with male SPS employees, who would often ask her for advice, and her status as a single mother. Kunwar, however, persevered despite social pressures. This perseverance, amongst other qualities, were noted by SPS and her community.

The SHG members saw a lot of potential in Kunwar. She was not only outspoken and progressive, but also defended other members of her community. Consequently, they asked that she not run for SHG president, so that she could become a cluster leader and federation treasurer. SPS also recommended she run for the higher level positions, as she was exceptionally good at repaying loans and managing savings. Kunwar served in both capacities for a total of eight years. Kunwar serves as an inspiration to her children, community, and SPS.

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About Kelly Anne Bridges

I am a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania where I study Science, Technology, and Society. My concentration is Energy, Environment, and Technology. Post-graduation, I would like to attend graduate school to study risk analysis and/or management, or disaster, climate change, water or food security studies. I hope to work as an environmental consultant, risk analyst, or for a non-profit organization where I can address the impacts of climate change, food insecurity, and/or water insecurity.