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Indian women as agents of change

| | in Agenda

The 21st century poses many challenges that require new ways of thinking, but none is more important than the economic role of women in a rapidly changing world. Over the last several decades, it has become accepted wisdom that improving the status of women is one of the most critical levers for addressing poverty. A series of studies have found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently, children are healthier. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to violence. Affording women more control over finances could improve the quality of life at the household level. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skill to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty, child health and nutrition improve, infant mortality declines, agricultural productivity rises, economies expand, population growth slows and cycles of poverty are broken.

In 2015, world leaders put gender equality and empowerment of girls and women squarely at the top of international and development agendas. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed upon by world leaders, raised global ambition levels and added fuel to the momentum that has been building over the last decade to achieve major improvements for people and planet, and not least the world's women. This is seen not only as important in its own right, but also as an essential ingredient to eradicate poverty. The general perception has been that gender mainstreaming is not seen as a priority of humanitarian response. It becomes an add-on, not a primary concern. It should be an essential component of social programmes. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her life is unacceptable, but all too common. Improvement in access to quality education for girls can boost their future income, save mothers' and children's lives, reduce rates of child malnutrition, and reduce overall poverty levels. For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: If we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women

In India, community groups have been set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems and issues that deal particularly with poor women. They are known as self-help groups. One of the primary objectives is, of course, to avail loans which the women access by cross guaranteeing each other's liability. These loans are part of a financial philosophy called microfinance. Members take loans for a variety of reasons: To buy medicine, start a business, purchase animals, pay school fees, buy clothing, buy food during the lean season, invest in agriculture. When we place capital in the hands of women, especially low-income women, who don't have access to loans through traditional means it works wonders — unlocking her entrepreneurial impulses. We are trying to ease the hardships of life using the same financial tools that we benefit from in the developed world.

Lending women money gives them power in a country where they have traditionally wielded very little. None had made better use of the cash than Renuka Mahalle, a shrewd, flinty young mother from Nandra village in eastern Maharashtra, who put her profits from four loans into cows, goats, land, a sturdy house and private tutors for her daughter. “I can make money out of anything,” she boasted, a flower-shaped gold stud glinting in her nose. Her house was made of mud, dirt, and cow dung with a thatched roof. In the yard, bricks were stacked up and small fire pits held twigs for cooking sorghum flatbread. A brown cow lay contentedly in the shade. Renuka had a dream of owning her own business. She thought that prudent financial management, combined with hard work and savings, could get her family there .When the dynamic Renuka got her first loan, for Rs 5,000, she already had Rs 2,000 saved from working as a cook and raising chickens, the family trade. She invested her savings in a cow she later sold for Rs 10,000. Her next Rs 10,000 she invested in a thresher machine. It takes care of her own farming requirements, and when it is not in use at her farm, she rents it out. The villagers are also happy that they don't have to hire one from an outsider. With their business savvy and a little bit of help from banks, Renuka and others like her have made great strides.

During my entire professional life in which I have connected with a vast spectrum of communities of women, I found women have both the instinct and the determination to bring about a change in their own communities. All they need is opportunity. They inspire us, and they serve as good examples of how millions of brave and industrious women are working their way up the economic ladder, with dignity and pride. Community development isn't a quick fix. It's hard work and it takes time. But what's happening in villages I worked and elsewhere shows that it's worth doing.

What sparks change for people living in poverty? Is it a microloan, access to water for crops, use of a mobile phone in a remote village? Is it a personal vision, grounded in hope and courage? Whatever the spark, we need to foster and nurture it. Several development successes have occurred in less than optimal settings. In each case, creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness, and imagined a way forward that took into account local realities and built on local strengths Today, the most important need for a change agent is empathy — not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born from a profound humility. It is an offering of respect, a moment of listening to stand in the shoes of another. The most successful leaders were those who recognised it and invoked it in the social and development interventions which they shepherded.

(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker)

 
 
 
 
 

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