SHGs and Women's Empowerment

SGH1Self Help Groups or SHGs are seen as a key vehicle for empowering women. The groups become a forum where women can articulate their needs and concerns. The financial component becomes a stepping stone that enables them to free their families from the oppressive burden of poverty and its wide ranging implications. They can thus, play an active role in improving the quality of their lives.

Women SHGs were initiated in Lolay by Sr. Helen in 1996. Within a year, 11 groups had been formed. In 2004, Sr. Helen was instrumental in systematising SHGs in Panighatta as well. Here, 4 groups existed. But the women were only involved in making small savings. Sr. Helen began to work with the groups, providing them supportive inputs. The number of groups increased to 9. Soon, they became affiliated to the existing government SHG system. They became connected with the Panchayat and the District Rural Development Cell. The groups grew at a dramatic rate. By 2010, there were 109 women SHGs in the Panighatta Chenga Gram Panchayat (GP). Meanwhile, SHGs were initiated in Lohasingh in 2008. Two groups are currently functional. In Lolay, 9 new groups have been formed.

Understandably, the SHGs are at various stages of maturity. Regular savings per SHG member range from Rs 10 to Rs 40 per month. The highest loan amount accessed is an impressive Rs 80,000 in Panighatta. In fact, 3 groups in Panighatta are now in a position to apply for a loan of Rs 2,00,000! Here, SHGs meet on a weekly basis. Those in Lolay and Lohasingh hold monthly meetings. At both places, groups (and individuals) have taken loans in the range of Rs 10,000 – Rs 15,000.

The SHGs have definitely made a significant contribution. The women derive great satisfaction from their ability to contribute to the family income. They also use the money in many other ways – to buy consumer goods and other articles for their homes, for paying children's education fees, to meet sudden emergency needs etc. More importantly, an increasing number of women are beginning to use the money to start small businesses. In Lohasingh, the SHG women are cooking mid day meals at government supported Shishu Shiksha Kendras for children and making a profit as well.

There have been numerous other benefits. Women don't have to depend on traditional money lenders who usually charge outrageously high interest rates. Thus, many have been able to break out of the vicious cycle of debt. There is also increased mobility among women who now travel to markets to sell livestock or produce. The SHG women are becoming more confident and vocal. They now interact with bank officials and others with ease.

There is also increased awareness about the critical social issues that impact their lives. Child marriages, domestic violence and many other such issues are being discussed openly. Increasingly, women are taking a stand and refusing to allow such practices to continue. In fact, SHG women are becoming involved in a host of initiatives (See subsequent sections on Protection and Collective Voices for more). The groups have given them a sense of strength and solidarity.  In many places, women are truly becoming the catalysts for change.


Learning by Doing

Sr. Helen recounts the early days of SHGs in Lolay. She began by encouraging women to save a fistful of rice. The groups would end up with a substantial amount by the end of the month. She would then buy the rice from them. The groups were instructed to keep aside some of the money that they earned as savings. Each day was a learning experience. Sr. Helen also remembers the first time they had to act against an SHG woman who had defaulted on a loan. The group, along with Sister, decided that they would take some livestock from the family. The aim was to make the family realise the gravity of the situation. The woman did repay later. In the bargain, Sister and the other SHG women learnt the intricacies of capturing an uninterested cow! Eventually, all the hard work bore fruit. The groups began to do well. The lessons learnt at Lolay helped Sr. Helen in starting SHGs in other places. While there have been numerous ups and downs, she is happy to see that the groups have made a difference. “Earlier, everything was adhiya – it belonged to some one else. They were just taking care of it. Now, they have their own assets,” she says with a smile.