Given the social structure and gender barriers that exist within Rajasthan, it is particularly critical that female participation be a priority in development interventions intended to facilitate change in the Thar. In light of the social barriers that exist for women, GRAVIS has had a particular emphasis on women’s empowerment through its Self Help Group (SHG) intervention.
The SHG model was first formulated in India in the 1990’s. It has since been adopted by women and NGOs around the world and continues to grow in popularity. In essence, SHGs are comprised of 10-15 women who carry out collective savings by contributing an agreed upon amount every month. The groups have their own rules for management of funds and the members can access loans from these funds. The savings are also deposited in the bank, which is used to secure micro-credit loans. Group members take out loans to meet a variety of needs including supporting their own income generation, through the purchase of a sewing machine or a flour mill, or contributing to her family’s agricultural assets through the purchase of livestock or equipment.
Apart from savings and loans, SHGs are also platforms for empowerment and social change. SHGs focus on several areas of empowerment, including: financial literacy, mobility and visibility, decision-making, skill building, economic security, and community engagement.
I recently visited with SHGs in the villages of Nayagon and Kan Singh Ki Seed. The women are about to take part in artisan skills training as part of economic empowerment of the SHGs. They are eager to improve their skills in sewing as a means of generating an income for their families.
In light of the deeply entrenched gender roles that exist within the social structure of Rajasthan, women are faced with the challenge of having a double burden of both productive and maternal work, without the ability to have their voices and problems heard. This structure leaves women with little time or ability to develop relationships outside of their immediate family. Women who join SHGs experience the rare opportunity to step out of their homes and be part of something that they themselves chose to be a part of.
In addition to an increase in mobility, SHGs provide a new opportunity for women to meet together and converse. The simple act of meeting with other women and conversing during meetings can go a long way. Women often discuss general day-to-day life, personal health issues, family conflicts, and other problems during group meetings. High levels of trust are built amongst SHG members. This trust and problem solving, combined with a regular time for meeting, provides members with a new social network, where they can share their burdens and problem solve collectively, that did not exist in their lives prior to membership. These small changes are important steps on the path toward individual and collective empowerment.
*Mia Schmid is an intern at GRAVIS and is currently completing a Masters in Public Administration from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Previously she has worked for the Firelight Foundation in Santa Cruz, California where she contributed to the organization’s learning management systems. Her work at GRAVIS focuses on women’s empowerment through Self Help Groups and skills training.