New lease of life
KAUSALYA SANTHANAM looks at the range of activities and the problems faced by women's self-help groups in Tamil Nadu.
A united front ... members of an Irula women's SHG in Tamil Nadu.
THE women's self-help movement has infiltrated remote areas of Tamil Nadu. Tribal groups such as the Kurumbas (who live deep in the forests), the Kotas and the Irulas of the Nilgiris are engaged in the rearing of goats and sheep and selling them to generate an income so that they are not dependent on the men.
Range of activities
"Since the formation of the SHGs we have been able to bring down the problem of alcoholism, a perennial one among the tribals. We have united together, closed down the liquor shop and ensured that the men don't roam in the village drunk after nine p.m. and disturb the peace," the Irula women tell you proudly, attired in a uniform of bright green saris. They have been persuaded to join the movement by the Centre for Integrated Human Development and Social Action.
I met women manning ration shops through the SHGs and the men waiting in the long queues seemed happy at the way they were functioning. "The men have accepted us in this role and we do not find any attitudinal problem," says Radharani, a view echoed by many members of SHGs. "Tea cultivation by the women has proved very successful in the Nilgiris," Ganesh Kanna, Project Officer of the Tamil Nadu Women's Development Project here informs me. The economic activities taken up by groups in the various districts can range from the traditional such as tailoring and dairying to the unusual and adventurous such as the driving of autorickshaws, the construction of buildings and courier services.
At Coimbatore, one meets the wives of goldsmiths. Many of the members of the community were driven to suicide owing to the fall in demand for gold jewellery and the exodus of wealthy merchants scared away by the bomb blasts of 1998.
"We went to the Collector desperately seeking individual help. He suggested we form groups. We now manufacture imitation jewellery and are able to make a profit of Rs. 1,400 each a month," beams Leelavathi Subramanaiam, Animator (leader) of the Mother Teresa group, which has an outlet along with other groups in the strategically located market complex at Town Hall. (Groups are generally named after flowers or inspiring women personalities.)
On the first floor, another cluster of women is engaged in the manufacture of inexpensive sanitary towels made with low cost technology. This incidentally will benefit hundreds of rural girls and women who otherwise have no access to them. At the Sruthi Seva Trust of the Swami Dayanand Saraswati ashram at Anaikatti, there are units, which make jute bags and eco-friendly plates and cups out of palm leaf for export. The Aavin-aided milk khoa making unit is also successful, says Venugopal, secretary of the Trust.
Arduous but rewarding occupations such as quarrying have been taken up in the district by women SHGs who were previously bonded labour.
Groups have been formed for the disadvantaged. Commercial sex workers like Bhagyam brought together by the Maithri Society in Theni district tell you how they look forward to taking up trades, which will provide them a new lease of life while the Aravanis at Arogya Aham, Andipatti, talk of the solace offered by bonding which helps them counter the sexual exploitation they are constantly subjected to. The M.S. Chellamuthu Trust on the outskirts of Madurai reaches out to the mentally ill through the SHGs.
The SHG movement is mainly successful as a micro credit movement. The formation of the SHGs has helped free families from the grip of moneylenders. Banks are forthcoming with loans for economic activity and the repayment is 98 per cent, claim the authorities. But there are quite a few NGOs that are not free of corruption and also lack commitment.
Increasingly, Panchayat-level federation of women's SHGs are being formed to offer an alternative to the NGOs. In terms of marketing it is almost impossible for the women to compete with established private traders as our experience in trying to market the Pattamadai mats shows, says an administrator. Design inputs and packaging have to be improved. Similar activity taken up by too many in a group brings the problem of demand and supply; multifarious activities are required. Lack of hygiene in certain places where wheat flour and masala powders are being manufactured needs looking into.
Within government departments too, despite talk of convergence, there is often lack of cooperation in providing a platform and venue and boosting the sales of the products; inter departmental rivalry takes its toll. When an SHG member completed the construction work of a building in Ooty, panchayat members including the women protested as they did not want the SHGs to benefit. Some groups are dormant. If the lacunae are addressed, the SHG movement promises to gather more and more needy women into its fold introducing them to a tide of opportunity such as their mothers never had.
To eradicate child labour
AT A. Thulukkanpatti village in Sivakasi district, mothers of child workers organised into SHGs by the National Child Labour Project are being taught to supplement the family income so that the children are freed from exploitation and attend school. Seated sullenly on the ground, the women deny at first that the problem exists here. But slowly the truth spills out.
The social workers of NCLP tell you how child labour has moved from the factory to the home, as factory owners slyly commission work in the homes and children are engaged for long hours in the back breaking labour of fashioning the pots and the cardboard rollers for the fireworks, and the sticks for the matches. "Children are enrolled under false names in school registers and it is very tough to ferret out the truants," says field worker Easwari. "It is difficult to root out child labour. Poverty and broken homes contribute to it. Parents abandon the children when they remarry and the children are left in the care of their grandmother. Female children as usual get exploited more as child labour. False certificates are obtained about their age. The nexus between the guardians and factory owners is strong and cunning evading the preventive measures that have been imposed, but we are persevering," she says
As for the mothers, they look at you angrily and ask. "Even if our daughters want to study further where are the means to do so? Bus passes have also been abolished." (They have since been reintroduced)
Muslim women's plea
WHAT should have been a SHG session turns out into something quite unexpected at Keelakarai in Ramanathapuram district. The women gathered here are poor Muslim women wives or widows of fishermen and agricultural workers. "It was extremely difficult to make them venture out of their homes," says the secretary of the Mohamad Sathak Trust. "We are now able to make a small profit out of making vadaams (fry ums) or the sweet, which we market to the Gulf. We are able to make ends meet. But please, can't you help us educate our children? They all want to study further but we lack the means," says Husaina Begum. The cry is taken up by one woman after another with many of them bursting into tears. "All that we ask for is some help to ensure our children pursue their studies. Won't some philanthropist or the Government come forward to help us?"
The first part of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine issue dated August 1, 2004.
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