About 30 kms from Alwar, Rajasthan, is a small village named Khedla. The house we are about to enter is a typical village home with a mud floored courtyard and two small rooms on the side. But what takes attention is a newly built brick and mortar room in the front. Khadija, the woman of the house, tells proudly that she has recently built this room from her own savings.
Khadija got married and came into this village 35 years ago. Her husband drives a pick-up vehicle and they belong to a conservative Muslim household. Ten years ago, when ‘Ibtada’ came into their village to form women’s self-help groups, she like many others was very excited. The excitement was short lived since her husband was unsupportive of her participation. He cited her illiteracy and said she had no place in such a group and it would only be a waste of time. But Khadija was determined and with the help of some supportive elders from the village she convinced her husband to let her participate in the SHG meetings. Not only that, she also insisted that her husband attend these meetings with her to see for himself what happens in the meetings. With time, Khadija’s husband understood that the SHGs are in fact a helpful platform for not only for his wife but their whole family. Today Khadija is the President of Kranti Mahila Manch, a Block level women’s federation with the membership of 253 SHGs. As President, she is responsible to conduct monthly meetings of the federation, discuss and resolve the issues of members, oversee savings, loans, and recovery, and monitor the various committees formed under the federation. She along with the vice-president also make surprise visits twice a month to their office to check on the 8 employees and the records. Khadija is qualified as a Community Resource Person (CRP) to train new SHGs. As part of this work, she also got the opportunity to visit other places in Rajasthan, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh. She is now learning accounts, Tally and book keeping so they can take over the working of their federation without relying of outside employees.
She says that being a part of self-help groups has made her realise the value of independence and responsibility. Savings, loans, and micro-finance that are an integral part of the SHG structure gave her financial independence and she could support the household financially. It helped get her two daughters married and put one son through college. Her youngest son is in school and she is assured that he too will get through college. With financial independence, her family began respecting her and her decisions. Todays she has independence in the real sense. At the same time, being the head of a Federation, instilled a sense of responsibility. With 3000 women in 27 panchayats, she is responsible for every penny saved and spent. She has to look at the work of the federation like her own and make sure that democracy is maintained in the organisation.
All this did not come easy she says. There were many challenges and there still are. Hundreds of women still have restrictions from their families in attending meetings, making visits, and taking up roles of larger responsibility. Some women have still not shed their shyness and are reluctant to speak up in meetings and there is the omnipresent problem of literacy. Addressing these challenges and looking at them as an opportunity is what makes this work satisfying says Khadija. Increasing the confidence of women begins at the local SHG levels itself. Women are required to stand up and introduce themselves at each meeting, be it their village SHG, Cluster Meeting of Block Federation. As representatives of their groups, the office bearers also a brief report to everyone present and members are encouraged to ask questions after each report. The purpose is to give each one a chance to speak and make sure that they take this chance to improve themselves.
Khadija now dreams of creating SHGs in the 23 Panchayats where they have no representation so that each household in each of the 45 Panchayats of Laxmangadh block has at least one member in an SHG. She wishes to empower many more women like herself by providing them financial literacy and increasing opportunities for livelihood within the village community. For these women who could never even step out of the house alone, Ibtada has provided a platform to make their dreams come true.