Walking together to the break of dawn
Tales of women leaders guiding their communities towards relief during COVID-19 crisis
“We offered help to everyone irrespective of whether or not they were a part of our group. In such difficult times, we need humanity more than anything else.”
Babita is a member of phool samooh in village Belaka, Alwar. Her eyes light up as she tells us about phool samooh’s mitigation work during COVID 19 in her village. “We had a lot of migrants come home during the lockdown and our samooh realized that it was important to get them screened. In order to make it a routine, we constantly stayed in touch with the administration, working hand in hand assisting them in distributing 150 ration kits to the needy in our community. They even thanked us for staying vigilant during the lockdown. Along with that we worked together on creating awareness on the issue and emphasized the need to maintain social distancing among people.”
She is among the thousands of women in Alwar who have taken their destiny in their own hands and set examples for the others. Currently, there are four federations with 1324 SHGs functioning in 6 blocks of Alwar supported by Ibtada. Organizing and building capacities of women has remained at the forefront of Ibtada’s work ever since its inception. Our strong belief in women’s potential to bring change in the world keeps us determined and inspired. While we all continue to live locked down, these women have been fighting against all odds, showing resilience in the face of crisis and helping their communities navigate the pandemic, emerging as true leaders.
Whereas the government, development sector, medical practitioners, etc. were not well prepared to handle the crisis, interestingly, the women’s institutions were quite intuitive about what lay ahead. As soon as the news of Corona started doing the rounds, the federations unanimously decided to put an immediate halt to all the meetings and the monthly collection of money was stopped too. Any kind of recovery against any loan was stopped indefinitely to provide extra support to families during these unprecedented times.
It was also observed that in spite of the government’s efforts of creating awareness on COVID, the villagers stayed mostly unaware. The women leaders then, with the support of Ibtada team organized training for themselves over video/audio conferencing to move from awareness to action in their communities. Preeti from Chandni samooh shares, “We noticed that the banks were getting quite crowded as soon as the lockdown was announced. Social distancing was very important to avoid spread of COVID and therefore, we went around the village creating awareness on the same. We even drew circles outside all the public places such as banks, shops, etc. and distributed around 150 masks in our village.”
Some samoohs even lent loans to families outside of their group in times of crisis. Savita from Varsha samooh proudly tells us, “Our group had a sum of 45,000 Rupees as savings out of which the group unanimously decided to loan 8000 rupees to 3 needy families who were not a part of the women’s group in the village to manage their household expenses and 1 family that needed money for the medical treatment of a family member. Other than that, 10 of our members also took a loan from the samooh’s savings.” The federation also decided to waive off the penalty charges against the non-payment of EMI to offer extra support during these difficult times.
In order to ensure that nobody during the lockdown went hungry, a community-led grain bank initiative was started by Ibtada where the women leaders collected 14,983 Kgs of grain out of which 9,472 Kgs has already been distributed among 712 needy families. The federations ensured fair distribution of ration to needy families. Vimla from Savera group shares, “We ensured nobody remained hungry in our village during the lockdown. This time of difficulties also made us understand how important it is for people to access government schemes and benefits. We learned about the importance of savings, keeping our expenditure in check, and helping each other. We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Ibtada for guiding us in such testing times.”
The federations realized that COVID 19 is going to stay for a longer time than expected and therefore, a plan of action was needed for the future. Keeping in mind its implications on women and families, the federations have made some very far-sighted decisions. First of all, the interest rate on loans and penalties against late payments has been relaxed. They have also decided that in future, the SHGs would be able to decide on a new amount as a monthly installment depending on the financial condition of its members. The SHGs would also work towards promoting access to employment opportunities with the help of Ibtada to the needy families in MGNREGA. The women also decided that it was now imperative to work towards securing job cards for the needy at the earliest along with demanding for work.
Khatija from Aanchal samooh, who is also the chairperson of Kranti manch, a cluster of samoohs shares, “There are currently 4000 women members in our group and we have been helping the marginalized families ever since we came into existence. For the last 11 years, we have successfully built our cadre of women across 61 villages which turned out to be especially helpful during COVID. We sprang into action as soon as we got to know about this virus. Initially, we were scared for our lives but gradually with training from Ibtada team and more information we realized that we needed to work in solidarity whilst maintaining social distancing. All of our women leaders participated in relief work, collecting grains, distributing essentials. For the future, we have decided to have a relief fund so that we are prepared to face any problem that comes our way.” The federations have tried to sustain the bookkeepers’ employment by continuing their monthly remuneration. Many women have also shared that their work during lockdown has moved a large number of people and several women are now willing to join the existing samoohs, keeping the flame burning.
The fighting spirit of these women reminds one of a famous saying by Dolly Parton, an actress, singer, songwriter, that if your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader. What these women leaders have achieved is no minor feat, they have taken ownership of their communities, taught empathy to people, inspired people to rise in solidarity during tough times and most importantly, whilst working towards ensuring a better life for people today, they are building a sustainable model for the generations to come. They are creating history!