Report: Women’s History Roundtable Series, June 2011,


The Self-Help Groups Experience: Reflections on empowerment and on a personal journey

Dr. K Kalpana

Rapporteur: Reva Yunus

The roundtable with Dr. Kalpana was the first in the series of women’s history roundtable after a long gap of a year and a half. The roundtable could be revived, thanks to Launchpad which made it possible to find a meeting place for it.

Dr. Kalpana was with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) for a number of years, part of its rural microcredit and community health initiatives. Impelled by her interest in poverty and gender issues, she then went for a PhD at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.

After an informal round of introductions, Dr. Kalpana began talking about her foray into women’s issues – their problems, poverty, empowerment and need for resisting patriarchy.

She had joined the TNSF in Kanyakumari when it was part of the literacy movement and venturing into creating SHGs (Self-Help Groups) as a means to create space for women’s participation (in the movement?). As she took us through her journey, the perception, sensitivity and intellect behind her words made it possible for us to see what she had experienced in the field – the wonder of a SHG, the dire need for such an option, the dynamics among the women, the hope…and then, the nuances of failure and the disappointment as the structural enormity of the problem and its systemic roots began to be apparent.

Dr. Kalpana began with explaining in very simple terms why SHGs worked for both the lender – the bank, and the borrowers – the women’s groups. For the banks it was less hassle to deal with just one account for the whole group of women; add the excellent repayment record of SHGs and it ensures that the ‘financial bottom lines of the lending agencies aren’t hurt’ – a record the likes of which the corporate has never had with banks! And for the women it ensured survival – whether it was borrowing for food, marriages, school-fees or medical bills; needs which were not provided for by the state. And nor have banks ever worked for the poor.

However, it was the visibility and identity that women, as a group, gained through SHGs that made even more of an impact in some ways. Their commitment to SHGs, and what it did for them is what drew Dr. Kalpana to it, she said; it was the way women managed to “steal” space and time for it from a social/family structure which didn’t give them any space or time to call their own.  An example of this new-found assertion was the village (is this the right description?) notice-board – always to be found in a public place, traditionally claimed by men – proudly displaying the donor SHG’s name!

Not only that, for once the govt. sent the right signals to the people – it passed a GO (Government Order) instructing that all SHGs in a village be compulsorily included in all official meetings – the Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha, and so on. This did tell everyone that the govt. was backing women’s public assertion as a separate/independent socioeconomic group.

Dr. Kalpana went on to tell the story of Daisy – a woman for whom the local SHG became the only protection against the battering her husband subjected her to. But, on the other hand there were the implicit conditions which women had to fulfill to maintain membership – they had to be able to contribute to the group’s treasure trove; being financially solvent was of paramount importance, as was avoiding loss of face. After all, this wasn’t some bank where a defaulter had to face official lenders once a year – this was their own neighbours. So SHGs also ended up making women ‘feel individually responsible for their poverty’. Thus, within this small, painstakingly-gained space of their own too there loomed exclusion for women.

There were other limitations too. Since, patriarchy couldn’t be challenged beyond a point based solely on SHG-induced strength, it meant that women leaders either confessed to limitations and inability or hide their own experiences of violence at the hands of their husbands. Nor was talking about domestic violence always easy – after all, the same SHG might very well have both daughter-in-law and mother-in-law as members! The tragedy was that the younger women could only be part of the SHGs in the husband’s village, so there were entire kinship networks pervading local SHGs, effectively muzzling any voices protesting domestic violence. And, narrating all these frustrating realities rural women struggle with, Dr. Kalpana very powerfully and very simply made the point that a SHG “is not automatically a site for feminist consciousness”. It has to be converted into that.

For that to happen not only do the existing socioeconomic structures need to be questioned, demolished and replaced, the very first and fundamental step of realizing for themselves that “violence is not natural, legitimate or acceptable…no matter what”, that it always needs to be questioned and curbed – has to be taken. She emphasized that that is a role NGOs need to play, they need to encourage women not to just talk about, but, to ‘reframe’ their narratives – in order to learn to identify and question all anti-women practices and customs. The sector cannot restrict itself to services delivery – which, thought urgently needed most of the time – is never going to be enough; it is up to non-government, non-profit groups/actors (and academicians?) to generate this new discourse and sustain it. It is extremely important to acknowledge that empowerment does not automatically follow from financial independence or self-reliance.

Not the least because the state machinery itself is deeply and effectively anti-women in so many ways. Look at banks – when they realized how important bank-loans to SHGs were to women, they began using loans as leverage to get back older loans taken by SHG-members’ male kin! They were, of course, least bothered if any woman whose father, husband, son, or father-in-law were responsible for any unpaid loans, got pushed out of her Self-Help Group.

Point is, in any case, whatever isolated efforts govt. makes are calculated to be safe enough; they won’t cause any changes, any disruptions in the gender relations – economically or socio-politically.

Moreover, she said, we should by now have learnt to be wary of what Dr. KK calls ‘magic-wand solutions’ – there is bound to be a catch in there somewhere. Secondly, at a time when the state is actually withdrawing from welfare, refusing to consider the interests of marginalized sections, can we really “celebrate microfinance”, or expect isolated purely economic solutions to work? If the state provides microfinance or pats-on-the-back to SHGs, but does nothing about inequitable resource distribution, an alarmingly jobless growth, the dismal quality, or worse, the total absence of basic healthcare, education and food security – can one expect women to really feel or become empowered? The govt. are basically saying that we won’t provide for anything, not even the most basic needs and rights, but we’ll make loans available so you can achieve dignified survival – at a price.

The way Dr. Kalpana laid out the entire problem ending with the questions state-withdrawal raises was most effective/impressive – she managed to capture in a brief session, in very simple language, some of the most significant and urgent problems India and other third world societies are facing – which have ultimately ensured feminization of poverty in these societies.


The Q&A

Afterwards, there were questions – from both real and virtual participants, thanks to the live blogging Hemant was doing. The questions were about whether microfinance and SHGs are prevalent in, and work in urban areas; and about the ways in which microfinance institutions have impacted SHGs.

Answering part of the question, Dr. Kalpana said that it was difficult for something which is based on mutual trust and localized groups, like the SHGs are, to work in an urban setting where the lower strata is almost constantly on the move, migrating in search for jobs and shifting due to slum demolitions and encroaching drives and other problems which make moving house imperative. As for the impact of MFIs on SHGs, a participant mentioned the example of SEWA MP (SEWA MP is a centrally registered trade union for women workers in the unorganized sector in the state of Madhya Pradesh) which has had tremendous trouble expanding their credit cooperative programme which focuses not just on loans but on savings and links women with the alternate-income generation programmes; the reasons is that there are way too many MFIs in the region and these offer loans to poor families without bothering about their ability to repay. The subsequent stories of harassment over repayment are quite well documented; moreover, they do not encourage savings, only borrowing and spending. Ultimately the loans on families spiral out of control and some ended in credit-suicides too. Dr Kalpana then mentioned the mass repayment boycotts which some communities resorted to; and also incidences of district authorities clamping down on such institutions. However, it is certain that there is not enough regulation of MFIs or credit and/or income-generation options for poor families.

There was also a question about how and whether Information-technology (giving computers to rural women) can empower women/women’s collectives; this one brought out a lot of aspects of empowerment and the means required to achieve it, the difference between popular perceptions regarding it and the reality of various sections of women. There are questions regarding whether information will be available which will help women, whether they will know how to use it, and whether it will cause group dynamics to shift in a precarious direction as some women will be providers (those who will be able to access the information online directly and disseminate it to the others) and some will be recipients of it. There is furthermore, the much simpler matter of electrical power! How many villages have enough of it to run computers? So, information cannot be assumed to always empower in meaningful ways either.

In response to another question, Dr. Kalpana talked about how Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank is different from Self-Help Groups.

Basically, her narrative brought out that women had the strength, the perseverance and the ability to make their plans and even the system work for them, but not unless the state delivers on its mandate; not unless the state issues the unambiguous message that it’s finally ready to help women question conventional gender-relations, and redraw the contours of socioeconomic survival, struggle and mobility for them.

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