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INDIA: Empowering Women is About Basic Funding

K. S. Harikrishnan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala, Sep 14 2008 (IPS) - Kudumbasree (Family Prosperity) is India’s one success story in getting down to the job of helping poor women take care of their own basic needs – from health care and housing to self-employment.

Backyards are handy for weekly accounting sessions by neighbourhood groups.  Credit: K.S. Harikrishnan/IPS

Backyards are handy for weekly accounting sessions by neighbourhood groups. Credit: K.S. Harikrishnan/IPS

Initiated in 1998 in Kerala state, on the southern tip of the peninsula, Kudumbasree’s main thrust lay in encouraging women to form self-help groups capable of backing them in their struggles to keep their micro-enterprises viable.

The case of Clara Kutty, a fish vendor, is illustrative. She used to buy a basket of fish at the landing sites of Neendakara harbour in Kollam district every day, on a loan of Rs 1,000 (22 US dollars), in the hope of taking home some profit after hours of frantically hawking a perishable commodity.

‘’The deal was that the money lender would collect the interest of Rs 100 in advance and give me Rs 900 (20 dollars). At day’s end I had to repay the entire Rs 1,000 and survive on any surplus – if there was any,’’ said Clara. ‘’It was only after Kudumbasree stepped in that I realised how much money I was losing to the money lender.’’

Clara now takes loans from a Kudumbasree Neighbourhood Group (NhG) that she joined a couple of years ago, paying a far less usurious 10 percent rate per month.

"Kudumbasree was initially aimed at poverty eradication in families living below the poverty line but now, ten years later, it has become a synonym for the socioeconomic empowerment of women in Kerala,’’ Kudumbasree’s director, K.T. Kunjimuhammad, explained to IPS.

NhGs formed at the grass root level also provide a social platform for women to discuss their problems, and search for better opportunities. By interacting among themselves and exchanging notes women quickly come up with micro plans suitable to their own local conditions, Kunjimuhammad said.

Nearly 3.6 million women in 185,000 NhGs now participate in Kudumbasree programmes. Each NhG has 20- 40 women members drawn from among the poorest of Kerala’s households.

A major feature of the NhGs has been the setting up of women’s banking through thrift and credit societies. At weekly meetings the meager savings of the women are pooled together and given out as loans to the most deserving. These small loans are enough to stimulate natural entrepreneurial abilities.

These thrift and credit societies have grown, on their own steam, into informal banks capable of supporting a variety of income generating activities. Kudumbasree now has 22 million US dollars worth of deposits and disbursed 50 million dollars as loans.

Repayments at the weekly meetings are brisk and such is the credibility of the NhGs that various commercial banks are ready to extend loans at attractive rates to Kudumbasree groups,’’ says R. Parvathi Devi, a functionary.

Recently the central government’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) announced readiness to provide loans to Kudumbasree units at eight percent interest against the prevailing 12 percent rate that commercial banks normally charge.

"Economic self-reliance also calls for skills and understanding of markets and the NhGs provide these,’’ said Devi. ‘’In micro groups women are the decision makers and beneficiaries and this greatly helps them shape their own destinies…unlike other social security schemes in Kerala the decision-making authorities are the poor women themselves rather than bureaucrats or politicians.’’

"Kudumbasree inculcates a sense of female empowerment besides promoting economic independence. Poor women become active and informal agents of human development and social change. This large collectivity of poor women comes in handy for implementing different projects, says K.G .Meenakshi Amma, president of an NhG at Pattazhy.

For example, Kudambasree units have been activated to tackle the management of solid waste, a serious problem in a state which generates 3,000 tons per day with little effective means of safe disposal.

Already 155 Kudumbasree waste management groups are working with 58 urban local bodies in the state. "Kudumbasree not only addressed the environmental pollution arising from solid wastes but also turned it into a means of livelihood of urban women. For collecting garbage the women charge Rs 30 (70 US cents) per month from each household", said Durga Lekshmi, a college lecturer in Kollam town.

Over the past decade Kudumbasree has helped establish thousands of micro-enterprises ranging from units producing beauty products to data-processing, plumbing and bee-keeping.

Kudambasree units in northern Kannur district began a bee-keeping enterprise in 2005 which now produces the famed ‘KK Honey’’ that is marketed through door-to-door sales as well as over its own web page. In all KK Honey now provides direct employment to 400 women.

M.A. Oommen, a respected Kerala-based social scientist, believes that the status of women has increased both within the family as well as in society as result of the Kudumbasree initiative.

Basing his observations on a formal study of Kudumbasree -that concluded earlier this year – Oommen said that the single biggest achievement was the growth in self-confidence of women who participated in the programme.

There was, he said, a rising tendency towards indebtedness among Kudumbasree members, the debt burden often outpacing the savings. But the social capital gained was tremendous, he told IPS.

"Kudumbasree’s achievements in improving self-confidence, mutual understanding and unity among women is reflected in the local body elections held in 2005 where, of the 3,000 women who contested, 1,405 women were from the NhGs,’’ Oommen said.

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