RED AND GREEN WARRIORS
“When we wear the same sari, people listen.”
The women of Gulab Self-Help Group (SHG) wear red saris and the women of Zoba SHG wear green. For the past three years, these two groups from Surajbera village in India have met independently on a weekly basis to save, access credit, and share their challenges and experiences. Members of the Santhal tribal group, these groups also work together to strengthen this historically disadvantaged indigenous population. The women chose the uniforms to represent their shared challenges and collective decisions.
The members of Gulab and Zoba make decisions together and act together. For example, they acted collectively to secure 100 days of guaranteed employment under MGNREGA, an Indian government program that provides paid work for people living in poverty. First, they applied to the local government three times for access to this program, but they were pushed aside. Not to be deterred, they went straight to the District Office and were successful in securing their rightful benefits. Now, they are negotiating pensions for four widows in the group.
Before joining their SHGs, 90% of them migrated for months at a time to West Bengal for wage labor, earning at most $50 (3,000 INR) per month. Leaving their village for up to six months a year, many women mortgaged the little land they owned as an additional source of income. Any remaining land was used for vegetable cultivation for their own consumption—but that was only enough to feed their families for around three months of the year. The women had no alternative livelihood options and no chance to save, since they barely had enough to eat. When earnings didn’t cover food or medical needs, women often gave up their wedding jewelry as collateral against loans from moneylenders who took 10% interest.
By starting profitable agriculture and small business activities, saving and accessing low-interest and low-risk credit through their SHGs, and demanding rightful distribution of government support, the women of Gulab and Zoba have transformed their lives and their roles in the community. All of the members have even gotten their jewelry back from the moneylenders. Gulab SHG member Maibiti Hansda explains: “Compared to other people in our village, we are in the best situation now. If others approach us for help with agricultural activities, we can teach them. We also can give some money and food to help them get started on a better path.”
Sushila Hansda, Zoba SHG’s elected leader says: “We don’t have to migrate anymore because now we have money and we know how to invest it.”
The women are now proud bank-users. Previously, they thought that only people wearing proper saris or trousers were allowed to enter a bank. At the time, they couldn’t afford such clothing. Field staff explained that this was only a misconception, and the SHG members had every right to enter a bank and use its services. At first, they had trouble opening accounts because they were discriminated against and turned away by the bank staff. Trickle Up partner staff advocated on the women’s behalf and the bank finally sent a delegate to Surajbera village to personally enroll each woman. Now, every member of Zoba and Gulab SHGs has a bank account and has personally visited the bank. Many have also opened bank accounts for their children and helped other community members open accounts.
Zoba SHG members have each saved an average of $45 (2,870 INR) over the past three years. As their livelihood activities become more profitable and diversified, the members have gradually increased their weekly savings contribution from $0.16 (10 INR) to $1.86 (120 INR). As many members are illiterate, they hired a bookkeeper for $0.19 (12 INR) per month to keep track of each member’s savings and any loans that have been taken out.
Previously, when the women returned from West Bengal with their earnings from wage labor, their husbands would take the money and spend it how they wanted, often on alcohol. Now, husbands can’t spend the money because it is in the SHG’s savings account, out of reach.
The women of Gulab and Zoba SHGs say with their savings they feel brave enough to take out loans. The members access credit for different reasons. Sonita Soren took a $47 (3,000 INR) loan to lease land for vegetable cultivation. Talamoy Hansda took a loan to send her son to mission school. She wants him to be educated so he can follow his dreams and have a good job in the future.
For the first time, the women of Gulab and Zoba SHGs have dreams for their children.
Before, when a child was born, there wasn’t even money for detergent to wash the baby clothes. Now the women have hope that their children will have better lives. Some, like Talamoy, send their children to a private mission school several kilometers away, which requires enough money to cover tuition and a rented hostel room for students. Sonita Soren has a daughter in free government school and an infant son. When they are older, she plans to send both of them to mission school. She wants them to learn so they can “teach me and my husband about which government programs we are entitled to and how to access them.”
In addition to the financial benefits of their SHG, the women see their social status rising in the community. Women from their mothers’ generation weren’t acknowledged in community life, or even invited to weddings or other events, because their role was in the home. But today, these women are recognized as the community leaders they’ve become. Not only are they invited to community events, the women of Gulab and Zoba SHGs are earning stable incomes, have decision-making power in the community, and are helping to transform the lives of the families that live there.
Gulab (Rose) & Zoba (Hibiscus) Self-Help Groups of Surajbera, Jharkhand, India
Determined savings groups, community leaders, independent business owners