From a thumbprint to a signature
The story of Indian women belonging to the economically disadvantaged section of society, is one of daily struggles, and of despair and hopelessness. Often times, they have to put up with domestic violence from alcoholic husbands, simply because the alternative would be much worse. Lack of formal education and absence of technical skills, renders these women unemployable, forever keeping them trapped in a well of doom.
A group of under-privileged women, mostly house-maids, were no exception to this rule. They eked out a meagre living, were perenially in debt, and had little or no hope for the furure of their children.
In 2005, their life took an unexpected turn, when they were approached by Shankari, an Art of Living teacher committed to working towards the welfare of illiterate women in urban areas. Shankari, who up until that point, was a housewife, selling sarees in her spare time, brought these women under the Vishalakshi Women Empowerment Project of The Art of Living Foundation, founded by the spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
As a first step, Shankari sought help from a nationalised bank for funds and began a Self-Help Group (SHG) with just four women. For these women, whose measly wages were often snatched by the alcoholic husband, “saving” was an alien concept. Shankari spent time and effort to educate them about the value of saving, instilling in them a habit to put aside a certain sum of money, and manage the household with the rest.
Being illiterate and lacking in any vocational training, it would have been impossible for them to find better employment. Recognizing this, Shankari sent them to a roti-making factory to learn and to earn. Today, some of these women are also employed in the huge kitchen attached to The Art of Living International Center, in Bangalore, India.
The Canara Bank offered loans to these women to become entrepreneurs. This loan was used to get more members into the fold, and offer them vocational training in areas like agarbathi and candle-making, phenyl soap oil, soap powder, products made from banana stem fibre, foot mats stitched from cotton saris, paper bags and to do beautician courses. About 200 women received the training in various segments during 2005-2006 and later went on to train another 60 to make foot mats from waste cloth.
The women were also taught the art of making jute bags This enabled them to address a 600 jute bag order from Coimbatore for a wedding. Likewise, the women catered to the paper bag requirements of all the dignitaries who attended the silver jubilee celebrations of AOL.
A Self Help Group (SHG) comprising of about 20 women in each group was also formed to take these initiatives further and bring more such women into the fold. To begin with, four SHGs were formed, viz, Bhuveneshwari SHG, Menaskshi SHG, Vishalakshi SHG, Swarnambika SHG with a membership of 110 ladies.
The SHG managed to get Rs 2 to 3 lakhs loans sanctioned to each group which was then disbursed amongst the members of the respective groups. These funds were used by the women either for their personal needs or for promoting skills they had learnt. The loans were repaid to the banks on time, without fail. Better still, their savings which had been negative, took a northward turn, with each managing to save close to Rs 500 per month. The result? Their financial condition improved, their children were able to attend schools, there was an improvement in their level of confidence and in the quality of life. The Vishalakshi Women Empowerment Project also has a cooperative multipurpose society that acts as a bank where the members contribute funds every month and avail of loans when the need arises.
It is indeed a matter of pride, that women who were unable to sign their own names, now transact business in a co-operative society with confidence. Currently, over 375 women are getting help from this SHG and chalking out a new life for themselves. Funding girl child’s education has recently been added to the list of items addressed by VWEP.
The ladies share their stories
The women feel strongly that the society has made them self-reliant. Ratna who has been associated with the society for nine years now, says that in addition to funding her son and daughter’s education, she has been able to give them a great childhood. Her son is currently an undergradute student while her daughter is in pre-university now.
Valarmati shares her earlier days of struggle. Having no skill is a challenge she says, but having no confidence is worse. As a housewife with four children, she was struggling to give them a decent life. The society not only taught her to tailor like an expert, but slowly instilled confidence in her. She now has the confidence that she can support her family. During her sister-in-law’s marriage, she took a loan from the society and repaid it easily with her earnings from selling tailored jute bags. She has also learnt about banking and business. The society does not feel like a workplace, she says, but like a family, where they gather everyday to see what more they can do for themselves and for each other.