Like many villagers in the Rae Bareli district of Uttar Pradesh, Shivpyaari could not feed her family. But when she went to the village headman to ask for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, he ridiculed her: "Men have twice the strength and can do twice as much work," he said. "Why should I give you a job?"
But Shivpyaari belonged to a self-help group; collectively, her group refused to accept the headman's answer. They went together with members of other groups from the village to see the headman's boss, the block development supervisor. Now Shivpyaari has a job under MGNREGA and her family eats two square meals a day.
Pioneered 30 years ago, self-help groups are best known for linking women to microcredit. Even if financial inclusion were the only impact of these groups, they might be well worth the investment. But Shivpyaari's story demonstrates that self-help groups serve a much greater purpose than promoting any single development goal. Indeed, they are a platform for promoting every development goal, because they empower women to identify the challenges they face, devise solutions to those challenges, and depend on each other to bring those solutions to fruition.
It is estimated that 70 per cent of India's population lives in rural parts of the country. These places are vast and hard to reach, and there is very little money available to invest in development priorities. The best way to address these difficulties is to engage rural communities in their own development by empowering the women who live there to build a better future.
Take the example of healthcare. Uttar Pradesh has some of the worst health indicators in India, but the members of Shivpyaari's self-help group are an exception. They are well-versed in the key principles of maternal, newborn and child health. They explain how 'kangaroo mother care' keeps " thanda bhukar" (hypothermia) at bay. They describe the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. They even speak openly about family planning and why it's better to space their pregnancies several years apart.
But women in self-help groups don't stop at merely understanding healthy behaviours. They also collaborate with accredited social health activists to connect the community to the health system and even start to make extra demands of the system, so that they get the support they need to act on what they know. For instance, Shivpyaari's group advocated with the health department to buy a weighing scale so that they could measure their babies and track their development on a growth chart.
The data backs up the anecdotal evidence from Shivpyaari's experience. According to a Lancet study published in 2010, women involved in self-help groups in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa were 40 per cent less likely to die in childbirth and 25 per cent less likely to see their newborn baby die.
A recent study from villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar shows that self-help groups have increased kangaroo mother care by 24 per cent and exclusive breastfeeding by 14 per cent. Women in these groups are more likely to participate in gram sabha and village health nutrition days, more likely to go to the health centre, more likely to have their children immunized, and more likely to use contraceptives.
The lesson is clear: when women have confidence in themselves, the knowledge to improve their lives, the authority to make important decisions, and a network of peers to discuss ideas with, they become a driving force for the well-being of communities throughout India. And that's the broad-based power of self-help groups. They do not solve one problem. They create an army of problem-solvers.
The world observed International Day of Rural Women on October 15 that gives us the opportunity to commit to empowering women in rural India and reinforcing the mandate of self-help groups to go beyond savings and credit. As A.P.J Abdul Kalam once said, "Empowering women is a prerequisite for creating a good nation, when women are empowered, society with stability is assured."
This article was originally published in The Telegraph, on November 19, 2016