The power of self-help: how women in India are achieving economic, social and political empowerment

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The power of self-help: how women in India are achieving economic, social and political empowerment

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Women from more than 246,000 households have taken steps to change their lives by becoming part of the IFAD-supported Tejaswini Rural Women’s Empowerment Programme in the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh. The programme supports three tiers of institutions in six districts: 18,000 self-help groups, 2,600 village level committees and 60 federations. The self-help groups have been strikingly successful in enabling women to build their skills and confidence, and increase their incomes.

The groups offer both financial and social support, empowering women with a strong network of allies. Their initiatives have been diverse: some groups have helped women consolidate their savings, others have addressed domestic violence, alcoholism and caste-related issues in the public sphere. But even as their initiatives differ, the self-help groups all share similar ambitions: tejaswini literally means “radiating with capability”. Originally due to close in 2015, the Tejaswini programme in Madhya Pradesh has been granted an additional US$15 million in financing and extended through 2018 because of its remarkable work.

Courage brigades fight violence against women

One of the particular successes of the programme has been the creation of Shaurya Dals, or Courage Brigades, which intervene in communities to help fight violence against women. Each brigade consists of five women from a self-help group and five other people with authority in the village - usually men. The groups are well known and have the respect needed to support the interventions they make.

So when women from one Courage Brigade suspected that a teenage girl who was arranged to marry an older man might be trafficked into prostitution, they were able to step in. They stopped the marriage, handed the man over to the police and raised the funds to send the teenager to boarding school. Courage Brigades are active in all the villages where the programme is operating and have now been scaled up and replicated across the 51 districts of Madhya Pradesh by the Government.

Beyond the social benefits, the self-help groups also provide important economic advantages for their members, including microfinance initiatives such as savings and loans. They offer training and skills development, access to livelihoods activities and market linkages which provide opportunities for the women to increase their incomes. In some cases, the groups start these projects themselves; in others, they disseminate information or link women to existing initiatives. Other advantages for members of self-help groups include access to health services, labour-saving devices and input to local governments. These multiple benefits lead to holistic empowerment for the women in the self-help groups, improving both their livelihoods and those of their families.

A high proportion of the  population in the programme area, especially in the three Southern districts is tribal and the combination of economic and social exclusion makes the Tejaswini programme especially important. Too often denied a voice, these women have a great deal to gain from the opportunities for holistic empowerment that the programme offers.

Looking beyond the life of the programme

As the programme wraps up, its sustainability – or continued work – in the state is a high priority. Mahila Vitta Vikas Nigam, the agency responsible for implementing the programme in Madhya Pradesh, has been introducing a number of interventions as part of an exit strategy, including enabling self-help groups to prepare business plans at the federation level and enabling the federations to become financially self- sustaining community institutions. Under current plans, organizations at the federation level will continue to receive support for three years after the programme ends, to ensure that they are well-established and able to operate autonomously.

Rekha Pandram is a tribal woman leader whose participation in the Tejaswini programme has changed her own life and that of thousands of other women. Read her story here