HYDERABAD: The International Women’s Day, earlier called the International Working Women’s Day, is the day to remind ourselves that women are working all the time, even if they are unpaid and camouflaged as ‘housewives’. In India, women’s movements have battled long and hard to be recognised as workers who create value for the nation’s economy and to be acknowledged as farmers, traders and producers, not only as mothers, wives or housewives.
Since 1980s, national development policies have slowly but steadily begun to validate women as economic actors. One promising sign since the ‘90s is the policy support for linking women’s self-help groups (SHGs) to the country’s network of nationalised banks so that women can access a productive resource - low-cost credit. An SHG is a neighbourhood-based group of about 12-20 women who make regular savings, rotate the money as loans to group members and operate a savings account with the nearest bank branch. As SHGs own and manage their own capital, they take crucial decisions regarding the use of their money.
They may decide to reduce interest rates or extend the period of loan repayment or even suspend repayment when harvests fail or local livelihoods collapse. In a spirit of solidarity and empathy, the group may condone a delay in repayment if a woman member faces a household crisis.
An SHG is entitled to seek a bank loan, with or without subsidy, depending on the government scheme it avails. This enables the women to knock on the doors of the banking sector and demand that public sector banks provide loans to them.
Research shows that women use their micro-loans for essential needs - food, clothing for children, house rent, paying school or college fees or meeting medical expenses.
Single women often use loans to make a financial contribution to an important social event in the lives of their siblings or other relatives. By doing this, they renew social ties that may serve as their safety nets during crisis. Less frequently, women invest loans in small businesses, such as a home-based petty shop or eatery. Women are more cautious about using their loans to start micro-enterprises, especially if the local village economy cannot support a new economic activity.
There are numerous instances of women using their participation in SHGs to push against the boundaries that confine them. Also, as part of SHGs, women use their links with people such as NGO staff, bank managers, officials of the Block Development Office (BDO) and the heads of local police stations, to widen their social universe.
(The writer is a faculty at IIT Madras and author of the book Women, Micro finance and the State of Neo-liberal India.)