“Nobody can fool me now by compelling me to write false information or sign on unethical documents,” asserts Avni, dressed in a full-length salwar kameez with a dupatta over her head.
A 35-year-old resident of Kandol Gaon in Himachal Pradesh, Avni was illiterate. But she is now able to note down accounts, calculate sums of money and carry out financial transactions for the women in her village.
She says it is a change long overdue for the women of her village, initiated by the emergence of Women Self-Help Groups (SHG) or Mahila Mandals. The SHGs are informal groups formed by women in every village through the support of a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
In Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district, these groups have now been established in ten villages spread across the hills in the region and are benefiting around 200 women like Avni. These villages are a combination of farmlands and dense green forests and it is common to see cows, goats and dogs basking under the sun. Women in these villages are involved in farming, plantation and manage the cattle in addition to taking care of their children and their duties as homemakers.
It was once uncommon for women to step out of their homes but in the last few years, the lives of the women in the villages of Solan are changing. SHG meetings are held once every month in the home of one of the women in the group, and problems like income an basic amenities like electricity or furniture, health and sanitation, and other domestic issues are discussed in these meetings.
“Since I started attending the SHG meetings I began to open up and speak about issues. The other women helped me read and write basic Hindi language and today I am the Secretary of my SHG. Ab hum sab kuch diary mein likhte hai”, says Avni.
The women also save around Rs. 50 to Rs. 100 every month and contribute to the SHG fund in each meeting. The fund is used to lend money to any woman in the group in need of it. Ushadevi, a 40-year-old woman of Chhathipura gaon, says “Last month, I took a loan from the SHG fund for my daughter’s wedding. I could not have managed the wedding expenses and my daughter would remain a spinster if there was no such fund”.
Apart from saving money, the SHG fund has motivated women to become financially independent. Hemlata, a 29-year-old woman claims, “When I have some money of my own I understand what it is to be self-reliant and independent. I do not have to beg or ask my husband for money, instead I can manage by using my savings according to my own will”.
Avni further added that she had stopped depending on her husband heavily. “I always depended on my husband to work and earn because I thought that was how it was supposed to be, or at least that was what was told to me. It seemed like the typical practice where the male of the house works and the female cooks, takes care of the house and children. But through the SHG, I realised I can plough the field, sow seeds and reap harvests too. It is not just a man’s job but women are skilled and can help in farming,” she says.
Interestingly, the women were involved in various physical work. They were familiar with using a sickle, drawing water from wells, but are only now realising their true potential. Some of them have even started their own small-time businesses.
Using hay, dry bamboo and thin barks of trees, Kamlesh, a 36-year-old woman of Pimphalta village, makes handmade baskets. Kamlesh sells these baskets as a small-time business venture to generate additional income for her family. Meanwhile Kantha manages an anganwadi (childcare center) “The work helps me polish my reading skills. I want to give back to the village what I have learnt from the village,” she quips.
The SHGs have increased interactions between the women in the village, but they also lead to arguments when there are differences of opinion between the members. For instance, in a recent SHG meeting in Kandol village, Rekha, a member, raised the issue of monkeys entering her corn field and destroying crops. After a lengthy discussion on the issue, the meeting ended without a unanimous solution.
“Often, women disagree and discuss issues with a different perspective in these SHG meetings but the fact that women of remote villages of Himachal are talking and discussing problems is very important. We are brainstorming different ideas and sometimes disagreements heat up the spirit of meetings, but that makes it more interesting,” Alka, a resident of Kandol who attended the meeting says.
NGOs like the Rural Centre for Human Interests (RUCHI), based in this district, often help manage the functioning of these SHGs. Pushpalata, a community worker of RUCHI, says, “Initially, women would not talk to each other despite staying in the same village. But now they discuss issues, help each other and live together as a family. It might not seem like a big step but the fact that women are discussing, solving problems and earning their own living is a huge step in a rural settlement which is never heard or spoken about