When Shantha took up a volunteer job at a local government office in the village of Kodapattinam, situated in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district, she had no idea that her life would change forever — and not only her life, but that she would inspire, empower and transform several other lives!
Shantha (who, like many women where she lives, doesn’t use her last name) was born amidst extreme poverty, had lost her parents at the age of six and was married in an extremely poorer family. Life was hard — but it became harder after her children were born — she was unable to make ends meet and support her two kids.
The idea of volunteering at the government office was to get some exposure to a wider world beyond her immediate family and community. The job gave her nothing except for reimbursing her bus fares, but she did get an experience of working in an office and networking with government workers and business people — and that’s what she was looking for.
It was during her tenure at that office when she heard of self-help groups (SHGs) — the idea was based on the model of microfinance — and Shantha believed that this could alleviate her poverty. The prerequisite was that each individual from the group had to contribute an equal amount of money to avail a matched amount of loan by the bank with subsidised interest rates.
The process was then followed by the submission of business ideas by the group, and if approved, the loan could be used to get their business going, and part of their revenues could be used to repay the loan over time.
All Shantha wished was a minimum of 20 women willing to contribute INR 10 each to start the group. But her fate wanted to test her — and it took her more than two years to find those 20 women. This would be enough to picturise the poverty level and poor condition of that village I assume!
Shantha never gave up. She went from door to door — tried several times to convince those women — gave them ideas to save that INR 10, which we randomly spend on chocolate or cigarettes! And she did it.
The bank, initially, was not ready to believe her plans, because she was a woman, but this gritty lady did not give up even then. After six months, she was able to convince the bank, and in her words, she learnt to deal with such issues herself. And as of today, the bank trusts them more than they trust most men in her village.
Shantha’s self-help groups (SHGs) AKA microfinance group started with buying cows and selling their milk. In 2009, she came in contact with a Chennai-based bag manufacturer which was looking to outsource the packaging part of its business. Keeping the financial well-being of the women of her village, she immediately agreed to the deal.
It took her some time to find a space for this job and to convince more women to join it, but eventually, it kicked off, and she employed more women over the years. You can guess the profit by the fact that they managed to manufacture more than 5,000 bags per week with a strength of 26 women in the group. These are the women whose lives were drastically transformed by employment. They became more self-independent, empowered and self-sufficient.
Shantha’s self-help groups (SHGs) also serve as a model for women in other villages. She helps other women to begin from scratch, and she continues to inspire others to move forward in their life.
As for herself and her kids — her son is the first graduate and an engineer from her family to work at a reputed company — she owns a concrete house, a television, a fan, a bed, a stove and a dignified life which each of us work hard to live.
“I was the only one excited about it. But I knew I should start it in my village. Today, we have a great track record…with the bank. The women recognise the fact that there are several of us…and we are all responsible for each other, so everyone pays on time. Looking at how well we managed (it), the bank called us and asked us to help start groups in surrounding villages. After I started about two groups, I trained people to start their own groups. I’m living happily and peacefully,” Shantha told the BBC.
October 17 is observed as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty throughout the world. As per the United Nations, high poverty rates are often found in small, fragile and conflict-affected countries, and as of 2018, 55% of the world’s population have no access to at least one social protection cash benefit.
The theme for the Day this year addresses the challenge of achieving social and environmental justice for all. Individuals like Shantha, who thinks of others upliftment along with theirs, are much needed for this society right now, and Infano intends to be one of them — by empowering more women, bringing more such stories to you with a hope to bring a light of change. #EndPoverty #InfanoWomen