Rural women: Empowerment knocking at their Doorstep?

Bhawna Mangla

Women’s “trivial” contribution to households

The sketch of a rural Indian woman includes a feeble body with a dupatta covering her face, carrying a pot of water on her head and a young child in her arms. In reality, this is a common sight in rural India. If not this image, one finds women washing clothes near the pond or working on farms. The many responsibilities of rural women include child-rearing, preparing all meals for large families, working on farms and cattle sheds, acquiring water from distant places, and engaging in household work. It is hard to imagine how one person can complete all these tasks in twenty-four hours and still get enough sleep. Astonishingly, when asked what women contribute to the household, the most common answer—even from women—is, “Women have nothing to contribute, they perform trivial household duties.” How can this long list of never-ending duties be considered “trivial”?

The search for solutions

What can be done to improve this situation and do justice to the needs and aspirations of the female half of the population? Women often find it hard to recognize themselves as farmers even though they do the bulk of the labor in the field. Men do the presumably “more important” mechanized or market-oriented work on farms. However, the major obstacle that stands in the way of women’s empowerment is not necessarily men’s attitudes towards subjects of gender equality and justice but women’s failure to recognize their rights, entitlements, and value.

A solution to the long-standing problem was found by some women in Alwar, Rajasthan, who were associated with a local non-government organization. The women worked in keeping with the Self Help Group (SHG) model that works in three stages: 1) group formation, 2) capital formation through revolving funds, and 3) skill development and engaging in economic activities. The SHG model in their villages promotes efficient farming and animal-rearing practices in addition to savings and capital formation. Members are informed about the use of soil nutrients that boost crop productivity, and fodder that increases cattle yield. Women used this platform to save money, take loans for consumption purposes and to boost production, discuss issues, and implement training to improve their agricultural performance. These women are breaking the long-held quintessential character sketch of rural Indian women. They are vibrant, confident, and empowered.

The inspirational journey

The newly inspired women had varied experiences to share about changes in their lives since their enrollment as SHG members. Many had been members of SHG groups for more than a decade and were well equipped with information on the use of soil nutrients to increase crop productivity and fodder that improves cattle productivity. Their husbands are now dependent on them for information on soil health management.  The women have adopted a habit of saving regularly. Small debt requirements at the time of sowing, purchasing livestock, sudden health expenses, or wedding and other social obligations are arranged by these women through the SHG. Their savings, as a group, contribute to their financial empowerment. Household finances are now managed by the women. This has increased their participation in decision-making at the household level, especially, in financial matters. Women are mobilized to go out of their village to attend trainings and meetings and for bank-related work. All this was possible because a nonprofit institution helped them form a group and find solutions to their problems together.

The stories of two women in the rural region of Alwar are particularly inspirational. The first story is of a twenty-three-year-old woman who recently graduated from college. She was married off while she was still studying in class 8, but her household responsibilities did not stop her from continuing her studies. Her husband and in-laws fully encouraged her pursuit. She also received support from her SHG association and learned bookkeeping skills. This helped her earn the nominal amount of Rs. 2,500 per month for her contribution to the SHG. She planned to give entrance exams for different government jobs to progress further in her career. The second story is about a woman, about the same age with two kids, who was pursuing her graduation. Her husband, a teacher, motivated to continue studying when he noticed her passion for learning. While she is busy fulfilling the responsibilities of the SHG, he takes on more household responsibilities to reduce her work burden.

While I was in conversation with her, to learn about her challenges and achievements, her husband prepared lemonade and served it to all present. This made me think, well, this is a rare sight in so-called “developed” urban regions as well.

The power of helping institutions, along with education, has emerged as a practical solution for providing rural women with the respect and recognition they deserve. There is great truth to the saying, “united we stand and divided we fall”! The journey towards empowerment of rural women and gender equity has finally begun.

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