Self-help groups bring about socio-economic empowerment of women by providing access to income-generating opportunities. Focus should now be on improving their political representation
Women have been at the forefront of politics and governance in India in recent years. Schemes, slogans and women-centric themes in important policies are increasingly becoming tools to encourage and woo this fast-growing electoral group.
In the 2019 general elections, women and men voted in almost equal numbers. And since then, the number of women voters has seen an increase of 5.1 per cent, while that of men has risen 3.6 per cent, according to a January 2022 address by the country’s chief election commissioner.
Over the years, women have emerged as the most critical constituencies for political parties, who have been including their concerns in electoral announcements.
Governments have also introduced women-centric policies; for instance, through the provision of gender parity in wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; through the building of toilets or izzat ghars under the Swachh Bharat mission; through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that provides LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) connections in the name of women of the households; through the provision of tapped water supply under the Jal Jeevan Mission, which gives women and young girls a respite from the the age-old practice of carrying buckets of water to meet their daily household needs; and through several measures by state governments to provide free public transport and cycles to women.
Along with these commitments, self-help groups (SHGs) led by women, particularly rural women, are also emerging as a point of focus for politics and policy and finding a place in election campaigns.
An SHG is a community-led and -run initiative, whose basic tenet is to ensure economic opportunities for its members, which in turn can lead to their social and political upliftment. India has around 12 million SHGs, 88 per cent of which have only women members, according to the Economic Survey 2022-23.
Highlighting their immense human capital, in 2022 Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during an address in Karahal, Madhya Pradesh (one of the states that will go to polls later this year) that SHGs would transform into “nation-help groups”.
The recently announced Union Budget for 2023-24 also focuses on advancing SHGs and helping them grow into large producer enterprises for economic empowerment.
The potential of these groups was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns, when news reports mentioned how SHG members were making COVID-19 protective equipment, masks and sanitisers; educating communities and people about the importance of vaccination; spreading awareness around social distancing and spearheading community kitchens.
According to the Economic Survey 2022-23, as on January 4 this year, more than 169 million masks have been produced by SHGs mobilised across the country under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM).
The mission was launched by the Union Ministry of Rural Development in 2011 with the mandate that at least one woman from each poor rural household is associated with an SHG.
Women-led SHGs are not just important for their own economic empowerment, but also for the overall economic growth of rural areas. Let’s see how.
From making unique handicrafts and handlooms to pickles, papads, and other products, women members of SHGS, often known as SHG didis and sakhis, have been silently contributing to rural economic growth, despite facing challenges in market access, marketing and quality checks.
At the same time, SHGs have empowered them by providing access to property or by mobilising finance. Since women who engage in SHGs draw closely from agricultural occupations and forest-based livelihoods, these groups are emerging as small microfinance institutions where women can bank on each other for lending and saving.
SHGs are also providing women with opportunities to diversify the livelihoods for improved incomes amd socio-economic growth. The rani mistris (women masons) of Jharkhand, who built toilets to help the state become open defecation free under the Swachh Bharat mission, are a case study of how occupational stereotypes have been broken through SHGs.
Recognising this, in 2021, the Union rural development ministry envisaged a target of creating “lakhpati SHGs” to enable rural women members of the SHGs earn at least Rs 1 lakh per year.
The ministry is providing livelihood support to rural SHG women and diversifying their income generating opportunities, by introducing them to higher-order economic activities and appointing and training members to take up roles of community resource persons and act as grassroots mobilisers.
Economic Survey 2022-23 points to the empowerment of nearly 0.4 million SHG members through training programmes to transform them into community resource persons such as bank sakhis, pashu sakhis, poshan sakhis and take up other such roles.
For instance, bank sakhis are women in-charge of an SHG’s banking and bookkeeping activities. In September 2021, the ministry announced a target of appointing one bank sakhi per gram panchayat by 2023-24, and said that 50,000 SHG members have been trained under DAY-NRLM for this goal.
Since livestock, animal husbandry and dairy activities are closely linked to agricultural livelihoods, SHG members are trained on best practices for livestock rearing and advising other farmers on the same.
They are then appointed as pashu sakhis under joint convergence programmes of DAY-NRLM and the Centre’s Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. These resource persons are integral to the sustenance of the farming and allied sectors.
Similarly, to facilitate food and nutrition security and seed sovereignty, rural areas have poshan sakhis that are critical in implementing the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 Mission, which aims to address problems of malnutrition among girls and women.
With the country increasingly promoting millets for food and nutritional security, many SHGs actively participate in millet production and running outlets selling millet-based products.
Such income-augmenting measures and livelihood diversification inspire and encourage more women to join SHGs and provides them opportunities to move outside the house and work towards their own social and upward mobility.
Over and above their economic empowerment, SHG members also contribute to strong social networks and stronger local institutions, thus contributing to social capital.
SHG workspaces provide important community spaces for women to interact, work together and provide each other support, thus building a spirit of trust, a stronger sense of identity, organic solidarity, reciprocity and mutual learning.
Overall socio-economic empowerment also facilitates SHGs to help meet national targets, such as those under the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals) are just some of the goals to which the women-led SHGs contribute.
While the substantial efforts for socio-economic empowerment of rural women are bearing fruit, it is time that their leadership skills and social capital were utilised effectively through political empowerment.
SHGs are no longer just meagre beneficiaries of government schemes, but rather institutions with bargaining power, and political parties have understood this. Many SHGs have started to advocate for their rights and, through pressure groups, have forayed into activism while sustaining livelihoods.
Their strong social networks make them essential to political parties because of the multiplier and demonstration effects that help further consolidate the woman vote bank.
However, there is much that needs to be done towards their political representation. The 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions—in some states, the reservation for women is 50 per cent—is a step in the right direction, albeit marred by the problem of sarpanch patis or proxy sarpanches.
One welcome step is encouraging woman candidates to file for nominations. Post the 2019 general elections, the 17th Lok Sabha inducted 78 women as members of parliament—the most in the country’s history.
In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections, the Congress reserved 40 per cent of its tickets for women. That same year, during the Dhamnagar assembly bypoll in Odisha, the Biju Janta Dal nominated a woman SHG member. All of this should guide the way forward for holistic empowerment of women.
(Swasti Pachauri is an assistant professor at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and specialises in gender and rural livelihoods)
This was first published in the March 1-15, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth
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