25 years of Kudumbashree: How this Kerala women’s collective intervened to empower women, fight poverty

Whenever Kerala plunged into a deep crisis, be it floods or the pandemic, Kudumbashree has been there with the state and its people through thick and thin

By K A Shaji
Published: Thursday 18 May 2023
Women drummers playing chenda (a percussion instrument) during the celebrations. Photo: Facebook/Kudumbashree.

In her maiden visit to Kerala on May 17, 2023, President Droupadi Murmu inaugurated the silver jubilee celebrations of Kudumbashree, the largest self-help group network in the country.

The president had also released a handbook titled chuvadu (footsteps) that codified ideas for the movement’s future and the achievements it has gained so far.

For the organisation, the silver jubilee marked a self-assessment of its achievements, examining the quality of life of its members, planning the future of neighbourhood groups and micro-level planning on sustainable development goals.

While inaugurating the valedictory of the celebrations, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urged the movement to evolve steps to uplift 64,006 families in the state identified as struggling with extreme poverty.

Also read: COVID-19: Kerala fights hunger — several steps at a time

While looking back, Kudumbashree has evolved and transformed significantly in the last 25 years. Five years ago, when the worst flood of the last hundred years inundated most parts of Kerala, Kudumbashree donated Rs 7 crore to the Chief Minister’s distress relief fund. That amount equalled contributions from tech giants Google and Apple and Rs 3 crore more than the contributions of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What further made the contribution distinct was Kudumbashree’s conceptualisation years ago as an all-women poverty alleviation programme with members hailing primarily from lower-income families of the state.

Most of the Kudumbashree workers themselves were victims of the flood that perished houses, destroyed livelihoods and washed away all means of their livelihood. But all those disturbing factors failed to disspirit these women, who were eager to contribute their maximum to the distress relief fund to help those who suffered more than them.

Each ayalkoottam (neighbourhood group) under Kudumbashree collected a week’s income from their members to contribute to the fund. Profits from micro-enterprises like retail outlets and eateries operated by the neighbourhood groups had also formed part of the amount handed over to the chief minister’s fund.

After the flood, the women’s collective initiated a massive cleaning drive in which they cleaned and sanitised over 0.15 million flood-affected houses and 5,000 public places. The organisation also counselled over 8,000 families who faced psychological trauma due to the severe destruction caused by the incessant rains and floods.

Across the state, it operated community kitchens and rehabilitation camps, and through them, it set a benchmark for women’s empowerment for larger social causes. What is remarkable amid all these is that the weekly contribution of a member of the neighbourhood group to the organisation is nothing but a humble Rs 10.

In the COVID-19-induced pandemic days, when Kerala’s once hailed, robust healthcare system faced challenges, Kudumbashree got another opportunity for rapid interventions providing people relief and safeguards. Apart from manufacturing and supplying masks and sanitisers, it arranged covid treatment centres with the help of local bodies. In many local bodies, Kumbashree was the nodal agency for COVID management.

Also read: What does NFHS-5 data tell us about state of women empowerment in India

In the lockdown days, one of the biggest contributions of Kudumbashree was its ‘Janakeeya Hotels’ across the state, which ensure quality food to the needy at an affordable rate. Even those in home quarantine and isolation benefited from this initiative and its brilliant distribution network. Currently, Kudumbasree has 125 restaurants offering a sumptuous meal at Rs 20.

Kumbashree began as a cluster of microcredit neighbourhood groups with thrift and credit activities, creating many crisis managers and entrepreneurs of humble origins over the years. The collective transformed ordinary women from poverty-ridden families into agents of change and recovery in critical times like the flood and the pandemic.

It also contributed many women leaders to Kerala, where male domination still prevails despite its so-called progressive moorings. While it was launched in Malappuram 25 years ago by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, the organisation’s aim was heralded as bringing women confined within the four walls of their household to the mainstream.

In the subsequent years, Kerala has witnessed how those women became part and parcel of grassroots planning for employment generation, poverty alleviation and women empowerment. It ensured the large-scale mobilisation of women in community activities across the state. On the occasion of the silver jubilee, Kudumbashree has evolved into a huge network that is integrated with more than half of the families in the state, and it can grasp the community’s changing needs.

Between the government and the common people, it’s an easy connection. That bonding helped it explore many fields, including micro-enterprising, social collectives, agricultural initiatives, rural development projects, running palliative care units and forging compassion initiatives. It also made rapid strides in the empowerment of Dalit and tribal women.

Though learned critics still accuse the organisation of failing to evolve gender perspectives capable of addressing changed strategic gender roles and formulating a powerful critical alternative development model, its contributions are unmatchable in reducing poverty significantly. It also facilitated numerous women’s initiatives across the state, reinforcing the concept of gender-free participatory development.

In all these years, the mission implemented a process approach overriding pressures to adopt a project approach. Now, Kudumbashree is Kerala’s biggest social capital. Its members have risen to become elected members of the three-tier local bodies after enforcing the 33 per cent women reservation (in Kerala local bodies, the percentage of reservations is 50).

Also read: Collective response: Group farming helps small, landless farmers amid COVID-19 pandemic

Interestingly, Kudumbashree was launched against the 1996 People’s Plan Campaign of the then EK Nayanar-led Left Democratic Front. From the beginning, it has been functioning under the local self-government department by accepting financial support from the union government and NABARD.

At the primary level, Kudumbasree is the collective of Neighbourhood Groups (NHG). Area Development Societies (ADS) at the ward level and Community Development Societies (CDS) at the local government level. The organisation currently has 306,551 NHGs, 19,470 ADSs and 1070 CDSs.

In addition to that, in 2021, Kudumbashree launched auxiliary groups for the social and economic empowerment of young women aged 18-40 years and to offer income-generating opportunities to educated women and give them a platform for making social interventions as well as the financial development of their families. It has over 302,595 members as of now.

Kudumbashree is currently undertaking consultancy work on women empowerment in 13 other states. The major contribution attributed to it is a reduction in poverty levels in the state. Various studies and surveys, including the latest Multidimensional Poverty Index by NITI Aayog itself, stand as a testimony to this.

While on the one hand, Kudumbashree stands as a champion for women empowerment, the alarming increases in atrocities against women, including sexual assaults, mental harassment, dowry deaths and suicides, especially among married women, indicates that Kudumbashree has to come up in the coming days with strong movements and decisions to eliminate these evils.

Along with economic empowerment and political empowerment, there is a need for mental and cultural empowerment. Kerala has often been described as a ‘gender paradox’; coming out of this ‘gender paradox’ will be a litmus test for the Kudumbashree in the coming years. The organisation has to emerge as a strong counter-culture force to eliminate the crimes and evils committed against women.

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