India: The Power of the Collective Voice

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"Saahasee is called by God's love to see every poor home in our nation empowered and celebrating life in community where dignity, freedom and justice prevail."
- Saahasee vision statement

Vijay Lakshmi is named after the Hindu goddess of wealth and her name means “successful”. She married early, at around 16, and lives with her husband and his family in a room 3 metres square. Her husband is an unskilled labourer, and when they married, providing food every day was difficult.

Vijay lives in a culture where women are relegated to the fringes of justice, dignity, freedom and, sadly, even hope. Traditionally, women are the family nurturers, expected to raise children and manage households on tiny incomes. The stress is enormous and the job is thankless. No matter how stoic, courageous or good she may be, her role is never affirmed, her personal needs never a priority. A woman’s value, from birth, has no social recognition, no potential economic value, and no social value, as she is “reared” to be another family’s property. Investing in her, in any manner, is a drain on the family. She is the so-called “laden ox of the family” and the “non-cashable cow”. Parents-to-be say “do not give me a girl child…give me death instead!”

India: The Power of the Collective Voice

Through Saahasee's Self-Help Groups, women are becoming leaders in their community. Photo: Martine Wilson

In the midst of these tragic circumstances, Saahasee, a TEAR Australia partner, is making a positive change in the lives of vulnerable women.

By the time she was twenty, Vijay Lakshmi had two children, and only a fifth grade education. Her husband was addicted to alcohol and uncaring. She came in touch with Saahasee over pots of chai and lots of group discussions. She was offered skills training and opted to join the women’s sewing classes. In three months she was able to sew for her family, and gradually became the sewing teacher for the neighborhood. She now earns her own income and has shared her life story with other women in her community. Vijay is part of a Self-Help Group, and her hard work is enabling her to live up to her name-sake, and become a success in her neighbourhood.

Her story is typical of the tens of thousands of women whose lives have been transformed through the work of Saahasee.

Self-Help Groups

The basic structure of the Self-Help Group (SHG) is a forum for savings, loans, and sharing knowledge and personal and community problems. The women pool their money and loan it out within the group, according to regulations established on the principles of cooperation and interdependence.

Individually, the groups are a way for women to improve their families, through improved income, nutrition, housing, and sanitation – and much more. Collectively, SHGs are a mass movement for vulnerable women to address community problems. More and more women have joined as they witness the empowerment of other women and the resulting social and economic change in their families. Today, 25,000 women are involved in Saahasee’s SHGs, across five cities.

Each group has a President and a Secretary, who represent their group at Saahasee’s Federation of Self-Help Groups. The Federation is a collective for the women to address community issues, and for them to connect with other agencies. In the Federation, women are not beneficiaries, they are partners, acting together on the basis of their rights, to leverage assistance from other stakeholders, including local governments, politicians, welfare associations, NGOs, media, health and sanitation departments, government and private educational and financial institutions.

In the Federation, some women have formed Issue Based Committees (IBCs) addressing a specific issue within their own neighbourhood – such as child protection, domestic violence, water and sanitation, HIV prevention, girls' education or care for senior citizens. The groups connect with other agencies working toward common objectives. With support from Saahasee, the communities themselves contribute towards the cost of addressing these prevalent issues, raising community resources and external resources. Women are now established as being capable of not only addressing, but reversing oppression in their community. They have successfully disarmed the exploitative money lenders (by establishing their own collective credit systems), and encouraged the members of the SHGs to have zero-tolerance towards domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse and rape.

Saahasee’s Federation has a proven track record of identifying, planning and addressing women’s needs. There are changing power dynamics as women become decision makers in the family and take on community leadership positions. Women are now an “army” of financially capable contributors, shaping and developing their family income by earning, saving, negotiating, leading and power broking - all within the vulnerable environment in which they live.

A Wave of Protest

In April 2013, a frightening and rare incident happened in one of the slums in New Delhi. A very young girl was raped and attacked with a knife, and left in a public toilet. Those who found her called the police and took her to hospital.

The next morning, when Saahasee’s project office opened, a meeting of the SHG leaders was called, along with IBC leaders and other community leaders – mostly women. They met with the parents, and found that the police had taken very little action. A representative group was formed to follow up care for the girl and to follow up with police.

It was then that the SHG members became agitated, they mobilised the slum women to picket the main road, and blocked the traffic. 1500 people gathered in a wave of protest, demanding attention. The police and media were called. The action gained the attention of senior police officials including the Assistant Commissioner of Police, who took immediate action. After a search, the perpetrator was arrested.

Saahasee staff and SHG members took care to ensure the girl had appropriate medical care. Her family was provided with food, as they missed several weeks of work and had nothing to eat. Other families contributed so they could meet their needs.

Once these women were voiceless, now their demands were clear. They wrote letters to the Chief Minister’s Office for compensation for the victim; to the Delhi Legal Service for free legal services. They organised a bank account so the family could accept the compensation money. They organised scholarships for the other children to attend school, counselling for the family and liaison with the family court. With fervour and confidence, these women contacted the media, the police, the hospitals, the courts, the Chief Minister, the banks, the schools and government offices.

Almost a year later, the family is recovering and their children are in school. They receive ongoing counselling and support from Saahasee staff.

Eddie Mall is the Executive Director of Saahasee, a TEAR Australia partner.

Location

  • India

Australian aid

This project has received funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responsible for Australia's overseas aid program.

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About TEAR

TEAR Australia is a Christian development, relief and advocacy organisation responding to global poverty and injustice. More >

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