EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN FOR IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE
India has witnessed a three-fold increase in population over the last half a century without
corresponding growth in opportunities, especially in rural areas. The struggle for survival
continues among the poor people, of which women are the worst sufferers. Saddled with
day-to-day responsibilities such as fetching water from a long distance, collecting fodder and
fuel, grinding foodgrains, looking after the children and attending to the livestock and
agricultural activities, the drudgery of rural women continues. In spite of their significant
role in development of the family, they are suppressed and given an inferior status in rural
society. Their potentials are neither recognised nor are attempts made to realise their latent
The population in India will soon cross one billion, representing over 16.7% of the
world’s population. There has been a three fold increase in the population over the last half a
century. However, the economy being dependent on agriculture has not been able to retain a
proportionate rate in growth. In the absence of significant industrial growth particularly in
rural areas, there has been severe unemployment and underemployment, leading to poverty.
For most of the poor, fight for survival has been a life long mission and natural resources has
been the main source of livelihood.
During this long struggle, women have been suffering the most. They have to cope
up with day-to-day basic needs such as fetching water, collecting fodder and fuel, grinding
foodgrains and nursing their children and sick, apart from attending to their livestock and
agriculture chores. Most of the rural women have been suffering from various ailments due to
malnutrition, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, exertion and neglect. Many of them are deprived
of their basic education and confined to their houses. In spite of their significant role in
supporting the family, women in many regions have no status in the society. They are treated
as idle, despite their work schedule stretching throughout the day. They are not expected to
participate in decision making and to even express their opinion on matters concerning
The important role of women in the welfare of the family is being realised gradually.
As the socio-economic progress of the community has a direct link with the empowerment of
women, the development programmes for women are receiving greater attention. The task now
is to ensure effective participation of women in sustainable development of the community.
Role of BAIF in Rural Development
BAIF Development Research Foundation is a voluntary organisation established by
Late Dr. Manibhai Desai in 1967. He came to Urulikanchan with Mahatma Gandhi in 1946 to
manage the Nisargopchar Ashram, established by Gandhiji. Over the next 20 years, he
developed a close rapport with the rural people and introduced suitable interventions to solve
their problems. With this successful experience, BAIF was established to promote sustainable
management of natural resources such as land, livestock, water and vegetation, while providing
gainful self-employment to over 75% of the underemployed rural people.
BAIF’s activities include dairy husbandry, water resource management, afforestation on
wastelands, promotion of improved agriculture through agroforestry and eco-friendly farming
practices. The deprived rural poor having small and marginal land holding, living in drought
prone areas, particularly belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are the major target
groups. The programmes aim at sustainable livelihood, empowerment and clean environment.
Presently, BAIF is providing breeding services for cows and buffaloes owned by over
1.0 million rural families, through 725 cattle development centres, spread over 10,000 villages
in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and
Rajasthan states. The unique feature of this programme is door to door service by a trained
technician, who also provides technical guidance and motivates the backward families to
initiate various development activities. As most of the rural poor owned low productive local
cattle, BAIF decided to breed these cattle for producing high yielding crossbred cows, which
yielded 2000-2500 kg milk as compared to 200-300 kg/lactation produced by their mothers. A
family owning three such cows could earn a net income of Rs.15,000-18,000 per year. This
programme neither required capital investment nor skills. The women could easily manage the
cattle as a part time activity, without disturbing their routine work. Cattle could be feed
agricultural byproducts to generate nutritious milk as well as farmyard manure for agriculture.
As milk had good demand, dairy farming was an excellent opportunity for small farmers and
women to ensure their livelihood.
To improve the profitability of dairy husbandry, BAIF promoted the cultivation of
fodder shrubs and tree on wastelands. While developing degraded lands owned by the tribal
families in some backward villages in Vansda taluk of Valsad district in Gujarat, cultivation of
fruits was introduced, with fodder and fuelwood plants on the field bunds. Water being the
critical input for agro-based activities, various water resource development activities were
promoted. Under this programme implemented during 1982-87, the families who established
mango or cashew plantation on 0.4 land could generate year round employment and earn a net
annual income of Rs.18,000-20,000. Looking to this success, the programme has now been
replicated in the backward pockets of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh,
covering over 1,00,000 families belonging to weaker sections of the society.
While implementing land based activities, the following lessons were learnt:
1. Initial priority should be given to the development of the individual families instead of
addressing the general problems of the community;
2. It is necessary to involve the entire family in the development programme instead of
dealing only with the head of the family;
3. Single sector development has several limitations in ensuring involvement of the poor and
achieving the desired success. Hence preference should be given to multidisciplinary
4. Illiteracy and ill-health of the target families adversely affect their morale and capacity.
Hence healthcare, education, training and organisational development activities should be
introduced simultaneously with income generation;
5. As most of the rural poor are diffident, about their ability to fight poverty, it is necessary to
build their confidence before initiating any development programme.
Involvement of Women in Development
While developing horticulture in Vansda, the land owners participating in the project
had to work hard for land shaping, water conservation and establishment of fruit orchards. The
interspace was used for growing cereals, pulses and vegetable crops. As the men were slow at
work and often went out for earning wages, shopping, or in any other pretext, the women had to
put in hard labour. This was an additional burden, besides their routine activities. The
incidences of sickness among women and children were high due to the consumption of unsafe
water, lack of immunisation, sanitation and malnutrition. This affected the attendance of
children in schools. These problems had to be addressed simultaneously to ensure active
participation of women in the programme. This could be an entry point activity to involve
women in any development programme.
While interacting with the tribal families, the Field Officers learnt about the traditional
custom of ‘wavli’, through which the women exercised control over their income.
Traditionally when tribal women maintain poultry or grow vegetable crops in their backyards
as wavli, the income earned from this activity is exclusively enjoyed by them. Taking a clue
from this custom, women were encouraged to grow vegetables as intercrops in the orchards
under wavli. This was a good beginning to sustain their interest in the development. In many
locations where individual women were not able to work, the neighbouring women came
together to work in a group. Some families came forward to lease their surplus land to
landless women groups to cultivate vegetable crops. These women were trained in different
skills, which led to functional literacy. The training courses also covered elementary aspects of
community health, and child care.
As the women came together, they were willing to form groups of 15-20 members to discuss
the project activities. Gradually, these Self Help Groups (SHGs) gained strength to organise
various development activities, such as group nurseries to raise and supply fruit and fuelwood
saplings. Earlier the farmers had to purchase mango grafts at a high price from the nurseries
located at a distance of 50-100 km. With the initiative taken by the women SHGs, better
quality grafts were locally available at 30% of the original price. During the discussion, the
women came forward to take up the production of vermicompost using leafy material available
in the forests, as it could benefit their orchards.
After undertaking several such activities, the women saved some money and
contributed to their fund every fortnight or month. They loaned this amount to their members
for crop production, small trades, house repairs, purchase of vehicles, education of children,
health care and for completing many social responsibilities. Looking to the success of these
SHGs of women, the men also planned series of income generating activities through SHGs,
which included organising band troupes, utensil hiring services, tree seed collection, carpentry
The strength of the women groups and their influence on the success of horticulture
development was very significant. Formation of SHGs was beneficial in empowering the
women, while implementing various development activities successfully. Apart from savings
and micro-enterprises, the SHGs were also effective iin discussing family welfare and social
issues of their communities to find out suitable solutions. Hence BAIF decided to adopt a
similar approach while implementing other development programmes.
Formation of SHGs
During 1988-89, SHGs were promoted in 12 villages around Urulikanchan for
empowerment of women. These villages being closer to the city, agriculture and industries
were fairly well developed and basic infrastructure such as schools and primary health centres
were functional. With many villagers employed by the industries, the income level was high.
The idea of saving a small sum every month was well accepted by the women, but such small
savings did not impress the men. Therefore, the women had to be motivated regularly to sustain
their interest. Management of the funds collected by them called for greater responsibility and
integrity. Realising this need, BAIF trained the kindergarten teachers and the task of SHG
formation was entrusted to them.
In new areas where people are not acquainted with the development organisations, it was
realised that it was better to interact with the community through suitable entry point activities.
Some of the effective entry point activities were:
Development of drinking water facilities
Improving school building facilities and community halls
Construction of community toilets and washing platforms facilities
Organisation of health awareness and health camps
Organisation of cattle health camps
The entry point activity should benefit most of the people in the village and the impact
should be evident within a short period. In fuelwood scarcity areas of Eastern Uttar Pradesh,
supply of improved wood stoves were helpful in sustaining the interest of women SHGs.
Promotion of kitchen gardens, vermiculture and composting were very effective in Karnataka
and Rajasthan. In Eastern UP, where many women were suffering from leucorrhoea,
treatment was given priority even before initiating agricultural development programme.
Short term finance to support shared cropping and loan to come out of the clutches of local
money lenders have also played significant role in building the SHGs and in motivating them
to take interest in other income generation activities (Personal communication with Ms.
The SHGs in these villages initially attracted single women, who had undergone social and
economic problems. Moreover they did not have to seek permission from anybody. The
members required loan for procurement of agricultural inputs, small business and medical
treatment. Gradually the villagers were convinced about the opportunities for employment
generation through micro-credit without depending on outsiders. Apart from availing credit, the
members also valued the opportunity for communication among themselves, which helped in
solving various socio-economic problems.
In the watershed programme undertaken by BAIF in Akole taluk of Ahmednagar district in
Maharashtra, deliberate attempts were made to ensure better participation of women.
Although they were prepared to participate in many activities, it was necessary to understand
their work load and find ways to reduce their drudgery, before assigning new responsibilities.
Water scarcity being the major problem, roof-top water harvesting, deepening of wells and
conservation of natural springs were undertaken to provide safe drinking water at closer
locations. This saved their time and drudgery, while reducing the incidence of water borne
diseases. In many villages where women used traditional stone grinder to prepare wheat and
sorghum flour, ball-bearing was installed to conserve energy. In other villages, where
electricity was fairly dependable, SHGs were motivated to install floor mills. Thus with
surplus time at their disposal, the women were able to attend the meetings of Gram Sabha and
SHGs and initiate activities, such as managing grain banks, consumer stores, nurseries of fruit
and forestry plants, vegetables, gardens, flour mills, community biogas plants, etc. depending
on the local needs and opportunities.
The SHGs collected a fornightly or monthly installment, which varied from Rs.5 to Rs.50,
depending on the socio-economic conditions of the members. This amount was kept in a joint
account of 2-3 office bearers, who had a good reputation for being honest and efficient. This
fund was disbursed to needy members at an interest of 12% to 24% as mutually agreed by the
members. Most of the SHGs did not feel the need for lowering the interest rate as the money
lenders charge over 5-10% per month. Initially the members availed loan for medical
treatment, purchase of food grains and clothing, house repairs and education of children
SHGs in Community Development
In addition to collection and disbursement of money, the members discussed various issues
during their monthly meetings and imposed various conditions on their members, which were
in the best interest of the community. For instance some SHGs around Urulikanchan had taken
the following decisions. (Ghorpade, 1998).
The members should have a small family. They should avoid repeated pregnancies and
abortions, by adopting suitable family planning practices;
The members can take loan on priority for education of girls and training of women;
Support and encouragement should be given to the members, who will be contesting for the
membership of Gram Panchayat, Village Development Committee, etc.;
Members should bargain for equal wages for women workers;
No loan can be availed for the marriage of young girls.
Members took keen interest in verifying the revenue record of their properties. They fought
for the rights of their members. It was also observed that SHGs initially attracted the poor and
weaker sections of the society, because even with a small sum, the members were able to solve
their problems. SHGs brought harmony in the community. The members gained confidence to
face their problems boldly, which is the most remarkable achievement towards their
development. This enabled them to initiate several development activities such as improvement
in hygiene, sanitation, public utilities, kindergarten, primary school, adult education, child
health care and immunisation, family planning, safe drinking water and management of local
bodies and public institutions. Indeed, these indirect benefits highly empower the local people
to monitor public services and utilities provided by the government.
While saving money and solving their problems, SHGs can also play a significant role
in ensuring active participation in development and effective transfer of appropriate
technologies. Motivation of the people belonging to weaker sections of the society has been a
major bottleneck for ensuring their participation in successful implementation development
programmes. This could be achieved by subdividing the rural communities into SHGs, based
on their castes and income and focus on special issues of their interest, to motivate them. It was
also advantageous to assign specific responsibilities of development to different groups, based
on their capabilities. Such cooperation and harmony was also helpful in judicious sharing of
common benefits, while conserving the natural resources.
Development of Micro-Enterprises
Initially in 1992-93, when the SHGs started disbursing micro-credit, over 60% loan was
utilised for consumption purposes, such as food, clothing, house repairs, education and medical
services. However, with greater awareness and success of other members who utilised the loan
for production purposes, the trend had changed (Hegde and Ghorpade, 1998). Presently BAIF
is promoting micro-credit through SHGs of various development projects. These groups are
saving money and providing loan to their members for different purposes.
Around Urulikanchan the members of SHGs have taken loan for a wide range of
income generation activities such as cloth sale, embroidery unit, stationery production and sale,
sale of bangles, purchase of agricultural land, procurement and sale of improved seeds,
procurement of bullocks and other inputs for crop production. In U. P., SHGs have initiated
tailoring, rope making, vermicomposting, nursery raising and food processing as group
activities. In Gujarat, SHGs are involved in pickle and papad production and sale, leaf cup
production, vermicomposting, mushroom production, nursery management and sale of sarees.
The tribal women groups at Dharampur have taken up Warli painting and Bandhani garment
production. In Karnataka, two women groups are operating community biogas plants for
electricity generation. This energy is being used for providing light and tap water to all the
houses in the village. Production of washing powder, operation of flour mills, consumer stores
and fair price shops, preparing food products such as chilli and turmeric powder, prickle,
papad, curry powder, ragi malt are other activities efficiently handled by the women SHGs in
BAIF’s operational areas.
Among many micro-enterprises undertaken by the women groups, soap powder
production was most profitable to provide an income of Rs.195/day per member, after
deducting the expenses. The other remunerative activities were mushroom production
(Rs.113/day), warli painting and bandhani dress material (Rs.45). The profitability was based
on the demand and price realised for the products in the local market. Producing superior
materials and developing better market are the biggest challenges to sustain the development of
Benefits of SHGs
In BAIF’s programmes, the significant achievements of SHGs were in efficient
implementation of development activities such as water resources development, improved
agricultural production, horti-forestry development and tribal rehabilitation. Considering the
advantages, BAIF has now initiated the formation of SHGs in all the cattle development centres
to organise programme promotion, input mobilisation and marketing of the produce.
The SHGs have excellent opportunities to initiate small business and to extend various
essential services. These groups have the following advantages:
Ability to identify the needs of the community and facilitate efficiently;
Exposure to external business environment, government programmes and policies;
Enhanced capacity to demand better services from the local government;
Better networking to improve the productivity and profitability of farming and non-forming
Awareness on community health and environmental pollution, social issues, leading to
improved life style;
Empowerment resulting in occupying important positions in local governments,
Cooperatives and social organisations.
Observations over the last 8-10 years have indicated that the SHGs can provide a solid
foundation to a idealistic and prosperous society. This can ensure, progress, welfare, better
quality of life and a clean environment for the future. SHG can assume the responsibility of
implementing various development projects for their communities and sustain the growth even
after the termination of external support. The task is to build the team spirit and explore other
opportunities. The following support services will be useful to strengthen the SHG
development in the future.
Identification of New Opportunities : So far it has been easy to promote various activities,
using micro-credit, as many basic needs of the community were unattended. However, such
opportunities to sell the goods and services in local markets will soon saturate. Hence there is
an immediate need to identify new opportunities which should be based on outside demand.
This calls for networking of SHGs and setting up information centres to share information on
technologies, demand, supply and opportunities for marking.
The members of SHGs need regular training on managerial and technical aspects of the
business. Linkage with technical institutions to improve the quality of the products and
banking institutions for easy flow of funds is essential for further development of micro-
enterprises managed by SHGs.
Monitoring and Evaluation: As the market is unstable, regular monitoring and evaluation of
micro-enterprises is essential. The entrepreneurs should adopt simple systems to control
finance, inventory and costs. As most of the micro-enterprises are operating with a thin profit
margin, inadequate cost control may upset the business. They should also look for alternate
opportunities to modify the process or the business to sustain the development.
Hegde, N. G. and Ghorpade, A. S. 1998. Role of Micro-credit: Beyond Poverty
Alleviation. In “Integrated Rural Development for Sustainable Livelihood”. BAIF: 87-95.
Ghorpade, A. S. 1998. Helping women to help themselves: BAIF’s experiences in rural
micro-credit systems. Paper presented at the Third Global Conference on International
Network of Alternative Financial Institutions’ at Madurai, November 16-18 (Unpublished):