Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Village Women

With an entrepreneurial couple in Begur

A woman transporting her wares in Begur

I have spent a couple of days with Bhagya visiting villages to interview women who participate in Self Help Groups, or Sanghas, that meet weekly, usually at someone’s home. IHDUA (International Human Development and Uplift Academy, founded in 1991 by Bhagya and her husband Ajai Kumar) helps train members to keep accounts and deposit funds.

Nanjappa, our guide and head administrator and passionate advocate for IHDUA, and helpers preparing to extend a loan check

The three of us were treated with great ceremony (Bhagya of course, because she founded the ngo that supports them, and Nanjappa, who is the administrative head). I felt like a celebrity, although all I did was show up.

Nanjappa was our host, an expert of 30 years in the field, and he explained more about the situation than I was able to glean from the interviews, as it quickly became clear that my questions did not translate culturally. The individual perspectives or stories I had hoped to learn were relayed as group experiences or generalities. The communal is primary here.

IHDUA has grown exponentially to include 495 self-help groups in over sixty villages with 10 to 15 members each. Most of the groups are comprised of women, but there are increasingly men’s groups are forming.

It was a radical initiative that has fundamentally changed the culture of village life. Women now have control over their own money and substantially contribute to the financial well being of the household. They buy cows, sheep, land, repair homes, learn trades such as tailoring, sewing saris and uniforms for neighbors, start beauty shops, or local small general provision shops, and buy cars to provide transportation to other villagers. For most, their efforts are with for one common goal: to provide for the education of their children.

Women entrepreneurs in Kamarhally Village

A small shop in Kabballi village

A recipient of a sewing machine and her two daughters in their kitchen

A proud owner of a new beauty shop

The women I met glow with grace, health and energy, and are beautifully dressed in saris, their hair shining. There was a great sense of ceremony, the group gathered together to listen intently, curious about my presence in their homes. The houses I entered have few belongings or furniture. Mostly, people sit on the floor on mats.

Family cows live alongside people in their homes

The women’s days are long, most beginning with milking cows and taking animals outside (the animals live inside their homes), washing floors, preparing meals, which still includes grinding the grains with stones, and perhaps working in the fields. They are solely responsible for all the cooking and cleaning and caring for the children. A number of them, if they have trained in tailoring, will sew custom sari orders, school uniforms or festival costumes in the afternoon.

Most work is still done by hand with instruments that have not changed in many centuries, like these beautiful grinding stones and mortar and pestle.

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