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Breaking barriers

Women in northwest India are coming together to help each other, paving a way out of poverty for themselves and their daughters. With increased confidence, these women are now prepared to help other women come out of their cocooned lives.

 Mehrunnisa enhanced her income as well as confidence by goat rearing. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, 2014

Mehrunnisa enhanced her income as well as confidence by goat rearing. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, 2014

Aamka, is in the district of Alwar in the northwestern In dian state of Rajasthan. Home to nearly 3 million people, much of the district is made up of poor villages. The majority are already struggling with poverty. Life is especially difficult for the women who are already marginalized.

In many places in Alwar, it’s more common than not for girls to be married by age 13. Sons are more highly valued than daughters, and the daughters are rarely given an opportunity to get educated. Having no education and little support or love, it’s no surprise that these girls grow into women with low self-esteem and low status within their families and society.

But now, Heifer International has been helping the women gain confidence. With education, they’re looking inward to learn about themselves so they can look out to face the world.

The “beginning”

Heifer has a long history in India. The first shipment of 20 Jersey cows was sent to the India Ministry of Agriculture in 1955. Since then, Heifer has worked in various capacities in the country, but it wasn’t until 1992 that Heifer established a registered trust for continued programs there. Projects were mostly focused in India’s southern states with a few projects in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.In 2003, Heifer withdrew its support after finding that projects were deviating from the Heifer model. But two years later just after the Asian tsunami devastated the southern coast, Heifer began supporting projects to help in the area’s rehabilitation. Projects were also started in Rajasthan with local partners. In 2008, Heifer received registration as a representative office and ramped up work once again.

Heifer India now works in four Indian states: Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Its major activities include goat rearing and poultry, as well as fruit plants and seeds for kitchen gardening.

Two workers employed with local non-governmental organization and Heifer India partner Ibtada, first encouraged the women in Aamka to form a group.

Ibtada, an Urdu word meaning “beginning,” has a mission similar to Heifer’s in that the primary goal is to strengthen communities. For them, women are the key. When Heifer and Ibtada partner to carry out a project like the one in Aamka village, the requirement is that 10-15 women must form a group and those women, with their family’s approval, must participate in a series of trainings.

The women learn about Heifer’s 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development, livestock rearing and gender equity, among other topics. The self-help groups, as they are called, are primarily savings and credit-based groups, as these women rarely have access to banks.

The savings groups give the women a sense of power, and with their own money, the groups become self-sustaining. This increases women’s confidence. Later, after successfully managing the savings and credit groups, the women groups receive livestock as a means to further improve their livelihoods.

Inspirational case of Mehrunnisa

At 29, Mehrunnisa is responsible for taking care of her three children, her husband, her husband’s parents and brother, their one water buffalo and the family’s wheat crop. All other household duties also fall on her. Like many women in rural northwest India, she believed her worth lay solely in the home.

So when an opportunity arose to join a group of women in her small village, who pooled and saved money for future use, Mehrunnisa was wary. It meant asking her husband for money and then handing it over to women she barely knew.

“I was skeptical,” said Mehrunnisa. Perhaps more important was her husband’s skepticism. He “told me we don’t need to save anything,” she said.

Mehrunnisa became a member of the 13-member self-help group in her village. Each member contributed 10 rupees a month. A year later, they increased it to 50 rupees.

Almost immediately, the group began making loans to the women in the group. Shortly after the group began making loans, Mehrunnisa asked for a loan of 10,000 rupees. Her family had borrowed money previously from a lender who charged them exorbitant interest. The loan from the self-help group helped them to pay off their debts. It was empowering, Mehrunnisa said, and encouraging to see women taking control of at least a small portion of their lives.

The Ganesh Women’s Group, of which Mehrunnisa is a member, received goats in January 2010, and the women were already thinking about how to increase income from working with the goats. “With the ladies at home, they want to support their families with more earnings,” Mehrunnisa said. “That’s why we are happy to have the goats.”

Growing in numbers, growing with confidence

SHG meetings provide a platform for women to share and care for each other. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, 2014
SHG meetings provide a platform for women to share and care for each other. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, 2014

Mehrunnisa and the 22 other women in her Ganesh Women’s Group comprise one of the 16 women’s self-help groups that have formed since Heifer’s work with Ibtada began. These 16 groups have passed on their knowledge and goats to another 22 self-help groups, through ‘Pass on the Gift’. Heifer and Ibtada now have reached 491 families and distributed 1,350 goats.

Mehrunnisa’s group has been together for nearly two years. Bonds have formed among the women, and their husbands and families are realizing the group’s potential. As the projects progress, the women have grown in self-confidence and self respect. Mehrunnisa, for example, now knows that she can take what she’s learned through this project and work outside the home. She also thinks about the future for her two daughters.

“I’m thinking a lot and planning a lot. I want to do a lot in my life. I want to educate my children in a good school. I’m trying to work for the betterment of the group,” Mehrunnisa said. “We want to grow the group and create more groups to give more women the opportunity we’ve had.”

Annie Bergman

Global Communications Manager, Heifer International
1 World Avenue, Little Rock, AR 72202
E-mail: annie.bergman@heifer.org