Home Church in Action Church self-help groups assist women empowerment in northern India

Church self-help groups assist women empowerment in northern India

Four years ago, Phoolan Devi was preoccupied with her routine of household chores and responsibilities that come with the role of a rural housewife in northern rural India.

Her life took a change when she enrolled in a self-help group created by the Catholic Social Service Society of Jammu and Kashmir in her area. 

After enrolling the women in the group were provided with a small loan amounting of a few hundred US dollars to help them build their own start-up business. 

With the money Devi established a boutique business to make affordable garments for women at her village of RS Pora. As Devi’s boutique business developed her income grew and she wanted more women in her isolated area to have the opportunity to become financially independent.

“There were women who were being beaten up by their husbands and in-laws for no fault,” Devi, 52, said. “They were considered no less than a burden in spite of the fact that they’d toil in their fields and look after their children. Money was the reason for the monstrous treatment they experienced,” she said.

Devi took up the matter with the Church’s social service wing; she described the women’s situation and how various programs could help them. From that Devi agreed to be a volunteer for the Church’s social service programs and began door-to-door campaigns for the purpose.

“The initial phase was toughest. The women were reluctant at first. They were scared about the societal norms and taboos,” Devi said. “Often, they would say what their relatives would say. I made them aware about the schemes and that they can create their business in their own homes and need not to break any societal norms,” she said. 

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After months of hard work, she had around 25 women in her group and from that social service society officials helped with training in cutting and tailoring, while some women also learnt cushion making and others fashion and beauty techniques.

Ratna Singh, who was part of Devi’s team two years ago, said she was at first reluctant to be involved in the group but given Devi was leading the initiative she decided to join in.

“She is the woman of highest repute in her village. Mother of two daughters; her elder daughter is a lawyer while the younger one is pursuing studies in business administration,” Ratna said.

Devi’s hard work began to yield results soon and women in her group began to earn some money. Word of mouth spread about the group’s success and soon more women were wanting to join and sought Devi’s guidance on how to enrol.

The church society currently has more than 25 self-help groups with more than 350 women registered.

Madhulika Sharama, a society coordinator at RS Pora said that Devi’s efforts were key to the program’s success in the village.

“When we started the project, we observed women in this area are like most of in rural parts of our country where they are mainly limited to household work and seldom participating in other activities apart from agricultural work,” Sharama said.  

“From an economical perspective, they are mostly dependent on other family members. In some cases, though a woman may be the sole earner for her family, she not considered the decision maker,” she said.

“Phoolan Devi while being the face of the Church’s livelihood generation initiative for rural women has truly turned the tables around. We have women now themselves coming forward, breaking the shackles of bondage and societal taboos to become self-reliant,” she said.

Sharama stated that Devi is playing a significant role in mainstreaming the women self-help groups for other village developmental works. Self-help groups are involved in the dissemination of information related to various government schemes among villagers and they are actively participating for implementing of such schemes.

She added that the Church is going to involve self-help groups members in infrastructural development programs and in various local government programs.

For Devi herself, there is still a way to go for her to fulfill her dream to empower rural women.

“I want every woman in the village to have enough confidence in herself so that she would never allow herself to get exploited by a male dominated society,” she said. “My struggle is not just to get her a few bucks but her dignity which has been taken from us by age-old customs,” she added.

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