On International Women’s Day, MetroPlus salutes a group of rural women who have turned their lives around. A. SHRIKUMAR reports.

School drop-out Parvathi of Amandur Patti near Alagar Koil never dreamt of earning money. Today, she is a quality check personnel at the unit of Hi-tech Arai in Appan Thirupathi. With a Vernier Calliper, she deftly measures the diameter and thickness of the springs manufactured at the unit and despatches them. “I feel accomplished and happy. I have never studied any physics or science,” says Parvathi, the family breadwinner. Her daughter is able to go to school with the money she earns as a daily wager now – Rs.214. She has also been able to save and buy a few sovereigns of gold.

Over a decade ago, a silent revolution kick-started in the villages surrounding Alagar Koil. Successive years of drought, failing crops and irregular wages for agriculture labourers crushed many families. “Many of us lived on just one square meal a day. We were deep in debt as money lenders and land sharks demanded exorbitant interest rates,” recalls Kaam Jothi. That’s when, Chinnapillai paati envisaged a mutually beneficial model for women. “With abusive and alcoholic spouses, most of these women had to be self-reliant,” points out the Stree Shakti Puraskar award recipient. Chinnapillai feels, real empowerment of women is yet to happen in rural India.

“I used to visit villages on foot to gather support and convince the women to form themselves into groups,” she says. What began as a 16-member group in Pullucheri village gradually grew into Vaigai Vattara Kalanjiyam (VVK), consisting of 4,899 members and 370 self-sustained kalanjiyams spread over the composite Madurai district today.

It was from here that the concept of women Self-Help Group and microcredit was born and subsequently implemented in 16 states across the nation.

The unit at Appan Thirupathi and Keezhamathur receive technical support from Hi-tech Arai, manufacturer of automobile spare parts. Around 75 members of the Kalanjiyam are involved in making oil springs for bikes and cars at the two units. “Initially, we gave them a month’s training. Over the years, they have sharpened their skills and are one of our best suppliers,” says Shanmuga Velayudham, Assistant General Manager, Hi Tech Arai. The women have also achieved zero defect records. “They are highly organized and disciplined. They maintain proper records of usage, wastage and the production rate,” he says. Everyday, the unit produces around 50,000 springs and the product reaches markets in Japan, China and Indonesia.

The salary, loan, savings and other benefit records of the workers are maintained by the Kalanjiyam. “We facilitate loans for them from the banks, enrol them in the PF scheme and look into their needs,” says Shanmuga Priya, Accountant. The VVK also trains rural women in tailoring, flower weaving, beautician course and computers. The group has helped 20 members from Pullucheri, Poondi and Paraipatti to set up dairy farms. Goat rearing and poultry farm are the other sources of livelihood. “Each member has been given two cows and the milk is sold to Aavin,” says Shanmuga Priya. “They earn a few hundreds daily which they deposit in their savings account with us.”

Other initiatives of the Kalanjiyam are dowry eradication, alcohol de-addiction and improving the health of rural women. “Just five years ago, anaemia was prevalent among school going teenage girls and young mothers. We conducted awareness campaign and health camps with doctors from the Primary Health Centres in these villages. The exercise continues,” says Rajalakshmi, the health coordinator. The members of Kalanjiyam have built Sugam, a 16-bed hospital for themselves and also facilitate health insurance. Periodically, they involve themselves in the free distribution of napkins to the women. “Earlier, the men used to restrict their wives and daughters from taking part in the awareness drives. They were so conservative that discussions on menstrual health were frowned upon. Now, the men encourage women to be hygienic and have realised the importance,” says Rajalakshmi, who is currently looking into the construction of private lavatories in half-a-dozen villages.

VVK has made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of rural women. As Chinnapillai, who now heads the Kalanjiyam, rightly says, “Women can only lead by examples. Power should be bestowed in the hands of women.”