With right guidance, they can save, build assets and improve quality of living

Started in 1978, with an aim of eradicating poverty, the Working Women’s Forum (WWF) is soldiering on with a renewed focus on making the woman an alternative leader of the Indian household. The woman behind this 34-year movement believes that with the right guidance women have been able to save, build assets and also improve the quality of living of their whole family.

Septuagenarian Jaya Arunachalam, president of WWF, a non-Governmental organisation, started the movement when in her 40’s. An active worker in the Congress party in Tamil Nadu during Kamaraj’s time, she quit active politics, though not the party, to begin a movement that would “really do something for women and society”.

Though she realised that it needed a movement, she was clear that the movement would comprise women from the grassroots and not from the middle class. Not that the latter was not capable, but because “they would not come forward”.

With the strong backing of some women party workers who moved away from the party, she began her ‘grassroot’ campaign from the grassroots. And, she was able to make a mark because she lived by example. A Brahmin, she broke caste shackles to marry a Chettiar as early as in 1955. Though it took her parents and six sisters a couple of decades to accept her back into the fold, it was the cause of inter-caste marriage that was close to her heart when she started her work.

After three decades of hard work, she has a following of 1.2 million women in WWF spread across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Speaking to The Hindu on the sidelines of a national conference on “Women Development in the New Millennium: Issues and Challenges” at PSGR Krishnammal College for Women here, she explained how when many movements floundered, WWF identified workable solutions to speed up the poverty alleviation process using women.

“There were other movements in the 70s. But they were not enough. People were looking for change. Poverty had to be eradicated and it had to be done with participation from women. Also, there were many anomalies in the social fabric. The worst was caste discrimination. I started by conducting inter-caste marriages,” she said.

WWF executes its programmes through its wings – Indian Co-operative Network for Women, and National Union of Working Women. The former encourages entrepreneurship among women by providing them loans at low interests, while the latter takes up causes of women like female foeticide, female infanticide, child prostitution and child labour.

Ms. Arunachalam selected hawkers, vendors, fisherwomen, lace industry workers and all those who were part of the unorganised sector, provided them loans and uplifted their ilk. And, it did not end with only providing money. She also educated and trained them in their respective trades. Working models of entrepreneurship were replicated in various places and the movement spread.

“Children of women, who are part of WWF, are ensured education. But the orientation they have been given by WWF has made them use their education to transform their mothers’ business / trade into better models. For example, the daughter of a street vendor is now a fast food stall owner,” Ms. Arunachalam said.

With 74 per cent of WWF women in villages and the rest in slums, her future vision is to encourage small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to extend their businesses to villages to ensure that they made use of the services of the educated youth.

“Urbanisation is fast becoming a disaster. Educated youth are moving towards urban centres for paltry salaries because of the lure of the city. If SMEs are able to extend their bases to villages, they can restrict the youth from moving away from villages,” she said.

At the conference, she told students that WWF had done its best to uplift women who had been living in subjugation. Though there was tremendous progress on one side, there were still issues of concern that remained. Problems such as dowry, rape, gender violence and atrocities on women were still prevalent.

She urged students to take up projects to come up with solutions to these problems. She also asked them to become aware of such problems in their living areas and present it to the District Collectors to impress upon them to take necessary action.

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