Hope for the hapless

"BUT FOR the "sangam" I would not have been alive today", says Nagamma, a widow. And she is not the only one. Innumerable hapless women in Chennai today owe their emancipation, economic independence and progressive views to the Working Women's Forum (WWF) in Mylapore, the "sangam" as these women call it.

The reference here is not to the educated working class or their problems. Down below the economic ladder, at the bottom most rung, is a whole group of working women in the informal sector, who are mere coolies, left uncared for, with no support or social security at the work front. This neglected lot works hard and without respite, at home and out of it, only to earn a pittance and live a life of drudgery.

Lack of education, apathetic government policies, a faulty social system and erroneous beliefs and dogma are the culprits. As a beacon came WWF in 1978. With a membership of 5,91,000 women today in the States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, WWF continues to offer succour for the struggling, impoverished women of the society.

"I am not a feminist... I am a realist who realised that uplifting the woman at the grass root level would alone help society flourish", begins Jaya Arunachalam, the founder-leader of WWF and the force behind the movement. Prioritising the needs of the poor working woman is the basic aim of WWF. When Pattamma, an old woman, and one of the vice-presidents of the forum, explains her area of work with self confidence, one assumes that she has the basic education at least. But no... she has only recently learnt to sign her name in English. Earlier too it was not very different. She could sign her name in Tamil, but could neither read nor write.

It is here that one realises how ingeniously worked out, the structure of WWF is. If an educated social worker goes to the slums and speaks of hygiene, small family norm, mother and child care, literacy or social evils she would only be scoffed at. Having been blessed with everything in life, you are in no position to advise the have-nots, would be the response. But what WWF does is different and hence effective. It trains people from among the poor, the ones who have faced problems and for whom WWF has proved a haven. The forum then sends them to the slums to advise and enlighten their neighbours. This mode of cadre development has had wonderful results. Thus it is that there are group leaders, organisers, supervisors and vice presidents from the same social background at WWF.

As a first step, small loans at nominal interest rates are given to women to develop their own small business, be it vegetable vending or flower selling . "Even if a woman has not worked before, we train her here to take up a small business of her choice and we provide her with a loan", says Srividya a coordinator, who with three others, helps in the successful running of the show. "As soon as I finished my Masters, I sought employment here by chance and it has been a pleasant accident", says Srividya.

The concept of paid social workers, is another pioneering path laid by WWF. "The women who serve here are paid members", explains Jaya Arunachalam.

Getting back to the subject of loans, the regularity in repayment has been remarkable. The women are glad that WWF has saved them from the clutches of pawn brokers. They feel that it is beneath their dignity to cheat on the forum by not repaying the loan instalments.

Charitable organisations in the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands have helped the forum in several ways. Today WWF's own bank, the Indian Cooperative Network for Women (ICNW) aids in the empowerment of the poor women.

Fullfledged health care is another area of work of WWF. "Our health projects include mother and child care, pre-natal and post-natal care and the overall health of the family. This includes hygiene too. The women's reproductive role has to be regularised, if she is to be productive in other ways and we give great importance to it," says Jaya Arunachalam.

A free hostel for children of the members of WWF is being run at Tambaram. From schooling to health, everything there is taken care of by WWF. "It is a boon for those of us who wish to educate our children, but lack the means", say these women.

Slowly they have been brought into the Health and Life insurance fold too. And for all this the membership fee at WWF is only Rs. 2 a month.

"At every stage we have to wage a battle to get things done," says Jaya Arunachalam.

Whether it is the evil of female foeticide in Dharmapuri, the tribulations of fisherwomen in Adhiramapatnam, the turmoils of toy makers in Chennapatnam or the plight of the Devadasis in Bellary, WWF has succeeded in abating their agony and allaying their woes. Women of various religions and castes work in harmony here.

Resistance and opposition come from their own families initially but after other group workers of the area untiringly go and convince the husbands and mothers-in-law about the benefits of WWF, the women face little problem on that score.

The clarity of thought of the women at WWF, their approach to life and their freedom from the shackles of superstition, amaze one as they unfold their past experiences in darkness and hibernation and their radically different present life of optimism and self-reliance today.

"WWF is doing its bit for women in every way. Yet we need more educated young women to help us succeed even further in our pro- poor strategy ," says Jaya Arunachalam, who is leaving for the Expo 2000 in Hannover soon, where she has been invited to present the case study of the WWF. Undoubtedly it is a study of a success story of perseverance which has yielded dramatic results, has lighted the lives of many thwarted women and is constantly exploring more avenues to help them.