Self-Help Groups paying rich dividends

THRISSUR MAY 9. Thousands of women-run micro-enterprises in the district are marching ahead, undaunted by the slump and competition in the market. And the women are propelled into continuous action by the returns, however small they are. Though the common woman who runs these enterprises may still be ignorant of the all-engulfing nature of globalisation, these enterprises have quite effectively insulated many a family and society at large from the ill-effects of the policy. And the assured monthly returns make them march ahead.

Sara Joseph, writer, who is closely associated with the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of women and their micro-enterprises, says the prime motive that takes the micro-enterprises forward is the sense of satisfaction among these women of being assured of an amount every month. The disbursement of micro-credit with the help of women SHGs eliminates the very concept of blade companies from the sector. ``Even middle class women are being lured into the micro-enterprises. I know of some women SHGs that have lakhs of rupees as assets.''

The district mission coordinator of Kudumbasree, C B Mohandasan, says that women who were denied their rights have now come out of their cocooned life and are trying to enter the public sphere. And education has played a major role in this.

Ms Saritha, secretary of Sthreesakti, an NGO comprising about 1,200 societies, says ``the help these women get from us, including bank loans, helps them take on the competitive world''. Around 20,000 women are associated with Sthreesakti. Most of these micro-enterprises are engaged in activities that are familiar to women like making confectioneries, bakery items and dairy products besides agriculture. A few of them undertake job works in computer and DTP.

However, the main drawbacks of their products are their quality and lack of enticing packaging. Ms Joseph admits that their products cannot compete with multinational companies.

``But you have to see this in another perspective. Their products should be encouraged the way Gandhiji promoted Khadi during the freedom struggle. An entire village will be taking a pledge to boycott all other soaps and use the soap manufactured by a micro-enterprise run by a SHG in Cherthala on May 11. Some 20,000 women are expected to participate in it. Moreover, these products mostly stick to natural colours. The soap that most of these enterprises make is made from pure coconut oil.''

She says that some of the micro-enterprises with sufficient financial backing are engaged in research activities to enhance the quality. Ms Sarita of the Sreesakti says: ``We are planning to give them training to upgrade the quality, packaging and other aspects.''

Mr Mohandasan says the quality is good, as the women would not do anything unethical with ulterior motives. However, he says the Kudumbasree has a provision of skill up-gradation with an allotment up to Rs 2,000 for each member.

The marketing of the products is a problem and that is being tackled with some success. The main obstacle is that there is lack of a centralised system for marketing these products under a common label. But this also poses a problem as one of the coordinators of a micro-enterprise points out. She says that for marketing under a common label it is imperative that the products from the various units are of the same standard and quality. But this will be difficult. Still, many umbrella organisations of these micro-enterprises have been trying to market the products from various units under a common label. These NGOs and other Government organisations setting up the micro-enterprises are providing them awareness classes on health, general cleanliness and other aspects of daily life. Many of these organisations are conducting medical camps also.

The Sthreesakti, which conducted a survey among the members of its units, found that 34 per cent of its members are mentally depressed. This is due to several problems they face in their family and in society. So they decided to introduce counselling for the members. Ms Saritha says they are also planning to conduct counselling sessions in the interior parts of the district soon.

The Sthreesakti is also very active in campaigning against communalism and will soon be touring the district. Attempts to politicise the micro-enterprises movement may adversely affect the otherwise awe-inspiring movement. There are attempts by a section of the Congress leaders under the leadership of Padmaja Venugopal to start a party-controlled micro-enterprise movement.

Another important development with regard to these micro-enterprises in the district is their grouping together not only for marketing but for other purposes as well. Recently, 17 SHGs under the Laloor division of the Thrissur Corporation joined together under a new name, `Navakerala-Laloor'.

The new organisation will help the women identify the potential sectors for starting self-employment schemes and mobilise finance from banks and other financial institutions besides marketing their products.

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