Running households, packing children off to school and playing the role of the family breadwinner: rural women in the Sundarbans of South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal are enjoying the benefits of being part of the 17,000 self-help groups (SHGs) in the area.
Run by women, the SHGs came into being in 1997 on the initiative of social activist Abdur Wahab. With the goal of providing microcredit to landless, illiterate and impoverished women who did not have access to banking systems, the pioneering SHG began with 960 members in three villages in the district: Haroa, Polerhat and Pakapol. Most of the SHG members are in the age group of 25 to 40 years and, on an average, with more than three children to raise.
Take the case of the Bangur block of the Sundarbans. Here, women have been trained in the cultivation of medicinal plants and are now earning well. Like the Bangur members, women in over 10000 other villages are proud of their earnings. In fact, around 3,000 women bring home a monthly income of between Rs 600 and Rs 800 each, while some have even set up herbal plant cultivation programmes on their own or on leased land.
Ayapan, Kalmegh, Bhuimala, Amlaki, Brahmi, Basak, Arjun, and Sethberela are just some of the plants cultivated. The cultivation scheme receives the cooperation of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss voluntary organisation with a focus on maternal and child health; and of KKS, a German company that trains local people in making medicines from plants. Other partners of the cultivation drive are the local NGO, SHIS (South Health Improvement Samity), which purchases the plants; and the Government of India's Department of Biotechnology, that assists in tissue culture and biodiversity for better and faster plant growth.
But can the cultivation of medicinal plants really impact households?
The answer lies in what SHG member Preetilata Bachar says, "We don't need to depend on our husbands' incomes... I enjoy my income very much." Preetilata is keen that other households benefit from the cultivation and sale of medicinal plants. "We are trying to help the poor families in our Chilatala village. We arrange a meeting every week to help the other women of our locality," she says.
Economic empowerment has led to more girls attending school. Explains Abdur Rashid Gaji, village head, Bokali, "A few years ago, we were unable to send the girls of my village to school because of poverty. Now they go to school. This is only possible because the village women are earning - from the cultivation of medicinal plants." Bokali adds that empowerment has also made the women respond favourably to rural sanitation projects.
Interestingly, the women have also been able to reform many an errant husband.
"My husband was involved in criminal activities for a long time... But now he is earning Rs 50 to Rs 60 per day by pulling a rickshaw in the locality. The credit goes to the local SHG that helped him a lot to change his life," smiled one housewife, who preferred not to mention her name.
"Thanks to the SHG, I now run a grocery shop, the only one in our village. My earning has given me dignity, says Aluadin, 28, a former dacoit. This area being poor and backward, there were few opportunities for employment and many youths turned to crime.
In 2001, the first group of social offenders, a total of 20, were selected for the rehabilitation project and brought under a microcredit programme. The rehabilitation project covers more than 35 villages in South 24 Paraganas. Reformed social offenders are largely poor, landless villagers. Post-rehabilitation they end up earning around Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500, a fair hike from their prior earnings of approximately Rs 500.
Over three years, 40 such youths have - with assistance from the SHGs, persuasion from the local police, and with the help of small loans - turned their back on crime. They have, in turn, become entrepreneurs, making a living from carpentry, tailoring and the running of food stalls, for instance.
Reformed social offenders eventually send their children to school, and encourage their wives to attend the evening school where they learn to handle money, explains Sabitri Pal, president of the SHIS microcredit project that has disbursed Rs 4,50,000 for the rehabilitation of youth involved in criminal activities so far.
According to Abdur Wahab, women's empowerment has been able to better the lives of criminals, innocent children and the general prospects of entire households.