Women Fighters

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In one of Kashmir’s impoverished belts, a central government scheme has revived the Umeed that if women, alongside men, will contribute by getting into economic activity, the destinies can alter. Nearly 4000 women making marginal contributions to their self-help groups now own Rs 2 crore savings as banks opened a Rs 7 crore credit line that is working tension-free, reports Shams Irfan

(L to R) Posha and Shaista Rashid with other members during thier self help group’s meeting in Shilwat village of Sumbal, Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

(L to R) Posha and Shaista Rashid with other members during their self-help group’s meeting in Shilwat village of Sumbal, Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

In last five years, Shaista Rashid, a shy and an introvert college dropout, has not only transformed herself but the fate of over 300 women in her remote Shilwat village in Bandipora. It was, however, not so easy to break set stereotypes and centuries-old male dominance to carve a sustainable livelihood for herself and other women like her. “We had to fight with our male members to find our voices and step out of our houses,” said Shaista, 26, now Cluster Coordinator (CC) of her Village Organization (VO) under National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), locally popular as Umeed (an Urdu word for hope).

The chance to change came in July 2014, when members of Orvakal Mandal Podhupu Lakshmi Ikya Sangam (OMPLIS), a federation of 10,000 rural poor women from Andhra Pradesh, visited their village and spoke about social mobilisation and poverty elevation. They told young girls like Shaista how they can get themselves out of poverty by joining hands. These OMPLIS members had successfully created Self Help Groups (SHGs) back home and worked as a team for 25 years. They were brought to Kashmir as resource persons under NRLM, a poverty elevation programme run by Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. “They held a programme in our Panchayat Ghar with local Panchs and Sarpanches and made them understand the importance of joining hands under NRLM scheme,” said Shaista. “It was a game changer.”

After the Panchs and Sarpanches were convinced that the programme is trustworthy, they allowed womenfolk to get associated with it. OMPLIS chose three women from the village for their door-to-door awareness campaign in Shilwat. “I was one among them,” said Shaista. “They also chose a local woman who had some experience of working with an NGO earlier.”

Accompanied by OMPLIS members, these women went to every household in their village and began talking about the NRLM scheme. “As we had no resource persons of our own in Kashmir back then, we got these OMPLIS members to share their success stories under NRLM to motivate Kashmiri women,” said Arif Rashid, Block Programme Manager, NRLM.

Arif, an MBA with four years of working experience in rural development and skill development, knows almost every single member by face and name. For these members, Arif is the interface of NRLM with whom they can openly share their day-to-day issue, both related to the scheme and otherwise.

Arif is happy that after five years of work, NRLM has successfully cultivated local resource persons like Shaista, who can motive women in other parts of Kashmir.

Once the motivation part was done, OMPLIS members helped these women create Self Help Groups (SHGs). With ten members in each SHG, these small groups are helped by NRLM to generate income for its members by indulging in various livelihood activities as per their skills. In the case of Shilwat village, most of the womenfolk either used to help in agriculture activity or stayed at home doing nothing. But after learning about success stories of OMPLIS members, the women in Shilwat yearned for change and a chance to decide for themselves.

Members of different self help groups assemble for their weekly meeting at Nowgam village in Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

Members of different self-help groups assemble for their weekly meeting at Nowgam village in Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

“We created thirteen SHGs in the first go,” said Shaista. “Now we have 32 SHGs in Shilwat village only and almost all its members are active.”

As part of the NRLM structure, ten women form one SHG, and15 SHGs make one Village Organisation (VO). Currently, there are three VOs in Shilwat, whose representatives meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues faced by its members.

To start with, for the first three months, all the members were told to make a monthly contribution of Rs 25 towards their SHGs.

“This was done to help them understand the value of contribution and check their seriousness towards the scheme,” said Arif. “That is why for the first three months, NRLM doesn’t fund any group. It has to be sustained out of their contribution only.”

In order to get the first instalment of Rs 15,000 for their SHG, each group has to follow five basic rules: four meetings in a month; savings of money; internal lending between SHG members; payback of loaned money and maintenance of records. The second instalment is of Rs 40,000 and third of Rs 25,000. Once these groups get bank linkage on the basis of their performance and record, they can avail a loan of Rs 1 lakh and 3 lakh in two separate instalments. They also get a Vulnerability Relief Fund (VRF) of Rs 10,000 which is used to help a member in crisis.

“Can you believe, for most of us, managing Rs 25 a month was not easy,” said Shaista. “That is why we wanted to be financially independent and help ourselves out of poverty.”

Exploring Talent

Second, among four sisters and two brothers, Shaista quit her studies as she lacked the confidence to speak in front of people. Her father’s meagre income from a small patch of paddy land was not enough to sustain such a big family. But with no talent or motivation Shaista, like most of the other village girls, would kill time at home doing nothing.

Asmat Hassan inside an Automatic Milk Collection centre in Shilwat village of Sumbal. KL Image by Shams Irfan

Asmat Hassan inside an Automatic Milk Collection centre in Shilwat village of Sumbal. KL Image by Shams Irfan

However, once they became part of NRLM and created their own SHG, they were keen to do something to become financially independent. “One woman from our village suggested that she can get crewel and Aari work for us if we are interested,” recalls Shaista. “We called a meeting of our group and decided to give it a shot.”

As no one had any knowledge of working with threads, the lady volunteered to teach them the basics. “It took me fifteen days to learn how to do crewelwork on a curtain,” recalls Shaista.

Once they finished the first assignment, which involved basic work with threads and needles, they wanted to upgrade it to the next level and learn more intricate designs and patterns.

It took these girls another month to learn how to do crewel and Aari work on a delicate Pashmina shawl. “I had no idea that I had this talent,” said Shaista. “I started making Rs 1200 a month. Out of which I paid Rs 100 towards SHG’s account as my monthly contribution.”

Then, during their first Village Organization (VO) meeting, Shaista told other women about crewelwork and how it can help them earn better. “They were instantly interested and showed their keenness to learn,” said Shaista.

Within no time, almost entire womenfolk in Shilwat picked up the crewel and Aari work skill. “Once they learned the art, they applied for loans from their respective SHGs to procure raw material,” said Shaista.

The first instalment of Rs 15000 as NRLM funds was deposited to those SHGs who fulfilled all five criterions in the first three months. “I was the first one to apply for a loan from my group,” said Shaista.

As part of the NRLM scheme, these funds can be utilized by any SHG member as a loan but only after consulting other group members. Shaista used this amount to buy three sheep for her father. Now he has a herd of 20  which adds to their family’s income. “It was all possible because of NRLM,” said Shaista. “I was now able to speak confidently with bank officials and other people in the village.”

Zaitoona Bhutto (fifth from left) sitting with other members of Zeeshan Group in Nowgam village of Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

Zaitoona Bhutto (fifth from left) sitting with other members of Zeeshan Group in Nowgam village of Sonawari. KL Image by Shams Irfan

Posha Akhtar, 45, is a housewife, whose husband tended to their small farmland but couldn’t earn much to ensure a secure future for their two sons and a daughter. An unlettered woman, Posha was one of the first ones to join an SHG named Fatima. “Our family was literally in crisis when I joined NRLM,” said Posha, while sitting against a poster, listing five fundamentals for an SHG. “I had to take my kids out of school as I couldn’t afford to pay their fee and other expenses.” But after joining SHG, Posha not only put her kids back in school but, on occasions, took a loan from her group to pay their tuition fees.

Like Shaista, Posha too took a loan of Rs 1.25 lakh from money given to her SHG to buy raw material for carpet weaving. Now both Posha and her husband are into carpet weaving. “I am currently working on a 4×6 ft carpet which will earn me Rs 600 per sq ft as wages,” said Posha with a smile on her face.

Currently, almost ninety per cent women who are part of SHGs in Shilwat are into some kind of craft. “Most of the women have learned to do crewel and Aari work on Pashmina here,” said Shaista.

Changing Lives

In the Sumbal block, there are 4461 women associated with NRLM. They have managed to raise a fund of over Rs 2 crore in the last five years by contributing between Rs 100 and 300 monthly to their SHGs. Apart from this bank linkage has helped these women to avail loans to the tune of Rs 7 crore in as many years for upgrading their crafts and livelihoods. “Over 70 per cent of this bank loan is already being repaid. This is the first scheme where there is no NPA,” said Arif.

Asmat Hassan, 27, lives with her aged parents after her two brothers and sisters got married. Her father is a farmer who now looks after his farmland after retiring from a government job. After Asmat, a resident of Hussain Mohalla in Shilwat quit her studies in class 10th, she attended a workshop organised by handicrafts department on Crewelwork.

“My father’s income from farming is not enough to support us,” said Asmat. “I learned the art of crewelwork on a Pashmina shawl to support myself. I wanted to manage my expenses, myself.”

But getting affiliated with NRLM or Umeed scheme, as it is locally called, was not easy. “We were called names by our male counterparts in the village. When we started going out of our village to manage our businesses, they accused us of indulging in immoral activities. But that didn’t stop us, rather it gave us a push to break the stereotypes,” said Asmat. “We were asked questions like why don’t you give this money to a male member in your family so that he could invest it properly. In fact, nobody wanted a woman to step out of her house.”

But once Asmat became part of NRLM, it helped her overcome all the hurdles in life. Now she would go to Sumbal and Srinagar on her own to procure raw material and then interact with buyers without the interference of middlemen. “This sort of confidence was not possible if I had not become part of NRLM,” admitted Asmat as she shows ledger books she maintains for her SHG. “I do all the bookkeeping for my group. It was not possible a few years back. We were confined to our kitchens, called to help in the fields whenever needed.”

At present, Asmat runs an Automated Milk Collection (AMC) Centre installed in their village by Jammu & Kashmir Milk producers Co-operative Ltd. (JKMPCL), on NRLM’s request. There are 21 such AMCs installed in the first phase across Sumbal block.

With a production of over 22,000 litres of milk a day, people in Sumbal used to sell their produce to local milkmen. Every litre earned them just Rs 24, plus the last kilogram belonged to the milkman as per tradition. “Now we have automatic machines which pay as per fat content in milk,” said Asmat who has learned to operate the computer and other machines used in AMC. “Now a villager can even get Rs 40 per litre depending on the quality of the milk.”

Under NRLM, Asmat gets Rs 1 per kilogram that gets collected in her AMC as her remuneration. “This is all possible because of my association with NRLM,” said Asmat. “Now I can save for my marriage and manage small expenditures on my own.”

NRLM has requested the government to tap the full potential of milk production in the area. “We want our own brand and a packaging facility so that we completely sideline the old and exploitative system,” said Asmat.

Small Steps, Big Change

In 2014 floods, entire Sonawari belt was inundated, including Sumbal, devastating households and livelihoods. In small Nowgam village, Zaitoon Bhutto, 50, lost her house and Single Pass rice mill machine that her husband operated. It forced Zaitoon and her husband to seek the loan from a local source on a high-interest rate to revive their lives.

At the same time, Zaitoon was told about NRLM scheme; she instantly joined one of the SHGs. Once she understood the working of SHG, Zaitoon, who had a large family of seven to support, took a loan from the group to buy cows and sheep to restart her life. In just two years time, she was able to double the livestock and save some amount too. “Now we have brought a new rice mill and my husband looks after it,” said Zaitoon proudly. “I take care of livestock, and in my free time, I do Aari and crewelwork to earn extra money for the family.”

Every month, Zaitoon, who is part of Zeeshan SHG, gives Rs 300 towards the group fund which she knows can be used whenever the need arises. A group member can apply for the loan from within the SHG, and if the group’s savings are not enough then the member can approach VO for the same. Each request for the loan is first discussed in a meeting, and when cleared by all members, the applicant is given the loan on easy instalments. “The only problem is that the interest rate is at par with what banks charge you,” said Mariyam Ashraf, 45, who has taken such loans on a regular basis to help her taxi-driver husband buy a new load carrier. “Its interest rate should be lower so that it doesn’t lose its basic purpose of poverty eradication.”

Despite the high-interest rate, the fund has not only helped SHG members but other villagers in need too.

Few months back, a local taxi driver’s newborn son fell ill and he was shifted to Srinagar hospital for treatment. As he lacked money for his son’s treatment, he decided to sell his vehicle, his only source of income. When Mariyam and other SHG members came to know about his situation, they called an emergency meeting and decided to help. “We gave him a loan of Rs 10,000 out of our savings so that he can save his son,” said Mariyam with a hint of pride in her voice. “A few years back, it was not possible for us to help ourselves even. But now we have enough savings to help anyone in our village.”

The driver’s case reminded Mariyam of her own helplessness when she couldn’t manage Rs 7000 for her husband’s treatment in 2010. “I have no kids. Doctors told me that my husband needs treatment and it will cost money,” recalls Mariyam. “But, back then, I had nothing at all.”

Now, Mariyam, who has helped her husband open a small grocery store out of her savings and loans from the SHG, helps people whosever is in need in the village. “I can now manage Rs 7 lakh within an hour because of my association with NRLM. I am not alone. I am part of over 4000 strong women organization,” said Mariyam proudly.

Same pride is visible in Ali Mohammad Mir’s eyes. A carpenter, Mir had lost all hope after 2014 floods after his house was damaged. The post-floods reality forced Mir to work as a mason in nearby villages. But with most of the villagers struggling to rebuild their lives, work was scarce despite huge devastation of houses and infrastructure. “This is the poorest belt in Kashmir. Unlike other parts of Kashmir, floods pushed people to the brink of starvation,” said Mir.

Young girls making papier-mâché items as a team under NRLM scheme. KL Image by Shams Irfan

Young girls making papier-mâché items as a team under NRLM scheme. KL Image by Shams Irfan

It was Mir’s wife Mubeena Begum’s association with NRLM that helped him get out of poverty, literally.

A mother of two sons and two daughters, Mubeena’s SHG is into carpet weaving, a craft she picked up after joining NRLM. In her first SHG meeting, Mubeena told other members that she badly needed money to rebuild her life. “They all agreed to let me take the first and second instalment,” said Mubeena. “Also, I took a part of the first bank loan instalment that we got after our SHG was linked to the bank.”

In total Mubeena managed a loan of Rs 1 lakh. This amount she invested in a wood planner. “Now my husband is working independently as a carpenter on his own machine,” said Mubeena with a ring of accomplishment in her voice.

The income from the wood planner and carpet weaving helped Mubeena rebuild her house. “Now my kids are tension free and they go to school. They don’t have to worry about their next meal as I know I can get money whenever I need,” said Mubeena. “I put Rs 300 in my SHG’s saving account which I know will help other women like myself out there.”

As the word spread, a number of young girls who had dropped out of school and colleges and were wasting their time at home became part of NRLM. Unlike senior SHG members, these young girls learned how to paint on papier-mâché items.

They have rented a small space in the village square where they sit, surrounded by colours, brushes, and small boxes of all shapes and sizes. “It took us a while to learn how to paint with a small brush. Most of us had never seen a brush in our lives. But it is a wonderful experience,” said one of the girls while working on a Christmas bell.

During the annual Kheer Bhawani festival in Tulmula (Ganderbal), NRLM managed to get a small stall for these girls where they displayed their work. Though the sales from the stall were decent, it helped these young girls to interact directly with customers and get first-hand feedback. “We are planning to display their work at exhibitions across India in coming days,” said Arif. “This will boost their confidence and help them handle big orders on their own.”

Haseena, 23, who is the Cluster Coordinator and head of Bismillah Group, tells how these girls negotiated a deal worth Rs 2 lakh on their own without anyone’s help. “Though the deal couldn’t materialise, at least we learnt how to talk with a customer without fear,” said one of the papier-mâché artisans.

At present, out of 143 erstwhile blocks in Jammu and Kashmir, 100 are covered by NRLM (58 in Kashmir and Ladakh, and 42 in Jammu). What started from four blocks (two each in Kashmir and Jammu) is now a strong community-based women empowerment movement that changes lives on a micro level.

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