Indian Women Find ‘Dignity’ Through Self Help Groups

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Jharsuguda (Women’s Feature Service) – Rajeswari Mahanand, 39, from Puruna Talpadia village in Jharsuguda district of Odisha, is an aanganwadi worker, member of a successful women’s Self-Help Group (SHG), and she also takes classes for local children to help them out with their studies. Mahanand is a well-respected figure in her village. Residents take her advice when it comes to dealing with their children, and even see her as their link to the government machinery – often, she explains the benefits of new state schemes to them.

Of course, five years back, Mahanand was just another village woman whose life revolved around housework and rolling ‘beedis’ (local cigarettes). Money was always in short supply for her family of eight, as her husband either worked on construction sites or as agricultural labour. So, it was up to her to provide support through the only home-based wage work available to women in these parts: making ‘beedis’. Recalls Mahanand, “Like most of my friends, I was caught in this trap of beedi-rolling day-in-and-day out and that too for an earning of a mere Rs 35 (US$1=Rs 51) for 1,000 ‘beedis’. I could only manage to roll 600-700 ‘beedis’ a day and made Rs 250 a week.”

Even as she lived through her drudgery, Mahanand knew that the only way out was through education. So between managing a home, two children and rolling ‘beedis’, she found time to study till Class Eight. “My family was cooperative and so I could cross this milestone despite the pressures,” she smiles. Once she passed her Class Eight exams she knew she was eligible to apply for the post of an aanganwadi worker and that was her next move.

Becoming an aanganwadi worker changed her world. Today, she has a steady job, one that she enjoys doing – “I feel happy helping other women, telling them about the importance of good health, sanitation and education, and then seeing the change in them”; she has played a pivotal role in the setting up one of the first SHGs in Puruna Talpadia; and the tuition classes she takes everyday after 4 pm when the aanganwadi shuts, enable her to stay in touch with books.

Today, Mahanand’s earnings add up to nearly Rs 2,000 a month. With this money she has been able to turn her ‘kuccha’ house into a ‘pucca’ one, construct a toilet, and she has ensured that her children stay in school. She says, “I never want to look back now and don’t see my son and daughter ever rolling ‘beedis’ to make ends meet. I want the same future for other children in our village and thankfully I am not alone in trying to change this reality.”

Mahanand is joined by Urmila Loha, 44, and 20 other women of the Maa Samaleswari SHG. It’s been three years since Loha left ‘beedi’-rolling. She recalls, “I had been making ‘beedis’ since childhood and continued doing so in my in-laws’ house. Every household here does ‘beedi’-rolling work apart from farming. When Rajeswari came to me suggesting that I leave this work and join the SHG, I shouted at her. How could she even suggest that I give up something that brought in much-needed steady income? My husband works on construction sites and his earnings are not sufficient to run the house. My mother-in-law was suffering from TB due to continuous exposure to tobacco dust and I knew that soon I too would end up like her but I could see no other option at the time. It’s when my daughter Binita, 14, was diagnosed with severe asthma and TB two years ago that I decided to give it up and I joined the SHG.” That turned out to be the best decision Loha ever made. In fact, the SHGs operating in Puruna Talpadia have transformed 70-odd households where families had been rolling ‘beedis’ for generations.

Jharsuguda, a district that lies in western Odisha, is home to half the ‘beedi’ workers in the state. Though agriculture is the traditional occupation of this region, small and marginal farmers are unable to eke a viable living out of the land due to uncertain rainfall that leads to frequent droughts. To keep the home fires burning, families have taken to ‘beedi’-rolling. Consequently, exploitation at the hands of the ‘beedi’ factory owners, the middlemen and moneylenders has become a part of life.

Of course, the Jharsuguda District Welfare Extension Officer, Pradeep Kumar Mishra, is trying to script a change. Elaborates Mishra, “There are around one lakh ‘beedi’ workers in the district, 80 per cent of whom are women. Though their earnings are meagre and they suffer from adverse health due to continuous exposure to tobacco dust, they do this work because it is home-based. Unfortunately, awareness of government schemes for their benefit is poor among ‘beedi’ workers. To change all this, on an experimental basis we have initiated the process of motivating women to form SHGs.”

Puruna Talpadia, with its 350 households, has proved to be the perfect place to start this journey of progress. Says Mishra, “Initially, we observed that despite the difficulties they were facing, the community had made little efforts to adopt any alternative sources of livelihood. After speaking to them we realised that kept several factors in mind, like resources available as well as climate and market conditions, while considering their options. ‘Beedi’ rolling was a convenient choice. It was a challenge for us to help them rebuild their lives and gain enough confidence to break away from it.”

The 10 women who got together to form the Maa Samaleswari SHG were the first ones to take a step towards transforming their lives. Currently, this SHG has 20 members – 12 from BPL and 8 from APL families. Common concerns like poverty, unhygienic living conditions, lost education opportunities for their children, and depleting health, brought them together. Explains Kuntala Loha, an active member of Maa Samaleswari, “Initially, most of us were reluctant to pay attention to the administration’s proposal for starting a SHG. None of us had the time to sit and discuss or plan for any venture. For us, an hour lost in unnecessary talk was loss of much-needed wages from ‘beedi’-rolling. It’s only now that we fully understand the importance of what was being told to us.”

It all began by coming up with ideas for money-making activities they could do as a group. This was followed by establishing a credit link of Rs 5,000 with the local bank, which was subsequently increased to Rs 30,000. By trading in agricultural commodities, vegetable cultivation, goat rearing, kerosene selling and even taking a brick unit on lease to sell bricks, their initial savings amounted to Rs 30 per month. This has already been enhanced to Rs 40, while their total savings amount to over Rs 40,500.

Another village SHG, which has named itself Ajuba, is also doing well. Says Secretary Basanti Majhi, “Individually we were not able to do anything other than ‘beedi’-rolling, but as a group we can think and do so many things. Even our children have the right to good health and education.” Ajuba has undertaken the distribution of the Mid Day Meals as well as PDS rations, which gives them a decent monthly income.

Till date about 100 women in the Puruna Talpadia Gram Panchayat – which comprises around six villages, including Puruna Talpadia – have left the hazardous ‘beedi’ rolling profession. These women are not only inspiring their communities, they are also motivating other ‘beedi’ rollers in the district to aspire for a life of health and dignity.

(This article has been written as part of Panos South Asia Media Fellowship.)

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