The Working Women's Forum (WWF) was created in Madras, a city of 2.3 million in south India in response to a need to organize women living in slums and working as small-scale traders and vendors.

More than 13,000 women have been brought together within WWF around the issue of credit. Other support services such as childcare, education, health and family planning have also been included.

The idea started in mid-70s with a small group of 30 women petty traders organizing themselves as a group with the help of Jaya Arunachalam, a political/social worker in Madras. They met a bank manager and received a loan of Rs.300 (US$33) each. The group elected a group leader and every day, she collected money from the members to repay the bank. The idea worked: repayment was 95%. By April 1978, 800 women had been organized into 40 groups and had received loans. The Working Women's Forum was born.

To keep a broad socio-economic and political perspective, the WWF was set up with the following objectives:

To create an association of women employed in the unorganized or informal sector;

To identify and address the critical needs of working needs of working women;

To mobilize working women for joint economic and social action by exerting group pressure to demand their social and political rights;

To improve the entrepreneurial skills of working women through training, material inputs, credit and extension services; and

To organize support for social services necessary for working women and their families (e.g. child care, education, health, family planning) etc.

Certain strong ideological positions were adopted by WWF:

Pro Women: Exclusive mobilization of women who provide the backbone of family income and welfare.

Anti-caste and pro-secularism: Support of cross-caste and cross-religious groupings of women, inter-caste weddings and religious tolerance.

Anti-politics: Strict avoidance of involvement in party politics yet mobilization of women around issues affecting women and the poor.

Anti-dowry: Organization of mass demonstrations against dowry, rape and divorce.

Some of the businesses of WWF members, as recorded on loan applications:
Vegetable vending Lungi trader Rice Trader
Sari/cut cloth trader Waste paper shop owner Meat shop owner
Fruit seller Beedi roller Junk shop owner
Junksmith Biscuit maker Scrap iron shop owner
Greens seller Carpenter Bead stringer
Ready-made garment seller Sari block printer Wood box maker
Fish vendor Goldsmith Bangles seller
Firewood seller Stationary shop owner Mat weaver
Aluminium Utensil sales Brush maker Chili powder seller
Incense maker Groceries seller Leaves stitcher
Silk trader "Idly" (snack food) shop Gold thread garland maker
Pandal (ornament) maker Flower seller Sweet stall owner
Plastic flower maker Wire bag maker Egg seller
Tea stall owner Tailor Wood utensil maker
Pottery stall owner Cart loader Toy maker
Hay seller Peanut vendor Gunny bag seller
Snack shop owner Sweetshop owner Footwear shop owner
Toothpowder maker Mobile ironer Coffee powder seller
Lime seller Snack food maker Cardboard maker
Salt vendor Cycle shop owner

The main reason women join WWF is to gain access to credit. The amounts obtained are generally larger than those they would have got from moneylenders, and also at a reasonable interest rate. Most of the women have their own, independent sources of income. The executive and administrative staff of WWF is from the members: poor, often illiterate women from slum neighbourhoods. They learn on-the-job, through experience. There is at least one local organizer for 1000 people, keeping the Forum's direction always at the grassroots.

Lopsided thinking of banks and their formal impersonal atmospheres prevented the women from getting loans. So the members set up "neighbourhood loan groups", made up of 10-20 members. They come from the same neighbourhood and elect a group leader. This group is registered with the forum. A member then files a loan application and pays a membership fee of Rs.12 ($1.33). The membership requirements are simple: a member should attend all group meetings regularly, repay loans consistently and act as a mutual guarantor for loans of all group members. All members apply for loans at one time. The following steps are involved:

1. Review of credit worthiness
  The group leader assesses the need, capacity and productivity of individual members before recommending them to the WWF organizer for loans.
  Group members review each other's ability to earn before offering their mutual guarantee or security.
2. Loan application
  The group leader refers the member-applications to the area organizers.
  The group leader, member-applicants, and WWF area organizer go to the forum's office to file the application.
  The member-applicants fill out a loan application (a simple, one-page form) at the forum's office with the assistance of the group leader, area organizer, general secretary and loan officer.
  The general secretary and loan officer sort the applications and submit them to the representative local bank branches (currently Bank of India).
  The general secretary and loan officer inform the area organizer as to which local branch has received individual applications.
3. Loan disbursement
  The area organizers contact the respective local branch to determine on which date individual loans will be disbursed.
  The area organizer takes the members to the bank on the stipulated date.
  The members fill out two forms at the bank under the supervision of a bank official, who in turn fills out additional forms.
4. Loan repayment
  Loans are taken at 4% interest rate.
  Loans are taken on a ten-month repayment schedule.
  The group leader is responsible for collecting and depositing the monthly repayments. She collects on a daily or weekly basis, depending on the preferences of individual members.
  The group leader must deposit the repayments before a stipulated date each month.
  The area organizer is called in to help collect repayments only in case of default.

As an intermediary between working women and the banks, the forum has been able to develop a flexible repayment system that takes into account the realities of the poor women's lives. The system works on peer pressure, from the members to each other, from the leader to the members, from the Forum to the leaders and members and from the banks to the Forum and leaders. Thus the combination of group membership, group activities, peer pressure etc. ensures that loans are repaid promptly.

Lessons Learned

Very small loans (as low as $10) can be made to large numbers of women borrowers by commercial banks at a repayment rate of over 90%. To do so does not necessarily require high levels of overhead, supervision or technical assistance.


A loan programme can be built and expanded quickly if built around small groups of women (10-25) who share neighbourhood, occupational or other ties. When a loan programme is linked to formal financial institutions, loan procedures need to be worked so that the review pf credit worthiness is undertaken y peers and the women's micro-enterprises can serve as collateral. Repayment also should be structured around peer pressure.


It is preferable to begin a programme by supporting women's existing economic enterprises rather than attempting to train them and create new jobs. Technical assistance, skills training and enterprise development can be add later.


A project to help poor women should begin with activities that produce quick tangible results. It is best to address their most immediate and concrete problems first. Additional activities then can be sequenced, moving from basic economic needs to more complex social and political constraints. Only those issues most often discussed and most adequately analyzed by the women themselves should be addressed.


Programme planning should not follow any definite blueprint. Requirements for staffing and financing should develop out of an evolving programme.


A program for women is more likely to succeed if it adopts at least two elements:
(a) a strong pro-women ideology to instill a spirit of solidarity and self-confidence in the women and
(b) a commitment to grassroots leadership as a means of strengthening and nourishing the dormant power of poor women.


It is preferable to make use of existing government programmes whenever possible. Whether they exist in actual fact or only in paper, they can be activated to serve the needs of the poor women. The forum proved this by implementing the "small borrowers" scheme and thus institutionalizing its benefits for a broader audience. In principle, existing programmes should not be duplicated. However, there are times when it may be necessary to create parallel delivery systems to guarantee that established programmes reach poor women.


An organization wanting to reach and benefit large numbers of poor women need not have a lot of money, educated staff or technical expertise. The success of the forum is due primarily to four factors: (a) selection of one critical issue - credit; (b) utilization of local leadership; (c) organization of women around existing neighbourhood ties, and (d) decentralized, participatory management. With this structure, the WWF has not had problems in communicating messages or receiving feedback from its members.

Organizational Chart

General members - General Council. The general members, either full or associate, constitute the general Council of the Forum. They meet regularly (at least once a month) in their neighbourhoods as individual groups; periodically in their locality with members of other groups; and annually in large public meetings or other functions. At individual and local meetings, the group leaders and area organizers try to instill the discipline and spread the ideology of the Forum. At the same time, the general members are able to voice the problems and issues they face and would like to have addresses.

Group Leaders - Governing Body. The group leaders (currently 329) constitute the Governing Board of the Forum. They attend monthly coordination meetings at the Forum's office in which problems of individual groups and members are discussed and processed. They are expected to convey the gist of the discussion and the content of any decisions back to the general members. They also perform several key functions of the Forum: scrutiny of the loan applications of individual members and monthly collection and deposit of individual repayments. The group leaders work on a voluntary basis but are entitled to larger loans than general members.

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