- by Jack Freeman, Earth Times News Service

They are among the poorest, most disadvantaged, most marginalized and least visible people on the planet--oppressed, victimized and discriminated against on the basis of class, caste and gender--but not even all of that can stop them from fighting back. They are the working women of India, especially those who live in the country's slums and villages and rely for their livelihoods on the "informal" economy.

Spearheading their struggle for dignity and a fairer share of the fruits of their labor is an organization called the Working Women's Forum, which began in the southern city of Chennai (formerly Madras) 20 years ago as a source of micro credit for poor women and now boasts a membership of almost half a million throughout southern India.

The organization also boasts that 95 percent of its leadership is drawn from the ranks--the fisherwomen, lace makers, incense rollers, street vendors, migrant workers and other women who know from experience what it means to be powerless, poor and oppressed.

The organization's founder and president is Jaya Arunachalam, a US educated economist who had been an activist within the Congress Party before embarking, in 1978, on this crusade to develop what she calls "the total human resource potential" of India's poorest women workers--and is now growing even beyond India's borders.

It started, as so much anti-poverty activism does, with a realization that people who needed money were unable to get their hands on it. Arunachalam decided to go into the slums of Madras to learn about poor women's needs and priorities, According to a colleague, Srividhya Rajagopalan, she found that, "despite their hard work and crucial economic contributions to their families, the women were intensely exploited and indebted to the money lenders."

Arunachalam set about the task of organizing the women into a Forum and convincing the nationalized banks to start making low-cost micro credit loans available to them (as well as to men)--which the banks agreed to do, but only on condition that the Forum handle the voluminous paperwork involved and also guarantee repayment. Within a few months the Forum's membership swelled to 800.

Even from the beginning, though, Arunachalam understood that money alone was not the answer.

"It is WWF's undeniable experience," she told the Micro credit Summit in Washington last year, "that credit per se can never be a solution to the problems of poverty and powerlessness of the poor. Instead," she continued, "the success formula has been the combination of socio-political empowerment, creating a constituency for the poor and building a social platform for them to continuously carry on their struggles and confrontations."

She explained that the Working Women's Forum was to combine micro credit efforts with social mobilization aimed not only at empowering the poor but also preparing the ground for self-reliance and self management.

As Rajagopalan told the Washington summit, "Poverty does not hinge on satisfaction of material needs alone. It relates to extreme vulnerability to factors relating to day-to-day survival. The poor need organizations of their own to combat the socio-economic realities around them and the forces that keep them in poverty."

And so, as it has for the past 20 years, the Forum devotes the bulk of its efforts to getting women organized--that is, getting them to organize themselves and their communities--to work for their own betterment. Forum official, Kutty Vidhya, does much of that organizing work.

Although educated for a very different lifestyle--she holds a master's degree in zoology--Vidhya became a Forum organizer after coming face-to face with the problems of working women in an Indian village. "All around me," she told The Earth Times, "I saw women grappling with intense poverty situations. I heard the struggles of the women at the grassroots. I broke down, feeling confused and not knowing what contribution I could make. The next day I felt stronger and decided that my future lay with the women in WWF. I didn't look back after that."

She credits Arunachalam with teaching her all she had to know about communicating with people. "Her skills of team building and crisis management have propelled this movement," she said. "She is adored by the women in the Forum not only because she is the leader but also because she is ever-loving like a mother."

Despite all of the Forum's emphasis on organizing communities, Arunachalam stresses that much of the discrimination suffered by poor women in India stems from their low status within the family--from abuses in the dowry system, the unwillingness of parents to educate their girl children--or even to let them survive.

Many of the women complain of suffering physical abuse at the hands of drunken husbands--and even more say their husbands have abandoned them and their children. More than 70 percent of Forum members describe themselves as heads of households.

With the help of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Forum has worked to raise women's consciousness about such issues, according to Wasim Zaman, the agency's country representative in New Delhi. And its credit programs have had a tangible impact on women's status and the welfare of their families and have resulted in giving them a greater voice in family matters, says Ena Singh of the UNFPA. A recent report by the Forum noted:

"The women can now buy food and clothing, send their children to school, repair their houses and save small amounts regularly. Some women have been able to gain control over assets, such as houses in their own names.... Women also reported greater participation in family decision-making.... One woman said, 'Before [our] husbands used to only inform us about buying household goods or assets. We could not say no to our husbands' decisions.' Most of the women reported that they had gained greater respect, power and decision-making authority, not only within their homes but also within their communities."

And on top of making all of that possible, the Forum's loans also have a repayment rate of 97 percent.

Also read:
Her tryst with change
SHGs serve as great example to women of other countries
Women's empowerment, subject of bilateral discussions
Memories of Madras
India's Lady with the Lamp
Fight against poverty
Jaya's Army of Women
A Lifelong Champion Of India's Poorest Women
The Working Women's Forum, Madras, India
Providing microcredit to working women
Gender and equity: experience of the Working Women's Forum, India
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