Using Women’s Self Help Group to Address Multidimensional Poverty: An Analysis of Agency and Choice Through the Capability Approach

Kumar, Sampath; Saxena, Swati (2016). 'Using Women’s Self Help Group to Address Multidimensional Poverty: An Analysis of Agency and Choice Through the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract The idea of Self Help Groups in development discourse has been widely accepted and adapted all over the world. It is generally accepted as an effective tool for extending micro credit to the poor, usually women, and encourages entrepreneurship among the people. Building on existing social networks and the power of the group for exceptionally high repayment rates, the idea has demonstrated that poor can be organised into viable and sustainable business models. However, when Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) adopted this model and began organising the women into SHGs, we were not content to use the model only as a liability group to deliver credit without collateral security. Instead we saw the tremendous power of the group and the strength that comes through collective organisation and therein lays the genesis of an innovative idea. This idea was: adapting the SHG model to address multidimensional aspects of poverty, alter the model from just credit facilitation to deliver range of comprehensive services from health to education, in the process work to break social hierarchies that exist by using gender as a unifying force, and thereby transform the very socio-political landscape of rural Uttar Pradesh. This theme is closely linked to the Capability Approach. In fact the CA provides an excellent theoretical and practical framework within which the purpose of RGMVP can be discussed. Here we define ‘functionings’ as relating to the living conditions or in our case multidimensional aspects of wellbeing and development, like health, education and livelihood strategies and ‘capabilities’ as the opportunities accorded to the women through their participation in the Self Help Groups. Multidimensionality of the Capability Approach and its focus on agency has great bearing on how we can evaluate the strength of this programme. Firstly, collective strength of the women through SHG organisation has been much greater and impactful than the mere sum of its parts. Coming together on a common platform with common concerns has activated their agency and aided unlocking of their potential. The focus of CA has also been on not just access to goods and services but the freedom and opportunity to make that choice. Secondly, support systems and safety nets generated through SHG networks have provided the women impetus to overcome immediate poverty and plan for themselves and their families on a longer term basis. Through social mobilisation achieved by the strength of the collective, women have demonstrated that poor can overcome poverty through their own institutions and have a strong innate spirit of volunteerism. This has led to their empowerment and allowed them to make an informed choice which is recognised as essential in CA. Thirdly, coming together of women has created a common space for listening and questioning. This questioning has led to challenging the antiquated customs like dowry and veiling, and has enabled women to find a common powerful voice. Through this challenge they have changed the way their families perceive them, gained respect both inside and outside of their homes, and led to perceptible shift in the gender relations in the village. This has democratised the discourse and as Sen points out, that effective social choice requires public discussion and a democratic understanding and acceptance. Most importantly, in a landscape which is primarily feudal and the primary way of grouping has been on rigid caste and class lines with deep hierarchies, inequalities and discrimination, women based SHGs have introduced a novel alternate way of organisation. A way which is based on gender, which is enabling instead of disabling, which increases access to rights and entitlements and works on the principles of inclusion rather than exclusion.

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