The guiding principle behind all of WIN’s interventions in the coastal communities is that of self-help as a means to an aim (empowerment), and as an aim in itself (self help is a crucial prerequisite for sustainable development). WIN believes that women cannot be empowered externally; they can and must empower themselves. The process of Self Help should instill self-confidence in women, take away their feeling of dependency and helplessness, make them responsible for their own development, and enable them to stand on their own strength. Through embracing the self-help philosophy, WIN takes a definite stance against the “subsidy culture” that is growing in the country, and undermining empowerment and sustainable development at grassroots level.
The Self Help philosophy also requires a specific methodology that is process-oriented, participatory, must involve all stakeholders, and where interventions are based on concerns and needs expressed by the target group. Then only will the target group have a real stake in the projects, and be involved in development in the true sense of the word.
As of now, WIN has more than 600 Self Help Groups distributed over the two coastal districts of Ernakulam and Alleppey in Kerala. These cover more than 13,000 households in these villages. Each of these SHGs has been formed organically i.e. based on the felt and voiced needs of local men and women. A clear case in point is the addition of Men SHGs to WIN’s portfolio:-
Following the positive developments and growth of the women in their community through WIN SHG’s, the local men approached WIN Centre to help them form men’s groups. Although WIN initially intended to have only SHGs of women, it went against their philosophy of work to exclude members of the local community when there was a genuine expressed need from their side. So, in 2004 WIN commenced with their first men SHGs, and two years later there are about 60 men SHGs flourishing together with more than 540 women SHGs.
Unlike other SHGs that function mainly as micro-credit bodies, WIN-SHGs are as valued among the local community for their social functions as for their thrift and credit activity. Moreover, it is noticed that while other micro-credit societies break up after a short time, most of the WIN SHGs are still going strong since their formation.
In an effort to avoid unhealthy competition among SHGs, the WIN-SHG system follows a principle of ‘freedom of association’ i.e. it allows members to be members of other SHGs and groups as well (be they sponsored by the government or other NGOs). This again is in stark contrast to the policy of other SHG collectives where dual membership is not allowed, and there is a tendency to ‘poach on other SHG territories’ by offering various kinds of subsidies and free gifts.
As of now, January 2007, WIN has over 600 Self Help Groups, distributed over the 6 areas of Eramalloor, Ezhupunna, Azheekal , Chellanam, Kumbalanghi, and Kannamaly. These SHGs are organized in 4 different levels as follows:-
The arrows in the diagram below show the direction of dialogue, reporting, and M&E between the three levels of the WIN management and organizational structure. The double arrows in the intermediate level indicate that some WIN management staff and Area coordinators are also WIN animators/field staff.
The WIN-SHGs meet on a fixed day every week and conduct meetings in one of the members’ houses, by turn, in very orderly and prescribed ways. These weekly meetings are the basic forums of thrift and credit activities, and adult learning for the women in WIN-SHGs. Next to the weekly collection of savings, and disbursing of loans, there is always a slot for discussions and debates on family, social, political and cultural issues during these meetings. The groups study environmental issues, plan environmental regeneration programs, get trained in public-speaking, learn the art of healthy compromise and creative conflict resolution and a host of other life skills. Planning for better and healthier family life, more effective social interventions, relevant socio-cultural and environmental campaigns etc. all originate in the simple forum of the WIN-SHG’s weekly meetings.
Micro credit activities form the basis for existence of WIN SHG groups, prompted by the need for poor women to gain some form of financial independence for themselves and their family members. SHG members come together weekly to deposit their savings into the group account thus stimulating a regular habit of thrift in them. Through accumulated weekly savings women are also linked to the bank with help of the WIN Society, thus creating better access for them to credit given by local banks. A balance between an egalitarian need assessment and a healthy internal check on members’ financial behaviour characterizes group functioning. In this way loans are granted where need is greatest (decided democratically within group), but only if member has shown healthy thrift/credit behaviour (regular attendance of meetings, regular savings, punctual repayment of earlier loans etc).
Women often talk with wonder about the “Bank at our Doorstep”, something which none of them could have even dreamt of but a few years ago. Thrift and credit operations in the SHGs are completely transparent, which eventually enable them to become hassle-free and exploitation-free Micro-Banks for the women in the SHGs. Most of the credit needs of the women and their families are now met from their own SHG Thrift Funds, (which have now grown to over 20 million Rupees), and the bank funds which are readily made available to them with bank guarantees given by the WIN Project. To this day, the track record of repayment of loans taken by the women has been almost 100%, the defaulters, if any, being quite effectively dealt with by peer group pressure from the fellow SHG members.
Many group members have also embarked into micro-enterprises with the help of loans taken from their group savings. WIN also facilitates in arranging Skills Training Programs for income generation activities when the demand comes from SHG women. Examples of such trainings include coiryarn making on motorized ratts, tailoring, mushroom-growing, milch cattle rearing, and repair and maintenance of electronic household equipm
The micro-enterprises being owned and managed by our members range from those providing an essential service to the community such as telephone booths, autorickshaws, general provision stores, catering services, rental of equipment for public functions; as well as those involving agricultural production and processing like dairy farming, duck rearing, papad and pickle making, wood-fuel selling, bakery items etc. In addition to these activities many women are also involved in traditional activities such as coiryarn-making, and fish drying and selling, which also generate additional income. However as the income earned from such activities is only very marginal, and subject to the vagaries of the market and private trading intermediaries, most women are looking for alternative means of income generation.
Several local problems are identified during the WIN SHG meetings, including alcohol and drug-abuse in men and youth, poor access of families to drinking water, spread of illnesses due to poor hygiene, and the huge losses in property and equipment as a result of the Tsunami disaster. Following the self-help and community empowerment philosophy, the WIN staff facilitated SHG women to tackle these issues themselves, for example, by organizing a local anti-alcohol campaign. Recently a young mens SHG also organized a very effective campaign to ban the sale of addictive substances from local shops.
Staff also plays an intermediary role in accessing useful information and services for the local communities. In Chellanam area, for example, where 95% of the households lack access to safe drinking water despite the availability of technology to solve this problem, WIN provided information to the groups about desalination processes of water for household consumption, and the construction of rainwater harvesting tanks to supplement their supply of drinking water. WIN was also able to assist 750 families in Chellanam and Azheekal areas (most severely hit by salinization of water due to the Tsunami) in building Ferro-cement rainwater harvesting tanks. Recipient families had to raise one third of the construction costs for the tank themselves.
In the wake of the Tsunami disaster of December 2004, thirty four WIN SHG’s in Azheekkal area suffered heavy losses due to this disaster, where 3 people died, while in Chellanam several more lost property, houses, and livelihoods. Next to the Tsunami relief measures offered by WIN Centre, WIN SHGs raised 10,000 rupees for their most severely affected colleagues in a touching gesture of group support! They also provided crucial support in the clearing up of clogged canals and drainage channels as well as in the cleaning of property from debris of damaged houses and trees.