This week’s Ananda Vikatan has a story about the women’s Self-Help Group called SHARE (Self Help Association for Rural Education and Employment) in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu, India. It was started in the 1970s as part of the famed Vellore Christian Medical College’s community development effort.Like every other SHGs in Tamil Nadu, SHARE started out with the goal of economic empowerment of women. Its projects were mostly around micro credit group lending and sale of handicrafts. Their crafts seem to have found a lucrative market with the fair trade organizations like Ten Thousand Villages and therefore are earning export revenue. On that note, SHARE made palm leaf streamers are quite popular, so you might want to go buy yourself some ($7 for a set of 2).
Among the thousands of women’s self-help groups in Tamil Nadu, SHARE seems to be taking the (logical?) next step – political empowerment. They contested as a group in the elections for the Panchayat Board, which is the local governance body for a group of villages. This collaboration despite the fact that they also belong to different sub groups of caste, religion, etc., which usually carry more weight in electoral politics. As a result, they can now boast of more than 50 Panchayat Board Members and five Panchayat Board Presidents. Quite an impressive achievement. The social worker who advises the group says that they are the “deciding votes” in two assembly constituencies that elect state legislators and predicts that the groups themselves might have an MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) in five years. Imagine that! They seem to be doing quite a stellar job in their current positions. Some of them were trained by NGOs on how to create excellent Panchayats which has helped them think of creative solutions to local problems. One of them has even turned from a trainee into a trainer. This is an almost perfect example of the beneficial intersection of self-help groups created to empower women and the Panchayat Boards created to empower rural India. This is a congratulatory article, so one should not expect it to highlight any “bad” sides to this story. However, even after taking it all with the proverbial pinch of salt, it is quite remarkable that their identity as women seem to bind them together and supersedes other (usually) divisive identities like caste and religion. Gives one hope. :D