Over the centuries village women in Tuensang have displayed admirable qualities of survival. Just watching them farm on vertiginous hill slopes fills one with admiration for their innate grit and resilience. Yet, they are also extremely shy and perhaps wary of outsiders. If one moves to talk to them, they just smile and duck under a tree or a shop counter, quick as a flash.
Life in this part of the world was not kind. No free lunches were doled out to anyone, man or woman. But women were clearly dealt the short end of the stick. Mountain winds chaffed their faces, heavy loads of timber bent their backs; farm implements turned the skin of their palms into sandpaper and the smoke in their kitchen squeezed out the air from their lungs. But, perhaps most disturbing of all were the age-old traditions of the community that had conspired to consign them to a strictly secondary social status. There was no question of women inheriting property, no possibility of them participating in political decision-making, and a drunken, abusive husband was as common here as it was in the rest of the country. Yet, they kept going, these women, weaving incredibly lovely shawls on age-old looms, or stringing together beads in striking patterns that talk about tribal allegiance.
The ECS began to encourage the setting up of Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the areas it worked in Tuensang district because it was clear that too many women there had too little cash in hand. Phutoli Kejong revealed how women in the late 1990s would come to her and beg for loans of as little as two or three rupees, just to feed their children an evening meal. This convinced her about the need to set up SHGs, which would allow these village women the financial support they clearly needed. That was how, before long, some 37 SHGs emerged.
ActionAid, when it forged the long-term partnership with the ECS in 2001, viewed women’s empowerment in terms of assertion of rights and had reservations about whether gender justice could be achieved through microcredit generation. Slowly, through a process of discussion, the ECSActionAid intervention came up with a strategy to empower women financially for social action. By 2004, there were over 140 SHGs in the 16 villages under the intervention, and AA made available a lump sum grant of Rs 800 to each of them so that they could focus on their entrepreneurial activities, access their entitlements, including the 25 per cent of the grants made available to Village Development Boards that was statutorily earmarked for women and, most importantly, collectively raise their voices on issues that affected them.
A decade later, women like Thonti Naro, a woman farmer of Chingmei village, were reaping the benefits of that early mobilisation. She told me that, just the day before, she had earned Rs 2,000 within two hours by selling produce from her farm. This village had seven SHGs, each classified alphabetically. Naro belongs to Group C. “The best thing about being a member of an SHG is that we can do things together and draw strength from each other’s presence. I would have found it difficult to go to town by myself to sell vegetables and interact with strangers. So what we women now do is to go in twos to the market.”
This has been the pattern adopted by most SHGs because it made sound financial sense. Toshila of the ECS, explained. “Two is a good number. The two women can help each other load and unload their wares. If more women went then more money would have to be spent on bus fares, and this would cut into their SHG earnings.”
In the same village we met up with Maro, Mongshai and Anti, who were part of a ninemember SHG set up in 2010. Each of the women in the group invested Rs 2,000, and their SHG now had a corpus of Rs 45,000. Anti described the evolution of her group with great clarity, “We began lending money within the group, charging only a nominal interest of two per cent. To people outside the group we charged an interest of three per cent. Then we decided to scale up our activities. We would take the bus that came at 6 am and go to Tuensang to buy supplies that we brought back by the return bus. This we would sell to people in Chingmei for a small profit.” Later, the group decided that they would make the most of this trip to town by taking the produce they grew, whether it was cabbage, ginger or chilli, and sell it at better rates. Then they would shop for sugar, milk, tea leaves, even clothes, and bus it back to the village. Earnings were thus doubled.
There was money to be made, but a price to be paid as well. “Fortunately, we are used to carrying heavy loads on our backs, but sometimes our necks would hurt, no doubt about that,” admitted Anti. But what kept these groups together? For one, all the women were from the Chang tribe, although from different clans. For another, there was generally a spirit of collective functioning. “We know that we will gain if we all stand together. Any misunderstandings are quickly sorted out through mutual discussions.We do not allow small things to become big,” Naro said.
Besides, everyone realised the value of the extra money. There is this story that a middle-aged woman from Hakchang, another village in Tuensang district, once related. When her first two children came along, she could not spend anything on their education because she had no money of her own – in fact, she was dependent on her father-in-law for even a bar of soap to wash clothes. By the time her three younger children arrived, she had joined an SHG, and could actually send them to a private school. The difference in the quality of schooling that her first two children received in comparison to the youngest three was the difference that her SHG had made to her family.
Here, then, was a collectivity that had almost created itself and which carried on despite the occasional hiccup because everybody got something out of it. Earlier husbands, particularly, greatly resented the time the women spent out of their homes in SHG meetings and activities. When the money started coming in, however, attitudes began to change. Besides, there was more – and better quality – food available at home.
Naro’s husband now makes it a point to help her load the vegetables on to the bus for Tuensang town – and for good reason.
Written by Pamela Philipose for the Critical Stories series