Covid-19: In times of crisis, women self-help groups lead the way
Governments and society must recognise that effective emergency responses and the social and economic protection of the most vulnerable are critically dependent on institutions like SHGs
As India fights the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it requires all stakeholders to take charge and deliver. Among those which are working on the ground, the women-led self-help groups (SHGs) have emerged as effective frontline responders, reaching the last-mile and ensuring an immediate relief and socio-economic protection to the country’s most vulnerable.
Their reach is staggering: Approximately 67 million women are organised into 6 million SHGs. Operating on the principles of self-help, cohesion and mutual interest, SHGs are voluntary groups of 10-20 women from their neighbourhood, who pool their savings and gain access to credit. As of today, these collectives have saved $1.4 billion, and leveraged another $37 billion from commercial banks. What began as a call to empower poor rural women under the aegis of the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) has since grown into one of the world’s largest institutional platforms for the poor.
To facilitate the workings of SHGs, the Union ministry of rural development issues policy directions and advisories to state missions.
SHGs have local as well as national reach. They are producing masks and personal protective equipments (PPEs), creating awareness about the pandemic, and delivering essentials goods and financial assistance to the most vulnerable.
For example, in Bihar, women under the JEEViKA platform (the State Rural Livelihood Mission) are active in identifying and surveying vulnerable households. Using innovative communication methods, SHG members ensure that the risks of Covid-19 and its transmission are easily explained to rural masses. Using the information education and communication material developed by the state mission, the didis, as they are locally called, use the network of 1.4 lakh state-wide SHGs to create awareness about hand-washing, social distancing, sanitation and quarantine.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), with the help of Khadi Gramudyog, SHG members plan to produce masks worth six lakh metres of khadi fabric. In Kheri district, SHGs are working round-the-clock to produce PPE kits for frontline health workers and police personnel. Moreover, SHG women under the Prerna platform use methods such as rangolis, TikTok videos and songs to create awareness about hand-washing and social distancing.
In Jharkhand, SHG women use the Aajeevika Farm Fresh mobile app to sell vegetables, ensuring that social distancing guidelines are not flouted. They also use their networks to identify vulnerable households, flagging to the administration the pockets in need of food. They help run a 24-hour helpline by the State Rural Livelihood Mission (SRLM), which provides important information and counselling to the returning migrant. Every Panchayat in the state has a Muhkya Mantri Didi Kitchen, which provides free food to the needy. At present, the state has about 4,185 community kitchens in as many Panchayats, with SRLM providing ₹20,000 each to SHGs running these centres.
In Kerala, through the renowned Kudumbashree network, women collectives have been on the frontlines, home-delivering groceries through a floating market to the most vulnerable, providing PPEs to local government hospitals, and running 1,300 community kitchens across the state. They also help in Covid-19-related myth-busting.
In several states, SHGs have taken up the task of production, packaging and distribution of take-home ration (THR) as anganwadi centres across the country are shut due to the lockdown. In Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the SHG women also distribute eggs along with THR. This ensures that the State reaches every child under five, pregnant women, lactating mothers, and vulnerable target groups.
In many states, SHG members engaged as BC Sakhi (banking correspondent agents) help home-deliver the Centre’s financial relief packages for the rural community facing socio-economic distress, pensioners, and those who are dependent on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
There are four main reasons why SHGs play an important role in serving the poor:
One, they have a better understanding of local communities, and in times of crises, have immediate access on the ground.
Two, they serve as an integral community communication channel, help reach the last mile, and are trusted by local communities.
Three, they can provide short- and medium-term social and economic protection, serving as a critical conduit for providing relief to the most vulnerable.
Four, they quickly set up the production of relevant items using their well-honed skills, and put to use village distribution and supply chains.
As we celebrate and acknowledge their contributions in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, we must continue to strengthen them, and replicate the model across the country. They must be given a requisite economic and social empowerment. Governments and society must recognise that effective emergency response and the social and economic protection of the most vulnerable is critically dependent on institutions like SHGs.
Nita Kejrewal is joint secretary, ministry of rural development
The views expressed are personal