Covid-19: in times of crisis, women’s self-help groups lead the way – analysis
As India fights coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it requires all concerned to take charge and turn in. Among those working in the field, women’s-led self-help groups (SHGs) have emerged as effective front-line responders, reaching the last mile and ensuring immediate relief and socio-economic protection for the country’s most vulnerable.
Its reach is staggering: approximately 67 million women are organized into 6 million SHGs. Operating on the principles of self-help, cohesion and mutual interest, SHGs are voluntary groups of 10-20 women in their neighborhood, who pool their savings and access credit. As of today, these collectives have saved $ 1.4 billion and have leveraged another $ 37 billion from commercial banks. What started as a call to empower poor rural women under the auspices of the Deudayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) has become one of the world’s largest institutional platforms for the poor.
To facilitate the operation of SHGs, the Union’s rural development ministry issues policy guidance and advice to state missions.
SHGs are local and national in scope. They produce masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), raise awareness of the pandemic, and deliver essential 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 the rural masses. Using the information, education and communication material developed by the state mission, the didisAs they are called locally, use the 1.4 SHG network throughout the state to raise awareness about handwashing, social distancing, sanitation, and quarantine.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), with the help of Khadi Gramudyog, SHG members plan to produce masks worth six lakh meters of khadi cloth. In the Kheri district, SHGs are working 24 hours to produce PPE kits for frontline health workers and police personnel. Additionally, SHG women under the Prerna platform use methods like rangolis, videos and TikTok songs to raise awareness about handwashing and social distancing.
In Jharkhand, SHG women use the Aajeevika Farm Fresh mobile app to sell vegetables, ensuring that social distancing patterns are not ignored. They also use their networks to identify vulnerable households, pointing out to management the pockets that need food. They help manage a 24-hour help line for the State Rural Livelihood Mission (SRLM), which provides important information and advice to the returning migrant. Every Panchayat in the state has a Muhkya Mantri Didi kitchen, which provides free food to those in need. Currently, the state has around 4,185 community kitchens in the same number of Panchayats, and SRLM provides Rs 20,000 each to the SHGs that manage these centers.
In Kerala, through the renowned Kudumbashree network, women’s collectives have been at the forefront, delivering food through a floating market to the most vulnerable, providing PPE to local government hospitals, and managing 1,300 community kitchens across the state. They also aid in the destruction of myths related to Covid-19.
In several states, SHGs have taken on the task of producing, packing, and distributing take-home rations (THRs) as anganwadi centers across the country are closed due to closure. In Odisha and Chhattisgarh, SHG women also distribute eggs along with THR. This ensures that the State reaches all children under the age of five, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and vulnerable target groups.
In many states, SHG members who participate as BC Sakhi (correspondent bank agents) help deliver home financial aid packages from the Center for the rural community facing socioeconomic difficulties, retirees and those dependent on the National Guarantee Law of Rural Employment of Mahatma Gandhi.
There are four main reasons why SHGs play an important role in serving the poor:
First, they have a better understanding of local communities and, in times of crisis, they have immediate access on the ground.
Two, they serve as a comprehensive channel of community communication, help reach the last mile, and are trusted by local communities.
Three, they can provide social and economic protection in the short and medium term, serving as a critical conduit to help the most vulnerable.
Four, they quickly established the production of relevant items using their well-honed skills, and put village distribution and supply chains to use.
As we celebrate and acknowledge their contributions to address the coronavirus pandemic, we must continue to strengthen them and replicate the model across the country. They must be given the required economic and social empowerment. Governments and society must recognize that effective emergency response and the social and economic protection of the most vulnerable critically depend on institutions such as SHGs.
Nita Kejriwal is Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development
The opinions expressed are personal.