Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Power of Microfinance

Text: Linda Roemer
Photos: Dale Klippenstein

Across the world, women living in poverty are financially vulnerable for many reasons. Especially in rural areas, they often have very limited earning opportunities with an irregular income, or they have none at all. This is accompanied by an inability to access formal financial services and systems such as credits. The Financial Express states: “Gender inequalities in access to formal credit have long manifested in India’s scarce gender-wise financial statistics. For example, distribution of outstanding credit in small borrower accounts shows 24.5% share of female account owners against 72% by men as on March 2017.” Yet, access to financial services is a universal need for all individuals and families for building up a safe future.

One of the goals at Sambhali Trust is to provide women with the opportunity to gain control over their family’s resources through microfinance. The Microfinance Programme has been first introduced in 2009. Now, 10 years later, 104 women in the desert village of Setrawa are currently divided in 6 groups, coming together on a regular basis to discuss problems and to find solutions by deciding who is in need of a loan for goats, cows, medical help, sewing machines or for setting up shops. Every woman pays approximately 200 Indian Rupees per month into a common fund – and by the end of each month, the total amount is counted and the receiver of the loan is chosen. The Microfinance Programme ensures access to loans at an interest rate that is catered to their income - and in the 10 years the Microfinance Programme is operating, not one woman has been negligent in paying back after the loan had been given.

The ability to earn a living transforms the women's lives – numerous tailoring shops as well as vegetable and fruit stalls only exist because of the Microfinance Programme by Sambhali Trust. Women are now able to start their own businesses, and in the past year, many have received goats and cows whose milk they sell on the local market or to their neighbours. This allows them to provide to their families’ well-being and to be financially independent. Meera is one of them. She is now the leader of the microfinance group in Setrawa, successfully guiding the 6 groups towards financial security. Meera, originally from Pakistan, moved to Setrawa 20 years ago. With her husband working far away, in Surat in Gujarat, she was eager to also make an income and to provide for her three children. She started by taking a loan for a small shop inside her house – since she lives right opposite a public school, she thought of selling school supplies and snacks for the students. She was able to pay off quickly – and the shop turned out to be a huge success, which led her to taking loans for a flour mill as well as a sewing machine. Later on, she decided to open another shop in the centre of the village, which served as a tailor shop as well as a place where the villagers could buy accessories and snacks.


Other women in Setrawa are construction workers – a job that is not only hard labour, but also risky as well as unreliably and badly paid, as it is not continuous work. Being able to have an additional opportunity to make an income, such as through setting up vegetable and fruit stalls or selling milk, gives the women access to continuous financial security, also because there is a constant demand from the villagers for these food items.

Many women in Setrawa were able to set up vegetable stalls through Microfinance

These are examples that prove that the Microfinance Programme strengthens women’s ability to decide over important matters, thus contributing to their self-confidence and independence – in an environment where women and girls are otherwise often suppressed and underprivileged at all levels. “The Microfinance Programme has had a big positive impact on their lives, and is greatly appreciated and respected by their husbands as well”, states Meera.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Defining Empowerment

Text and Photos: Nicole Karpus and Linda Roemer

Em·pow·er·ment. Four syllables strung together to create such a powerful, beautiful sound. It is a word that has held me, captivated me, and one I’ve kept close. My fascination with this word comes from trying to deconstruct its meaning; it is a concept so powerful to explore. Because, sure, we can try and put a simple definition around it, quoting Oxford’s dictionary to start - “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights...."

....But what one person must go through to become the main narrator of their life is shaped by their unique experiences and the hopes and dreams they aim to reach or even just understand. So, that's why I think hearing someone define what empowerment means to them is to often take a peak at the struggles they have overcome and everything they've fought so hard to carry.

How then do the Sambhali women and girls define this word?

On January 11th, Sambhali Trust gathered the women from our different empowerment centers to explore this very concept. A group of women from each center prepared speeches that explained what empowerment means to them and one by one got up to read what they had to say. In all, 265 students and staff gathered and together we all listened to these women. For most of them, this was the first time they ever spoke into a microphone and in front of a crowd. 

What we heard spoke loudly. 

"...When a woman decides to take her first steps toward empowerment, her family progresses, the village progresses and the entire nation. But to empower the women in India, we need to destroy the backward thinking of people that are destroying our society, like dowry and sexual harassment."



"...We have to fight for ourself with complete power and self-confidence. We have to overcome our fear and fight against wrong. In this male dominating society we can get respect only when we know what we want. Girls are not meant for cooking food in the kitchen. Girls are also human beings and can also achieve high goals in life. The only requirement is to give them opportunity."


According to an analysis by Amnesty USA, India can be classified as the G20 country that makes it most difficult for women and girls, their circumstances being even worse than in Saudi Arabia. In fact, India is one of the fastest developing and emerging countries in the world. However, millions of people, particularly girls and women and those who live in the rural areas, do not benefit from this rise of their nation at all. The combination of being female, poor, and lower caste goes hand in hand with a systematic devaluation and the hindrance for any social and economic improvement.

Rajasthan belongs to the most conservative and patriarchal states of India. A survey published by the Times of India (2016) has revealed that just a little over 70% of Rajasthani girls in the age group of 15-17 years attend school, which is the worst in the country. This is accompanied by shockingly high numbers of child marriages and significantly low employment rates among women. Women in Rajasthan are also among those who have the lowest literacy rates, are likely to be aborted as children, have very limited access to good health care, bear the most children, and frequently face all types of violence. This does not cast a good light on the large desert state of India.  

It is when I heard about the stories of the girls living in the Sheerni Boarding Home, that was opened by Sambhali Trust in 2012, that I realized that these girls had been particularly vulnerable to facing all the challenges mentioned above, since they come from very poor and low-caste families that live in the desert villages - most of them were born in Setrawa, around 100km west of Jodhpur. 
In Jodhpur, through living in the boarding home, they are able to pursue good education up to university level and have access to high-quality health care at all times if needed – a gift that they would not be able to have back in their villages. Education can be one of the most powerful tools to enable them to avoid early marriage in the village, and eventually fulfil their potential and become an empowered woman. Living apart from the family is not easy. The girls have to rely on their friends and roommates to have a shoulder to cry on when problems arise. But they all are aware of and appreciate the benefits of living in the city instead of in the desert village. They all have a clear idea about how they want their future to look like, and thus dreams they are willing to fight for no matter what. I was curious to get to know these girls and their perspectives on a deeper level. 

Aasu is 14 years old and was born in Setrawa. Her father arranged for three of her older sisters to get married when they were really young. After his death due to an unknown illness, all of the responsibility was in the mother’s hands. Aasu told me: “A few weeks later, a centre of Sambhali Trust was opened in my village. I learned that they teach children and women there for free. I started going to the centre every day to study there in the afternoons. I liked going to the classes. I didn’t like school that much, the teachers didn’t teach very well and didn’t pay attention to our needs. But the teachers at Sambhali Trust were really good. And they gave us biscuits every day too! Sometimes I had to stay at home to help my mother – and that’s when the teacher came to our house and told me to come to the centre every day. Sambhali has helped my family a lot - They gave my mother kitchens supplies and other gifts every time they came to our house”. That time, in 2012, Sambhali Trust opened the girls’ boarding home in Jodhpur, and the Sambhali team selected Aasu to go there to have access to a better future. “Now that I am here, I learn many good things. I get a good education, and learn about good habits. I have many friends here too - I love the other girls at the boarding home a lot. We are a big community. After school, I want to work in a government-run office or as a fashion designer – and I think my mother will be happy about that too. I remember my mother was very sad when we had so many problems, and I said to her: ‘Please, don’t be sad. I will become a good person and I will study hard to get a job, so I will be able to support our family’. My mother smiled. When I have a job and my own income, I will do something for Sambhali Trust. I want to give back to those who have given me and my family so much, and I want to support other girls who have had similar struggles”. Aasu’s biggest passion is art and sewing. She designs her own clothes and knows how to make them due to the sewing lessons. As she is drawing a woman working at a sewing machine, she writes “independent” and “brave” next to it. When I asked Aasu why she added these words to describe the woman on her painting, she explains: “The girls and women here at Sambhali Trust are empowered. Women empowerment means that a woman can decide what she wants to do in her life, and set her own rules. She can do anything for herself. To feel empowered, girls in India can go to school and study, and it is their decision to do everything they want to feel freedom”.

Her 15-year-old roommate Leela adds: "Malala Yousafzai is an example. She is a brave girl. Also Mother Teresa was a powerful woman. I know that girls can do anything, they can do any jobs. We can dream of becoming teachers, doctors, or politicians. Women are so strong - and we all are bright too. To feel empowered, we need to learn English first, and learn that we can defend ourselves. I can do everything." 
Strong words that come from a girl that has not always had an easy past. Leela’s mother died when she was very young. Her father got married again to another woman. Anytime he gets sick, he wants Leela to come back to the village to take care of him and the household. Leela stays in Jodhpur – she does not want to give up pursuing an education. Her 6-year-old sister is living in the other boarding home run by Sambhali Trust, opened two years ago and primarily housing the younger sisters of the Sheerni Boarding Home girls.


Most of the girls living at the boarding homes and many of those who go to the empowerment centres are Dalits - born into the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system. Dalits face severe discrimination and often violence from members of higher castes, making it difficult for them to ever break the cycle of poverty. Yet all girls are on their way to break down the barriers that society has built against people like them over so many years.  Their education through Sambhali Trust has led them to growing into empowered and strong-willed girls that have all the capabilities to change the social norms that had been pushing them down – and still affect millions of other Indian women and girls that carry similar stories. 

The girls at Sheerni Boarding Home express their feelings of empowerment through dance
and other creative activities.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The rise of the widow

Text & Photos: Linda Roemer
Seven years ago, Afsana and her husband decided to kill themselves. Her husband died. Afsana survived. This is when her life as a widow began.
India has recorded the highest number of widows in the entire world. The desert state Rajasthan in particular has a strong patriarchal culture, an environment in which widows are generally suppressed and discriminated against at all levels. Marriage is still of great importance for families living in India - it is regarded as a lifetime commitment.
Before Afsana’s marriage, she had lived a happy life. But once she got married and moved to her husband’s house, it is where things started getting worse. Her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law abused her verbally and physically daily, without her husband standing up for her. Financial problems burdened the family. The three children needed to go to school, yet their educational needs were overshadowed by other necessities that had a clear priority. It was one night in 2012 where Afsana and her husband felt that they could no longer carry all this weight on their shoulders. The doctors could only save Afsana – and the label ‘widow’ has been ingrained into her identity ever since.
The traumatic experience of losing a husband is increased by the cultural and social restrictions and suppressive rules placed on an Indian woman after her husband’s death. Once married, Indian women are supposed to live in their husbands' multi-generational family homes for the rest of their lives and it is seen as not acceptable for the widows to move out of this home after his death or to remarry, which exposes many to exploitation. In general, regardless of the religion, an Indian widow is often considered as a carrier of bad luck and the cause of her husband’s death, and in some extremely conservative places in the rural area, they are being discriminated to an extent that people keep their distance from them or even clear the road as soon as they see the widow. Therefore, most widows in India are excluded from any interaction in social spaces - private and public - and are abused mentally, but also financially, by the communities they live in, as well as the in-law family. In the past, widows in India have faced multiple discriminatory legal barriers, as it is hard for them to obtain inheritances, land or even get access to their passports. The great majority of Indian widows is illiterate, meaning that they cannot read and write. The high illiteracy rate results from the fact that many got married in their childhood, which eventually led to the end of their education. Because most of them lack sufficient education, financial resources and self-esteem, widows in India generally avoid pressing charges when they are being abused or in any other way mistreated.
Afsana was left alone with taking care of her children and doing the housework with only very limited financial support both from her own and the in-law family. Yet her brother-in-law encouraged her to go to the women’s centre at Sambhali Trust, hoping that she’d be learning skills that could be of help for the family’s survival. Afsana learned a new important skill – sewing and embroidery. Her work had been so good that after one year she was gifted with her own sewing machine and a paid job at the Sambhali Graduate Sewing Centre. Afsana loves to create room decoration, silk trees and stars – symbols of growth and light. Afsana’s parents in-law were pressing to get rid of her daughter by marrying her off. Friends at the sewing centre have encouraged her to stand up against her mother-in-law and brother-in-law, against their on-going devaluing comments and harsh actions. Afsana now knows how to say “no” to them. She now lives in a different room, and cooks her own food for herself and her children. Not only her friends were proud to hear that Afsana has gained the confidence to fight for herself, it is also Afsana who has now learned that her voice should no longer be suffocated, neither in her family nor in the wider society.
Afsana works in the Graduate Sewing Centre. The job allows her to be financially independent.

Parveen shares a similar story. The 32-year-old woman, who lives in a Muslim slum in central Jodhpur, lost her husband five years ago due to cancer. Ever since, she has had to borrow money from her neighbours and friends, as her parents-in-law refuse to support her in any way. She hardly sees the doctor for her worsening problems with anemia, as she cannot afford to pay the medical fees. Parveen’s in-law family want her to make money so that they’d no longer have to pay for their son’s and Parveen’s two children’s needs – and if she needed any help, she would need to continue asking her neighbours and friends or consult her own parents, who live far away and have very limited resources themselves. Ever since Parveen’s husband’s death, she has to suffer mental abuse coming from her in-laws on a daily basis – they see her as completely useless in the household, thus sent her to study at Sambhali Trust. In one month, Parveen will graduate from the centre, meaning that she will be gifted with her own sewing machine. This will enable her to start her own tailoring business and continue creating clothes for herself and her children at home.

Parveen will soon be gifted with a sewing machine

“Sambhali Trust is my whole life”, says another woman with the name Parveen. An illness was responsible for her husband’s death in 2011. Before she joined the Fatima Empowerment Centre of Sambhali Trust two years later, she did not know how to hold the needle that she would need for the piece of embroidery she was going to work on. Now she is the supervisor in the Sambhali Trust Graduate Sewing Centre, making sure that all products made by the graduates are finished on time with exceptional quality. She assigns tasks to the graduates and helps them when problems arise. “Before I joined Sambhali Trust, I was living at my husband’s house. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were always fighting with me. They used bad words all the time. Not only against me, but also against my three children”, explains Parveen. “My parents-in-law did not support me in any way, and they did not grant me any rights for our property”. In the rare times that Parveen was angry with her children, the mother-in-law told them that their mother didn’t care about them, that she never wanted them, that she just wanted to find a new husband – which was not true. “They blamed me for my husband’s illness, and eventually, for his death. I thought that this is my destiny now”.

Parveen finally decided to move back to her own parents’ house in 2013, after two years of living with her in-laws. It was also that time when she heard about Sambhali Trust. Anju Choudhary and Vimlesh Solaki, both Sambhali staff, were investigating the area Parveen was living in – a Muslim slum in Jodhpur. 120 ladies immediately signed up for joining the newly opened Fatima Empowerment Centre. “I didn’t have any skills. I had never been educated”. Parveen was eager to start learning. It was not an easy start at Fatima Empowerment Centre. “I slowly learned sewing and embroidery, but when we had this big order of bracelets, I made a major mistake. All the 305 bracelets that I had been doing had the wrong measurements and wrong stitches”. But Parveen continued, and after a year, she graduated from the centre, being gifted with her own sewing machine. She wanted to open her own tailoring shop, but the profit from that would never be sufficient for a single mother of three children. So she joined the Graduate Sewing Centre of Sambhali Trust, where she was making a good income. “Yet, when I wanted to pay the tuition fee for my children, I needed to borrow the money. It was 600 Rupees. Somehow, I lost the money. I cried a lot, desperately trying to find it on the streets that I had been walking on. I couldn’t find it. I knew I would need to make three more elephants at the Sewing Centre to have these 600 Rupees back. The father of three children living in the Sheerni Boarding Home of Sambhali Trust saw me looking for the money, and he told Sambhali Trust about my needs. A few days later, I was offered the job at the supervisor at the Sewing Centre. It would give me 3,500 Rupees extra per month.” Parveen was not sure whether she could handle the big responsibility that comes along with the job of the supervisor. But she did find a way to work with it – very successfully.

Sambhali Trust now also sponsors her three children’s education. Recently, her youngest boy suffered an eye injury and needed to be sent to a clinic in Ahmedabad, which Sambhali Trust offered to pay for. “Everyone around me is supportive. My father and my brother’s wives are still giving their bad comments sometimes, but I have the love and support from my mother, my children, my neighbours and the Sambhali Trust family”.  Parveen loves to spend time with her friends at the Graduate Sewing Centre. Kavita, the manager of the Sewing Centre, explains that all women working in the centre have similar stories to Parveen. “All of them have pain in their hearts, but they keep wearing smiles on their faces”. Parveen loves producing elephants as well as Christmas decoration. “My children, now 8, 13 and 14 years old, know they have to study hard. It is what Sambhali Trust is offering to our family. If Sambhali is not helping us anymore, we don’t get education anymore. They all have dreams they are willing to fight for – jobs as a doctor or police man”.

Parveen is the supervisor at the Graduate Sewing Centre. Her children's education is funded by Sambhali Trust.

Prem is a cook at Sheerni Boarding Home in the eastern parts of Jodhpur. She’s been working at the boarding home for two months now. Her husband died of a heart attack. Through working at the boarding home, she takes care of the meals of 25 children, therefore actively contributing to their well-being and health. Her sister helped her to get the job at the boarding home, since the family had many burdens to carry. Her sister was sure that Prem would feel comfortable doing that kind of job. “She was right. From the very beginning, all the children welcomed me. The job allows me to not only take back something for myself, it also allows me to give something very meaningful to others”. Prem is like a mother for these 25 children, who all come from the desert area around Jodhpur. “Whenever I leave the boarding home, the children ask me: ‘mother, where are you going?’”. Although she states that her mother-in-law and her husband’s brother are generally supportive, she now sleeps in the boarding home, an environment full of laughter and love.
Prem is like a mother to the 25 children living in the Sheerni Boarding Home

Sunita lost her husband last year on International Women's Day, also due to a heart attack. After that, she could no longer go to Shakti Empowerment Centre for five months - the centre that her husband had always encouraged her to go to. Since she had been one of the most experienced students at the centre, and her parents-in-law are unable to make an income, she was given training at the Graduate Sewing Centre for two weeks to learn all the skills necessary for being a sewing teacher. Sunita started her job as the sewing teacher at Shakti Empowerment Centre in March 2019, feeling grateful she is now able to contribute to her family's well-being financially. Her three children - two sons and one daughter - all go to school, sponsored by Sambhali Trust. Manju, the English teacher at Shakti Empowerment Centre, is glad to have Sunita's creative support. Sunita is Hindu. The religious Sanskrit text Manusmriti, which is of great importance for Hindu societies, positions the husband as the leader in the relationship, in which the wife has to show constant devotion to her husband, also after his death. As colour is linked to the sexual state of people in Hindu societies, widows are expected to completely get rid of the colour red, which is regarded as the colour of desire. On top of that, Hindu widows have to stick to more regulations that are written in the Manusmriti: It is stated that widows should be shunned from any participation in community life. Sunita, however, is lucky to be treated better than the majority of other Hindu widows. Her parents-in-law support her and treat her well, and Sunita is an essential member of the Sambhali family.

Sunita (left) and Manju (right) in Shakti Empowerment Centre. Sunita is the creative head of the centre.

Then there was another woman in the Graduate Sewing Centre of Sambhali Trust, Sairayabhanu. She was a widow, but never stopped listening to her own needs and feelings – she remarried after her husband’s death, something which is seen as an absolute taboo. All of these women are examples that it is worth it to try break down the walls that society had been building up for so many years, it is worth it to challenge the norms that had been pushing those down who in reality have the ability to rise the highest.

Afsana marching with the Sambhali family at International Women's Day 2019