Our experience has shown us that development can only be successful with the inclusion of women. They are usually the main care-providers of their families and play an important social and economic role in Indian life. It is crucial that women participate as “agents of change” in order to achieve equitable and sustainable development in rural communities. Becoming an agent of change is not easy. We also understand the difficulties women face in India today. They are forced to live as second-class citizens due lack of education, skills, freedom, adequate job opportunities, and financial independence. To eliminate these debilitating factors, SOPAR and its partners initiated the Women Integrated Development Program in 1994 with the aim of:
Contribute towards women’s economic development;
Reduce illiteracy and increase girls' participation in education;
Give women the opportunity to contribute to the development of their community and protection of their environment and;
Develop women’s leadership
With a strong focus on self-help groups, this program brings village women together to form support networks. The groups serve as safe environments to share experiences; where women can encourage one another to work toward social and economic independence. The program is structured around the belief that women can and must help themselves. Our activities focus on capacity building so women feel more confident in their abilities to express themselves, to realize a need for change, and to execute that change in their own communities.
We started with a membership of 5,000 and currently more than 187,000 women are engaged in aspects of the program. Once the group is formed the coordinators, who are trained social workers, help women organize specific development initiatives in these 6 domains: Capacity building, economic development, health and environmental development, intellectual, social and democratic development.
The regular group meetings in each village allow women to become more aware of their unique situations. It offers an outlet to learn ways to better their lives, economically, socially, intellectually, and psychologically. The bonds between the women grow, creating unity, a renewed spirit, and strength of resolve. By attending on a regular basis, the women also begin to understand the importance of arriving on time and wearing clean clothes. They gain a respect for their learning environment—a place to listen, reflect, and express themselves freely without fear of reproach.
Our leadership training is producing more and more strong, female leaders each year. The women are reminded of their vast potential and the responsibility that comes with power. Training is offered at all levels, for the village women, the group leaders and the program coordinators. Eight yearly training sessions are conducted for the Women Program Coordinators. In these meetings, development principles and program objectives are explained, activities are designed, action plans are drawn up, and progress evaluations are completed. Each year in April the program hosts a Convention reaching between 5000-10 000 women so they can share their experience and grow. This Convention also is also used to increase women’s political leverage.
Social and Democratic Development
This activity brings the women together with other fragile members of their communities. Women understand that though they may be experiencing hardship, there are still others that struggle even more. The participants learn social responsibility and offer both money and concern for orphans, the elderly, and those with disabilities and illnesses. Annual celebrations are held to renew the women’s commitment to those less fortunate.
Through our activities, women become more knowledgeable about relevant legal and political matters. Hundreds of women are now being elected into Panchayats (local governing bodies) across Andhra Pradesh. The women speak out for social justice, combating violence against women, child labour practices, and other inequalities within society. Hundreds of women from our groups have also been elected as mayors in municipal governments.
The strategy is to facilitate access to credit in order for women to develop activities that generate revenues. This means starting small businesses like fruit kiosks, the sale of milk or eggs or clothing. Loans are granted for income-generating activities and only after the women have undergone a training program that teaches them the basics of business management. On average, women who received these loans increased their net income by forty percent.
To succeed, they must rely on savings habits. From the outset, the participating groups must commit to monthly savings of small amounts. If at first it was difficult to save a few rupees, they quickly discover ways to increase their savings and increase their sense of security. SOPAR is involved in savings and microcredit as an adviser. Our goal is not to replace the banking system, but rather to awaken women to their potential to build their future on savings and small enterprise. Several women having built up their business through successive loans have demonstrated their performance and they can now subscribe to larger loans from local banks.
Since the program’s inception, more than 12,000 women have learned to read and write. Last year we trained 457 teachers with innovative new methods to effectively teach women in their communities to read and write. More than 5,000 rural women attended classes and about half received certificates. Since many women are still illiterate, music is a useful alternative teaching tool. The program produces its own cassettes and albums with educational and motivational songs. Creativity is encouraged in program coordinators and participants, with opportunities to compose and sing.
Health and Environmental Development
Health camps for women are organized and through group discussions and seminars, participants gain knowledge on VIH/AIDS, family planning, and other health concerns. The women are also asked to show respect for the village elders by taking them for eye operations. Our groups mobilize their villages to raise money and install water tanks and bore wells so everyone may have access to safe drinking water. Every year, women participate in a campaign for environmental protection. They have now planted more than 150,000 saplings in thousands of villages. Planting trees and kitchen gardens show women the importance of a clean, healthy environment. They also learn to provide nutritious food for their families while saving money. The women also actively lobby for sustainable water management within their communities.