Thanks to her self-help group, Sita Devi Ram is earning money herself for the first time in her life, and this has changed her position in the family enormously. Suddenly she can have a say in family decisions and decide for herself what to buy. This benefits the whole family, especially the children. This is why Kindernothilfe's partner Voice of Children supports women in southeast Nepal in earning an income and raising their voice.
Text: Katharina Nickoleit, photos: Christian Nusch
At the weekly meeting of the Gadhistan self-help group, the 16 members crowd under the canopy of the small house of one of their members, so that each woman has a place in the shade. For a year now, they have been meeting regularly to discuss everything that is important. "We have formed this group to make a difference. But we can't do it alone, we can only do it together," explains Dhaneshwari Devi Ram, who is the group's moderator on this day. The others nod. Only together are women in rural Nepal strong, each of them is aware of that.
It is not quite true that the women founded the group, even though Raju Ghimire of Voice of Children, Kindernothilfe's local partner organization, would never contradict them on this point. After all, the aim of the project is for the women to experience that they themselves can make a difference. But in fact it was Voice of Children's idea to bring together the women in the villages who are most affected by poverty - according to a concept developed by Kindernothilfe together with an Indian expert. These are in Sunsari district in south-eastern Nepal, where the caste system still plays a major role, mainly women from dalit castes. They are doubly disadvantaged. Already as girls they have got used to obeying their brothers and later their husband. And as members of the lowest strata of society, they have grown up in the awareness that being poor is their fate and that it is not up to them to defend themselves. "Their self-confidence is incredibly low, they have never learned to express their needs, never experienced that they can make a difference," says Raju Ghimire. "Our aim is to strengthen them, because strong women can take better care of and stand up for their children than the oppressed."
In the weekly meetings of the self-help groups, the first thing that matters is that the women experience you listen to them when they speak out. They can describe their problems and are taken seriously. And they learn from the Voice of Children social worker that they and their children have rights. The right to education, for example. This may seem obvious to us, but hardly any of the women in the self-help groups have gone to school and can read and write. They never came up with the idea that they had the right to learn. "Since we have known that education is a children's right, we have set ourselves the goal of sending our children to school," says Daneshwari Devi Ram and immediately mentions another goal: all members should have a toilet. The women have only known that these are important for the health of the family since they have heard more about the connection between hygiene and disease. Healthy nutrition is also on the list. The women simply did not know before that it is not enough to simply fill the stomach with rice.
But ignorance is only one reason why these mothers cannot take care of their children as they should. "The main problem is that these families are destitute. Even if they want to, they often cannot send their children to school because there is no money for school supplies or because they depend on them to help earn money. The answer that Voice of Children has found is simple: save. "We teach the women how to keep track of the family's meagre finances and reduce expenses. And we give them the opportunity to put money aside." Another thing that seems natural to us, but for a woman in a Nepalese village it is usually simply not possible. Because there are no banks there, they can only hide their nest eggs somewhere in the house, where they were often found by their husbands, who bought alcohol with the money. But at the self-help group every member has her own account, where every rupee not needed can be put aside. The pleasant side effect is that the men drink less, which in turn leads to less violence.
Phulo Devi Ram, 34 years: "I borrowed 8 euros from our group account to buy a goat. Now it is pregnant, and soon I will have one, maybe even two kids to sell. With the money I want to repair the roof of my little house so it won't rain through it anymore."
There is a second account: A fund where women save together. "At each meeting, each member pays a fixed amount. From this pot, the women can then give each other loans," explains Raju Ghimere. The sums involved appear tiny from a German perspective. The savings that the Gadhistan self-help group has accumulated in the one year of its existence amount to the equivalent of just 100 euros. That is the pot from which the five euros needed for a laying hen come. Or the eight euros for a female goat, so that the women can build up a small farm. A subsidy of seven euros for a medical emergency or six euros for a school uniform so that the child can continue to go to school. These are small sums of money that can save or change a life, and these sums are not charity, but money saved together, from which each of the women benefits.
These microcredits not only alleviate the need and help to create a future, they also enable the women to be a member of this group in the first place. "At first, my husband was against my joining this group," recalls Sita Devi Ram. "He thought it was a waste of time, since I could work in the fields or in the house. But then I told my husband all the things I'm learning here." The 25-year-old grins when she mentions that she initially did not place much emphasis on the subject of "My right towards my husband" and instead spoke more about housekeeping and savings plans.
"Then one day I suggested that I take out a loan to buy a merchandise base for a small shop. He could hardly believe that I had this opportunity through the women's group." Since then Sita Devi Ram has had a small income of her own, and this has changed her position in the family enormously. Suddenly, she has a say in family decisions and a budget with which she can buy what is needed independently. "Last winter my children were freezing because they had no jackets and sturdy shoes. This winter I was able to buy them." Word of their success has spread throughout the village, and the men now see that not only their wives, but everyone benefits from the self-help groups. Voice of Children has been able to reach 560 families with its 28 self-help groups since the project was founded. That is around 1,700 people whose lives have taken a new turn with comparatively little effort.
Women with unprecedented self-confidence
Without the community of the self-help group Sita would not have been able to borrow money anywhere to open a shop. And Dhaneshwari Devi Ram would never have had the courage to go to school and talk to the teacher about her feeling that one of her children was not being treated fairly. "Going to an authority figure is something I didn't dare to do in the past, but just accept everything as it was." As resolutely as Daneshwari appears in the meantime, it is hard to imagine. But yes, that's how it was, she assures: "Since we became a group, a whole new world has opened up for us. I am no longer just a single woman, but part of a body that knows its rights and demands them."