Left: A matriarch in the Munda neighbourhood cluster, a group of tribal, rural-urban migrants from Jharkhand.
Above: One of the most outgoing leaders among the community women, showing off her tailoring skills after three weeks of lessons with a local tailor (group lessons that she herself helped coordinate).
For a variety of reasons, our program seems to be mainly involving women at this point. Possibly because:
We're conveying a specific message in this social context:
- Both I and my program manager who was part of all the initial outreach, are women.
- Our (male) community outreach coordinator invited only women to the community informational sessions.
- We possibly represented that typical Indian NGO, the ones headed by a "didi" (a female community leader), the ones that come in to do all kinds of educational and social development activities for women, especially focusing on group formation and various SHG (self-help group) activities.
- NGOs and development agency outreach efforts typically seem to target groups of women, so community response to our presence matched their understanding of what we wanted to do.
- Since we were confronted with multiple groups of women right from the beginning - all of whom were highly receptive to our presence and our ideas - we started tailoring our services and our discussions to our target audience. This got the ball rolling, since the initial group of women talked to other women who talked to others.
- Women were interested in things like sewing, and we wanted to initially cater to existing needs and interests. So we asked our local tailor and project helper to lead (informal) tailoring classes and work with these women to set up a tailoring unit - our first self-employment generating activity. This initial idea has undergone many iterations, but the message has stuck - "this organisation has come to teach our women sewing and such skills".
We represent a learning opportunity and women desire to learn
- We have mainly been engaging in community assessment and outreach for the past 2-3 months - our initial groundwork phase - and teaching community members skills for businesses we intend to help set up (tailoring, food processing).
- Of course we have also engaged with males (for example, we worked to recruit entrepreneurial boys for a formal electrician training program who'll then set up and run an electrician service centre with our help), but we haven't created a production facility of our own. Hence we come across as an organisation that wants to provide skills training, not help create businesses.
- The women in this community have time on their hands and an immense desire to learn something.
- They constantly tells us "aamein kichhi nijara karibu" or "aamein kichhi sikhibu", using the two phrases exchangeably. ("we want to do something of our own" , "we want to learn something").
- I don't know if they feel more empowered by sitting together in a group and learning something in a structured fashion a few times a week for many weeks, or if it makes them feel more industrious and more productive. In any case, they're very excited to be trained in a skill if training hours be relatively few and the schedule be flexible.
- At least in this initial period these women have not usually discussed the issue of income generation from this skills training. All that is communicated to us is a sense of excitement at doing something.
- Since we have come across as a skills training organisation that's providing a chance of learning something new, we're attracting these women who want to learn something, whether or not it results in livelihood generation.
Timing of our activities
- We held community meetings typically around 5:30 in the evening, and most of the community men out to work come back home just around that time, or maybe around 6 pm.
- As men trickled back home, they'd see women en route to a meeting, would likely assume that the meeting specifically targeted women and wouldn't join in.
Women's perceptions of each other
- Repeated complaints by women about how other women do nothing all day except gossip.
- I found women's perception of each other in this slum community rather unexpected. Female opinion that women had too much leisure time and were using it in socially unproductive (or detrimental) ways was frankly, surprising.
- I would not be surprised if this were a middle class neighbourhood with the all pervasive stereotype of the "bored housewive" who employs domestic help and then complains about having too much to do. Those contextual perceptions would be all too familiar to me given my background. But here?!
- Also somewhat surprising is the fact that the men in the community have also offered up their daughters and wives to us for various kinds of economic engagement and skill training, but have been far kinder in their reasons for doing so. The men tend to say, "My daughter is not doing anything, and just sitting at home. She really wants to do something, please involve her." or for instance (with great pride) "My wife knows how to tailor, look she even has a certificate! But she's not doing anything at all, can she work with you?"
Women's perceptions of each other
- "Women won't leave the house to do something entrepreneurial"
A large number of women turned up for the meeting (due to the extensive mobilisation that my team usually does at least a day prior to these meetings), and most of them behaved as we've come to expect - listen with keen attention, say very little, and remain noncommittal.
One of the older women decided to act as spokesperson for the majority, and said that whether it was incense sticks or compost, a livelihoods project would only work if the women were allowed to produce within their homes, and then sell their products to an intermediary who came around doing door-to-door collections. She was convinced that none of the women would leave their homes to go sell their products in local markets, no matter how profitable it might be to dispense with the intermediary.
But another woman disagreed vociferously. She and her husband had jointly owned and operated a corner store, and she said she was ready to go out and do the selling of products herself. I asked her if she had gone around to banks for loans, was familiar with banking processes, and had engaged in marketing activities. She answered in the affirmative to all questions; she had operated all elements of the business in equal partnership with her husband. She then looked at the first woman and said that not all women fit into the stereotypes projected by other women in the community.
- In fact, opposition by these community women to their own ilk leaving home and going out to try something new and wholly entrepreneurial, seems a formidable opposition to overcome.
- The small group of (3) Bihari women who were among the first to come to our office and insist upon participating in our project activities and "learn something, anything" had discussed with me the extent to which they had been dissuaded from doing so by their peers.
- "Why are you going?", "Who are they?", "What's the point of going?", "Why are you there everyday?". This might seem like mild opposition, but the repeated comments and harassment appeared to upset the women deeply.
- Similar experiences have reported by women in later instances as our outreach has continued.
Women's perceptions of their own lives
- "I have too much work and no time to do anything"
Women without husbands
During one of our first household surveys, I encountered a young girl who seemed very worried about a survey question: husband's name, and husband's home village. Her husband had left her so she didn't know what to fill in. She worried in case this was problematic for us. (She was from the Munda neighbourhood, and had come to Bhubaneswar (Orissa) via a few years in different towns in the state of Jharkhand, and in border areas between Jharkhand and Orissa).
There are so many of these women, I keep happening across their stories. On the day that we had the first business meeting for the spice-making group (see here), one of the women who had kept rather quiet during the proceedings came to meet me afterward.
She asked me if I could allow her to participate in this self-employment group. I said of course, she could discuss it directly with the group and didn't have to seek my permission. But she seemed worried. She said she was the sole breadwinner in her family, and couldn't afford to give up her current job to work at starting a group enterprise. I asked her for details. She said her husband had left her a year ago, that she had a young son, and that she currently worked as some combination of assistant and maid in a college. It took her about an hour to get to the college everyday, using an autorickshaw (shared transport). This provided her with a monthly income of Rs. 4000 (currently approx. US$ 71). I would guess at her transportation costs being at least Rs. 500-800 a month, if not Rs. 1000 (between $8 - $18).
- I told her that I couldn't guarantee that this spice-making enterprise would really maintain her income of Rs. 4000 a month, and that even if it did provide her with the same, it wouldn't do so for at least the first 2-3 months of the start up phase.
- At the time, I couldn't decide how to help her. I wanted to help by giving her a "grant" of Rs. 4000 for 3-4 months, to enable her to take the risk of self-employment while maintaining her income levels. She described the attraction of working close to home and feeling empowered by doing something for which she had taken personal initiative, as powerful attractions for her.
- But if I paid her the Rs. 4000/month for a set period of months from the project funds under the head of "training costs" for the spice-making enterprise, then I'd have to pay the same to the other 10-12 women involved. That was neither affordable for us, nor a point of discussion with the other women.
- I haven't resolved this yet, and I haven't followed up with her. My advice to her was to wait it out and see how the enterprise turned out. If it generated enough work and income, then she could always join in as part of the spice making labour force. Why not allow the two women with sufficient time, money and interest to take the risk, and lead the entrepreneurship while she bided her time to come join as an employee?
- Some part of me felt that I was betraying the entrepreneurship "cause" by asking her to be risk averse rather than be gung-ho about business prospects, but it was advice given in all honesty.
- She just had way too much to lose if the micro-enterprise didn't work out.
Women who want to "do something of their own"
As I discussed in an earlier post, there is a lot of demand for our services. Even when it wasn't clear (to us or to our beneficiaries) what services we were providing, women were flooding our office with incessant cries of "I want to do something. Something of our own". To be honest, we just haven't been able to figure out what to do with all these willing participants. Mere skilling and training is not our objective, and figuring out which enterprises to start (and how) in order to create successful self-employment is a challenging and time consuming task. It is impossible to do that right away with these many people given that we're not a factory that has just opened shop and is hiring by the hundreds.
Opportunity Costs of Participating in an Entrepreneurship-based Project
Further, what we're doing is innovative and requires extensive business, creative, and market exposure for these individuals. The individuals need to spend time in going along on the field trips we organise, coming to talk to us to brainstorm ideas and discuss resource (or social) constraints, learning skills that could be used for finding wage or self employment, and attending informational workshops on business opportunities / financial schemes / banking processes and so on. Starting businesses de novo requires all of your time, and all of your energy. Starting businesses in an environment as complex (and with as high barriers to entry) as the institutions within which Indian micro-businesses operate, requires one to be very resourceful, spend a long time understanding local market dynamics within a given business sector, and be willing to work long hours.
For the men and women that are already engaged in some economic activity, it is likely too risky to give up what they are doing (having invested some time and money in understanding that activity's local market & creating relevant business networks), whether it be wage or self employment that they are currently engaged in; we don't promise any certain payoffs as our approach is participatory (so far) and we haven't come armed with readymade business opportunities. Further, the men can go work for a few hours most days of the week as construction labourers and get a decent wage in the city (which is rapidly expanding, and where large scale construction is always ongoing).
p.s. Construction work is not a sector that excludes Indian women. On the contrary, women form about 50% of the unskilled construction labour force in India. But the average woman in our current target community (Kargil Basti) in Bhubaneswar doesn't seem to be working as a construction worker (perhaps due to some combination of slightly higher household income levels and social background), so the rates of female unemployment appear to be higher here than male unemployment, with the most common source of male employment being skilled and unskilled construction labour (as revealed by our just about wrapping up community survey).
Hence the opportunity cost of joining our project to train formally in a technical skill (whether tailoring, or electrical repair) and then work with us to set up an individual or group business, is higher on average for this community's men than for its women. So we see women flooding our office, ready to invest time in learning a skill such as tailoring, without necessarily worrying yet about how exactly this learning will translate into livelihood.
But that's all right actually. We're in pilot mode, and experimenting with this self-employment project. As reflected in my advice to the currently employed woman who is debating joining the spice-making enterprise, I'd feel more comfortable in working during this pilot phase with individuals with lower opportunity costs of project participation. Once our model is proved to work and once we have some businesses set up, then we can induce the husbands to join hands with their wives and community women to take the businesses further.
- Until then, it's more ethical to stay away from false promises, and take small steps in partnership with those who have slightly less to lose should the enterprise not work out.....
- But who also have LOT of economic empowerment to gain by participating in the process of business awareness, learning new technical skills, and dabbling in different forms entrepreneurial activities.
Left: A Kargil Basti girl who came to me asking for help in getting out of her current situation with family and finances, and ended up getting hospitality sector training plus a fantastic job thanks to Gram Tarang Training.
Above: Women from a neighbourhood in Kargil Basti where most individuals belong to a traditional fishing community (here in the city they engage in trading fish). They are about to be family; the daughter of the one on the left is marrying the other's son.
They are economically unequal. The one on the left has no car, goes by shared transport to buy fish from the wholesale location, and walks around local neighbourhoods, toting the fish around in a basket. The son of the other drives (they have a car) to pick up the fish. They also have access to refrigeration facilities. So as a household they sell about twice the amount of fish in a day as does the household of the woman on the left.