Jan. - Feb. 2002   
  Vol. 2 No.1   
Message from J. N. Godrej
Know Your Founders Oddities, Eccentricities, Etc. Interviews Archival Interest Corporate Commentary Corporate Concerns Back to Main Page Editorial



A women’s empowerment project in a bustling Nepali village, mixing literacy and micro-finance and covering over 1,30,000 people, is probably the largest such programme in the world, and certainly the fastest growing.

Thakali Chowk, Nepal ?In this bustling village along the main east-west highway on Nepal’s southern plain, as almost everywhere else in Nepal, it is unusual for a woman to own and run a business of any sort. But with help from the Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP), Nirmala Khattri Chhettri has been able to do just that : she has set up and operates a small bakery.

While her husband does the baking, the 33-year-old Ms. Khattri Chhettri manages all other aspects of the enterprise, from purchasing supplies to supervising its five employees.

''She is running the whole thing,’’ said Bijay Gaire, a local WEP collaborator, who works with Ms. Khattri Chhettri and other women in Thakali Chowk. ‘‘Even at the bakery, the wife is working more than her husband. She goes out and buys raw material and pays out wages and serves the customers.’’

Cultural and religious traditions here dictate that women should, or the most part, stay home and remain subservient to their husbands.

But WEP is bringing widespread changes in the way its women participants think and behave ?and in the way that international development specialists think about the capacity of village women to manage money, run businesses, and engage in collective social action.

Using an innovative self-help model that combines literacy and values education with practical training in small bank and business development, the program has in three short years brought a new sense of self-confidence and empowerment to more than 1,30,000 women in southern Nepal.

The program has helped its participants to raise their collective literacy rate from roughly 15 per cent to more than 90 per cent, establish more than 60,000 new microenterprises (such as Ms. Khattri Chhettri’s bakery), and initiate some 70,000 local ‘social campaigns?against problems like alcohol abuse, domestic violence, child labour, and trafficking in young girls.

A Radical approach to mircocredit :

Of equal significance, the project takes a radical approach to small-scale lending ? microcredit, as it is commonly known ?by teaching participants to establish and operate their own village-level banks. These banks, say project leaders and microcredit specialists, are much more sophisticated than the traditional savings circles known in many parts of the world and have been started with no outside capital. It is their local lending power that has stimulated the large number of microenterprises in the project area.

‘‘What is most dramatic about this program to me is that it has reached so many people, now some 1,30,000,’’ said Jeffrey Ashe, an international microfinance consultant who has studied WEP. ‘‘These are pretty extraordinary results. There are virtually no programs that are this large anywhere in the world, other than, say, the Grameen Bank [in Bangladesh], and none that have grown this rapidly.

‘‘The second point is that this program represents quite a departure from the orthodoxy in microfinance, which is that you have an intermediary NGO [non-governmental organisation] that makes loans to individuals or groups and then gets paid back with interest.

‘‘What is radical about this program is that each group is independent and mobilises its own savings and makes loans to its members,’’ said Mr. Ashe. ‘‘So all the money which would have gone to pay the intermediary NGO is instead paid as dividends to the members.’’

According to Mr. Ashe and others, this system ?wherein women’s groups first learn literacy and then use workbooks to teach themselves to set up local village banks, which in turn make loans to local enterprises run by women in the group, all the while keeping loan dividends within the group 
?makes the program extremely cost-effective and highly sustainable.

‘‘We’ve done our own number crunching and we think this program is considerably less expensive than traditional credited microfinance programs,’’ said Marcia Odell, country representative for Pact Nepal and chief of party for the WEP program. ‘‘The whole program is offering women a chance to help themselves in an area they really care about ?that is, becoming literate so they can increase their family income.

‘‘No other microfinance programs we know of start with literacy,’’ added Dr. Odell. ‘‘No one had done it like this with volunteers, with women helping other women.’’

The program is operated by Pact, a US-based international 
NGO, and its initial phase was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with a US$3.7 million grant. The project has also benefited from a partnership with 
Education Curriculum and Training Associates (ECTA), a 
Baha’i-inspired NGO in Nepal, which has helped develop most of the projects training materials and spearheaded many of its innovations.

How it works :
Perhaps the best way to understand WEP is to look at its operation at the village level, such as in Thakali Chowk, where a group of women have established their own village bank and are successfully making loans to members, such as Ms. Khattri Chhettri, who borrowed the equivalent of US$350 last summer to establish her bakery.

The process starts with the formation of a women’s literacy group. The group in Thakali Chowk was formed in February 1999 with help from a local NGO, the Nawalparasi Environment and Rural Development Centre, which acts as the local distributor for WEP training materials.

The literacy training is itself unusual in that it relies on literate members of the group to teach the others, not on paid teachers from outside, and uses an easy-to-follow workbook created by ECTA for the program. The literacy component builds extensively on the experience of a previous Pact-run literacy effort in Nepal, WORD (Women Reading for Development), which used similar methods to help some 5,00,000 women learn to read and write and was the subject of considerable international acclaim and attention.

Once the group achieves literacy, it moves on to a second workbook, ‘‘Forming Our Village Bank,’’ which leads the women through the step-by-step process of establishing their own bank. The women in Thakali Chowk established their bank in April 2000.

What distinguishes this process from other projects that seek to establish simple savings circles is the sophistication with which banking is taught. The groups learn to use the full range of record keeping forms and tools used by banks everywhere, from individual savings passbooks to accounting ledgers. They also learn how to elect a full slate of bank officers, including a treasurer, a president, a secretary and a controller.

Other workbooks provided by the program teach women how to make and collect loans and how to set up a small business.

?b>‘It is quite common for women’s groups all over the world to establish rotating savings and credit associations,’’ said Mr. Ashe. ‘‘But this is quite different. It is much more flexible, in that people put in different amounts of savings, and they are not required to take out loans in sequence. Rather, those that need the money can take it out, and the loans can be relatively large.

‘‘They are truly village banks,’’ Mr. Ashe continued. ‘‘The women mobilise savings, they make loans, and they have shareholders, who are the savers themselves, who make interest money in return.’’

Entrepreneurship as empowerment :
‘‘Village banking is done all over the world, in more than 100 countries,’’ said Cheryl Lassen, an independent micro-credit expert, who helped to design the WEP workbooks. ‘‘But one of the distinguishing characteristics of WEP is the empowerment aspect of it.

‘‘The concept of entrepreneurship is laced through the whole series of books, as is the idea that not only can your individual savings grow but the village bank itself can grow,’’ said Dr. Lassen. ‘‘I think the women in WEP get a better sense of being owners, managers and creators of wealth than with other projects. So the women aren’t just the objects of their development, they are the managers of it.’’

‘As of November 2000, individual members of the Thakali Chowk group, which calls itself the Mahila Sewa Village Bank, had established eight small enterprises, including five small shops, a goat-raising effort, a poultry business, and Ms. Khattri Chhettri’s bakery.?br>
‘‘I took the loan out four months ago,’’ said Ms. Khattri Chhettri “in November 2000. Now I have five employees and sell goods worth 5,000 [Nepalese] rupees a week.’’ Five thousand rupees is worth about US$70.

Ms. Khattri Chhettri said her husband had previously run a bakery and had the skills and know-how to set it up. But they couldn’t afford a loan from other sources, which commonly charge 60 per cent interest a year.

The village banks promoted by WEP, however, charge just 24 per cent interest a year, and that kind of relatively low interest rate made it possible for Ms. Khattri Chhettri to start her business, she said.

A thousand village banks :
Operating in 21 of Nepal’s 75 districts, WEP has enabled the formation of some 6,600 women’s literacy and savings groups since the project started in December 1997. Of those groups, some 1,000 have formed full-fledged village banks. ‘‘A thousand village banks is an extremely large program,’’ said Dr. Lassen. ‘‘Most other village bank programs deal with 50 or 100 village banks at the most?

According to a February 2001 report from Pact, women in these groups have collectively saved some US$1.6 million and loaned roughly US$1.4 million back to themselves.

None of this money has come from outside. Rather, these women have collected it from themselves, a few rupees per week, usually from household accounts or allowances.

‘‘Before, it was very cumbersome to save,’’ said Shanta Marasini, 30, the controller of the Pushpanagar Village Bank, a WEP group in the village of Rajena near the western city of Nepalganj. ‘‘We felt we had to pay someone else when we took a loan. Now we feel we are paying ourselves.’’

Indeed, a third element of the program ?beyond literacy and banking ?is to encourage social action by the groups. Separate funding and support from the Asia Foundation has enabled the establishment of a legal rights, responsibilities and advocacy component to WEP, which is delivered in a six-month module by local NGO facilitators.

According to surveys done by Pact, the groups have initiated more than 70,000 local social campaigns. ‘‘The women like learning about their rights and they enjoy planning together how they are going to change something in their community,’’ said Dr. Odell. ‘‘The most popular activity seems to be anti-alcohol or anti-gambling campaigns, but there are also many anti-dowry campaigns and campaigns against the trafficking of girls to India, and domestic violence.’’

A WEP group in the village of Bardhawa, which is also near Nepalganj, recently successfully mobilised to stop a child marriage.

Formed in January 1999, the Bardhawa group had not yet established a village bank by November 2000. But it had completed the literacy component of the program, successfully teaching 10 of its 13 members who were illiterate to read and write.

The process of learning to read together brought the women closer, said its members, and encouraged them to think about how to help each other. From this new-found sense of solidarity the group decided to intervene after they learned that a 10-year-old girl was being offered into marriage in the next village.

‘‘We talked to the parents and convinced them not to do it,’’ said Sumat Rani Chaudhary, the group’s chair. ‘‘When a child gets married, she will suffer when she goes to her husband’s house and she will suffer to deliver a baby, so all of us together went to talk to the parents. We sat for a long time with them and finally they were convinced not to do it.’’

The Innovations of WEP :

According to project leaders, the success of WEP stems from a number of key innovations in their approach to the issues of literacy, savings and credit, and social mobilisation.

First, they said, the workbooks themselves play a huge role in their creative presentation of curricula for literacy, banking and entrepreneurship, which are laid out in a simple but effective way, often making use of short stories and dialogues among villagers.

‘‘There are several parts to the magic of WEP,’’ said Connie Kane, a Pact vice-president who oversees the project. ‘‘The books are one part. It’s amazing how women use their books and pass them around.’’

Another important principle in the project is the effort to encourage self-sufficiency and self-reliance from the beginning. For example, in contrast to other literacy programs in Nepal, which provide free books, teachers and even lanterns and kerosene for night classes, women who participate in WEP get nothing for free and must even purchase the books themselves, albeit at a highly subsidised rate.

‘‘When they must pay for the books, they feel a sense of ownership,’’ said Bhaktaraj Ranjit, manager of WEP in Nepal. ‘‘The women feel this is their program. So they keep the books and manuals for a long time. And they take it seriously.’’

The program also draws extensively on ‘appreciative inquiry,?a new approach in organisational development that encourages groups to focus on positive imagery. As applied in WEP, the process is called ‘appreciative planning and action?and it seeks to help the women focus on accomplishments instead of failures.

‘‘In present-day development, the main challenge is motivation,’’ said Keshab Thapaliya, an ECTA staff member who has been deeply involved in WEP from the beginning. ‘‘Appreciative planning and action encourages people instead of making them feel overcome by their problems.’’

The project also benefited from the fact that it was designed by literacy experts, who had experience with rapidly scaling up a project at minimal cost by relying on the women themselves to do the training.

‘‘The genius of it is that WEP started with savings,’’ said Dr. Lassen. ‘‘So there was no lending involved and you don’t have to start small. The literacy-based approach enabled it to be massive. Anybody who wanted the books and who wanted to be in the groups, could join. This was a very practical way of getting women to become familiar with village banking, much faster, and in a more empowered way.’’

USAID funding is scheduled to run out in September 2001. Pact hopes to find funding to continue the program but will operate it in any event by relying principally on the women themselves, said Dr. Odell.

‘‘We’ve found that the demonstration effect ?when one group of women sees another group doing something like starting a village bank ?has been enormously valuable,’’ said Dr. Odell. ‘‘The women talk to other women and they want it too. Already some groups are saying to others : we will train you.’’

KATHMANDU, Nepal____An important partner in the Women’s Empowerment Program has been Education, Curriculum, and Training Associates (ECTA), a small Nepal-based non-governmental organisation, which has played a key role in creating the program’s innovative curriculum and training field staff.

ECTA, which means “unity?in Nepali, was founded in 1997 by a group of Nepali Bahai's who had been working in development. Their goal was to promote rural development strategies and programs that can be done at low cost by village groups without extensive outside aid, said Keshab Thapaliya, one of the founders of ECTA and a main contributor to the WEP project.

“Rather than build capacity at the local NGO level,?said Mr. Thapaliya, “the program is building capacity directly at the grassroots level. We feel it is more sustainable that way.?br>
As well, many of WEP’s novel ideas and approaches came from David Walker, who formerly headed Pact in Nepal and who currently serves as advisor to the project and to ECTA.

Cheryl Lassen, an independent microfinance consultant who worked with Dr. Walker and Mr. Thapaliya, said ECTA’s role was twofold. First, it was essential in making the program and training materials suitable for Nepali villagers. Second, he said, ECTA took the lead role as field operatives, successfully communicating the program’s novel methodology and ideas to the women themselves.
“This could not have been written for villagers without the input of highly intelligent Nepali educators, such as Keshab [Thapaliya],?said Dr. Lassen.
(Courtesy : Brad Pokorny, Editor, ‘One Country?


How different is the case in India !


Men were united across party lines in opposing equal 
inheritance rights for women on the ground that it would create discord between brothers and sisters. In other words, they virtually admitted that the key element in the asserted harmony between brothers and sisters is the disinheritance of women. While some brothers accept their obligation to give dowry, few are willing to concede inheritance rights to women.

Against this background it is no surprise that women in India are diffident about asserting their inheritance rights, guaranteed under the Hindu Succession Act. For women that proverbial knock on the doors for legal Justice is still a far cry. A most powerful deterrent is the fact that women have no social and familial support in a long and lonely legal battle. As a result, women continue to suffer lifelong, rather than tilt the power balance. Having no independent income nor resources, women engaged in family disputes are hardest hit by tedious court procedures, delays and formidable legal expenses. Even when women survive long enough in family litigation, Court Orders may not necessarily favour them. In positive verdicts, it is husbands ordered to pay maintenance or brothers a share in estate, who will dodge. Contempt Motions against husbands for maintenance default is an everyday matter. The very implementation of Court Orders remains a hazardous task. For women, it is both delayed and denied justice.

Women’s fears of the Judiciary is therefore well founded. It needs to be contextualised within our specific socio-economic framework. Rooted deeply in traditional beliefs, Indian tradition upholds family values____there is tremendous regard for kinship ties. The silence on matters concerning irresponsible husbands, fathers, brothers, sons or other close relatives is a part of our general male reverence. It is also believed, family disputes must be resolved within the four walls. General skepticism about the efficacy of law courts in family matters firmly holds women back. If today, many more wives muster courage to file for divorce, the number of daughters asserting for their inheritance rights is rare. It is significant to note there have been only 51 cases in the country since the Hindu Succession Act was amended to include daughters.

However, there is an interesting shift in women’s attitude in this regard. Two recent landmark judgements in favour of women are the cases of Mary Roy and Rupan Deol Bajaj. Mary Roy challenged the antiquated Travancore Act.

Not all women possess Rupan Deol’s and Mary Roy’s determination to fight injustice. Particularly when women’s struggle against injustice amounts to endurance feats. What makes it worse is the absence of support structures for these women through the pendency of the Suit. Women are unprepared for the huge expenses, delays common in litigations. The fact that women encounter social censure for taking civil matters to court, makes their situation vulnerable. These socio-economic dimensions of litigation act as deterrents.

There is some relief for women in the State of Maharashtra. The former Sharad Pawar’s Government struck down the initial Stamp fee of Rs. 15,000/- (Fifteen Thousand Rupees). For women to file a Suit in the High Court, no fee is charged.

If daughters were to challenge their father’s discriminatory wills, or wives were to seek maintenance from husbands, in both cases the female petitioner’s ordeal is like Sita’s trial by fire. The very idea of a woman going to a law court puts her conduct on trial. Her character is suspect. In this system women are more sinned against than “sinning? The social backlash combined with the isolation of women who rock the boat is enough to deter the bravest of women. The other equally powerful deterrent is the fear about the legal expense. In this sense, the Judiciary remains the alternative for the Privileged few in India.

?Rinki Roy Bhattacharya