Deepanwita Gita Niyogi | Mar 6 | 8 min read
The Meena women of villages in Udaipur’s Zawar mines area reinvent their worth by saving money through self-help groups and accessing bank loans to launch micro-enterprises
Udaipur, Rajasthan: Indira Meena’s world turned upside down when her partner deserted her eight years ago. A resident of Paduna in Udaipur’s Girwa tehsil, Indira was 17 when she left home for him.
Now 27, she is trying to survive as a single mother with son Anil, who studies in Class 2. “I was not legally married to him,” Indira, who works as MGNREGA mate in her village, told 101Reporters. Last year, she formed the Bharti Swah Sahayata Samuh, a self-help group (SHG) with 16 members. “We focus on savings and small businesses,” the feisty woman said. There are 22 such SHGs in her village.
Paduna is a part of Udaipur’s Zawar mines area, where non-profit Manjari Foundation (under Hindustan Zinc's CSR programme) has helped form 394 SHGs. Their present total savings stands at Rs 2,71,30,341. They function much like the groups formed under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM), helping women open bank accounts in the SHGs’ names and gain access to loans.
According to the Ministry of Rural Development, 777 SHGs got revolving funds worth Rs 116.6 lakh in Udaipur’s Girwa tehsil. In 2022-23, 380 SHGs availed of loans worth Rs 5.09 crore while 1499 have outstanding loans of 7.97 crores.
The SHG women not only make small contributions weekly, but also take part in social campaigns and help those in distress. “NGOs mainly mobilise the women through trainings and other creative means. The NRLM sends community resource persons to form SHGs,” Clara Mallick, who worked with PRADAN in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district, told 101Reporters.
When Manjari's lead Rampal Meena visited Zawar in 2016, he recalls he could not even meet the women due to patriarchal restrictions. However, the much-needed change became visible after sustained gender sensitisation programmes. “Our staff started visiting houses and enlisted the support of village heads. Now, women hold four meetings every month,” Rampal told 101Reporters.
An Adivasi from the Meena community and a mother of four, Mangli Devi (55) resides in Amarpura, located about 10 km from Paduna. “I was married off at 14. At that time, I did not know that marriage at a tender age is harmful," she said.
The change in attitude was initiated by a few women who arrived from Dhaulpur district to explain SHG’s functioning to the village women, whose lives centred around cooking, grazing goats, working in fields and collecting firewood from the forest while on the lookout for leopards. It's a big concern that women here have been more prone to leopard attacks due to the nature of their work which requires them to go into the forest in the early hours looking for firewood. According to data provided by Udaipur forest division, five women received injuries and three died in leopard attacks in the area in 2020-21. In the same period, five men were injured.
Meena women from different generations are finding the courage to assert themselves thanks to the economic and social freedoms that SHGs have precipitated. Rameela Meena (top left) and Mangli Devi (top right) no longer silently weather taunts about having no children or not observing veil (Photos - Deepanwita Gita Niyogi, 101Reporters)
“When I wanted to learn calculation, my husband discouraged me. But I was determined because I wanted to understand bank work,” Mangli said, adding that women felt bad when husbands refused to part with any money with them for their needs.
“When SHGs were not there, many women faced abuse. Some are still afraid of their husbands. I tell them that if they remain so, the outside world will be a dream,” said Indira, who considers liquor joints as the root cause of marital discord.
Women have grown confident that they do not keep a veil at all times. Even its length has reduced. Rameela Meena, who is educated up to Class 8, was often criticised for not bearing a child after being married for five years. She also had to put up with a mother-in-law who scolded her for not keeping veil.
For her, SHG work opened the gate of freedom. Rameela is a samuh sakhi (friend of SHG) of Amarpura now. Her mother-in-law does not scold her anymore. She understands the need to go out into the world. Both attend SHG meetings together.
Admitting that she used to complain to her son about Rameela over the veil issue, her mother-in-law Sabita Bai said, “Now, both of us know that veil is not important."
Rameela formed the 10-member Heena Swyam Sahayata Samuh in 2017, with each member saving Rs 80 per month and availing of small loans to set up shops, buy atta chakki (flour grinder) and sewing machines. Her samuh’s savings stand at Rs 60,000, which is kept in a locked box.
“The money keeps revolving among the members. When women need cash, they take as per their requirements. If someone wants to borrow, it is written down in the register against the name of the borrower and for what purpose. If a woman takes Rs 1,000 and wants to pay back in two months, she has to return Rs 1,040 with interest,” she said.
The box is kept with the members on a rotational basis per week. Banks also give loans when accounts are opened in the name of the group, added Rameela. Amarpura has a total of 19 SHGs.
At home over heartfelt dinnertime conservation, Rameela explained, “We do not want to depend on husbands always. Whenever I need money, I take SHG loans, like say Rs 10,000 on average.”
Women have learnt the art of earning money. A woman in Rameela’s group bought a baby goat for Rs 5,000 and sold it later for Rs 14,000. SHG linkage helped Rameela build a new house and buy a car, which her husband drives for tourists in Udaipur. She took Rs 20,000 from the samuh for the house. The second-hand car was bought at Rs 5 lakh on a bank loan. The repayment of only about Rs 1 lakh is pending at present.
“I had nothing when I started out with only Rs 20 as savings amount per week,” Rameela said.
Taking a stand
Amarpura’s Sharda Swah Sahayata Samuh was formed on April 25, 2017, with 13 members. Though the women started with savings, they gradually took a stand against domestic violence and child marriage.
Mangli pointed out that realisation dawned upon women when they attended training sessions. In cases of violence, they try to intervene collectively. “We try to stop men from beating up wives and aim for a resolution. When a Paduna resident was ousted from home by her mother-in-law, we called the police.”
The collective might of SHGs came to the fore in Indira’s case. About 25 women intervened, went to the police station and demanded that Indira be paid a monthly allowance for her son. It worked as her estranged partner now pays Rs 3,000 per month, said Amri Devi, Indira’s neighbour who had set up Lakshmi Maata Samuh about six years back.
In Amarpura, many women have taken loans of around Rs 30,000 individually from banks for setting up borewells, buying goats and other livelihood ventures.
Though things are progressing, it is not easy to unshackle the chains of patriarchy. “Some people still tell my husband to bring another wife. If SHGs were not active in taking a moral stand against second marriage, maybe they would have forced him to marry again,” Rameela said.
It will not be wrong to say that her husband now understands her better. When this reporter met the family at night, he was nice and welcoming. He even made eggs in the dark, as there was a power shutdown.
More than anything, it is the social pressure that makes men remarry. “I feel worthless when I hear people talk about bringing home a second wife,” said Kali Devi, who has been married for 20 years without a child. Luckily, her husband did not think of another marriage.
Back in Paduna, Indira’s situation is still tough as her parents are not that welcoming. “My partner had even stopped sending the promised money. Fortunately, the women intervened to get it restored,” she said.
Cover Photo: Members of Sharda Swah Sahayata Samuh that was formed in Amarpura in 2017 (Photo - Deepanwita Gita Niyogi, 101Reporters)
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
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