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Women-led Self Help Groups: Frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the SHGs have done phenomenal work in lending a hand by not just stitching masks and preparing sanitizers, but also in ensuring livelihood to the most marginalized groups. The work done by the SHGs during the pandemic is worthy of being a template for optimal community-led response in times of crisis.

Recently, Prime Minister Modi held a discussion with different banking and NBFC stakeholders. The focus of the discussion revolved around the crucial role financial and banking system play in supporting India’s growth. Among other issues, PM Modi emphasized that banks and NBFCs should encourage the small entrepreneurs, SHGs and farmers to take loans. The mention of SHGs by PM Modi holds significance here.

In the last few years, this women-led movement has become an institution for women empowerment and economic prosperity of rural India. Despite the sheer size of SHGs and the impact, they have on rural economies, their contributions have not been highlighted well. But, these SHGs have shown how they can be a substantial force of rural growth and an important movement to address bigger challenges facing the community through their phenomenal work during COVID pandemic. 

The Self-Help Group movement has helped millions of women of rural India break free from subdued life and become financially independent ever since its inception in 1992. Their phenomenal growth from a small group of 225 to 6.3 million SHGs comprising 69 million women today is a testament to their success. These SHGs have played a crucial role in the social and economic empowerment among rural women and have fostered the spirit of entrepreneurship and financial independence. They have further played a crucial role in instilling among rural women a social and political consciousness thereby gaining a voice which is now heard across all groups of the society.

The impact of this community has been well demonstrated in recent months, ever since the pandemic began its spread. In the fight against this deadly disease, the SHGs have taken up the tasks of providing assistance in numerous ways and alleviated the sufferings of many in their communities. 

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SHGs have launched a number of initiatives at the local level since March this year. When the pandemic began, the Indian manufacturers were not able to meet the demand for masks and other protective materials. The SHGs stepped in to fill this demand. As per a report by the ministry of rural development, more than 132 lakh masks were produced by 14,522 SHGs involving 65,936 members in 399 districts (across 24 states) from March 15th to March 30th. In April, 20,000 SHGs managed to produce more than 19 million masks across 27 states (which is in about 90% of India’s districts). By May, this increased to over two lakh women SHGs producing more than 10 crore masks. The masks produced by SHGs were distributed among ASHA workers, ANM and hospital workers and other front line COVID warriors at free of cost. 

Their efforts also included 1 lakh litres of sanitizer and 50,000 litres of handwash; with sanitiser production increasing to 3 lakh litres by May. Again, to meet the demand for PPE kits, the SHGs swung into action. Over 4000 women belonging to SHGs produced more than 2 lakh PPE kits across 12 states from March to May. 

SHGs went on to play a key role in tackling the problems caused due to the restriction of mobility and the loss of livelihoods, especially of the migrant population.The largest of them, – the Kudumbashree network of Kerala comprising  4.4 million womenacross 300,000 SHGs,have been instrumental in running 1300 community kitchens in their state’s panchayats and municipalities. Their efforts continued to assist the stranded and the vulnerable; whilst also delivering food to the quarantined and the bedridden. Kudumbshree spear headed the government’s ‘Break the Chain’ campaign by educating people on social distancing and washing of hands at regular intervals through posters, phone messages and weekly meetings. These women SHGs also started a floating supermarket (in a boat) for delivering essential supplies to the Kainakary residents in Alappuzha.

The SHGs also stepped in to spread awareness on COVID-19 and busting the myths that came along with the disease. The Jeevikas of Bihar conducted door-to-door awareness drives on social distancing, good health, and hygiene. Jeevikas belonging to 1.4 lakh SHGs provided food supplies to the elderly and the quarantined. They used the Mobile-Vaani platform to make public voice messages on safety measures around COVID-19.

Through their vast network of WhatsApp groups, comprising of 190,000 WhatsApp groups with 2.2 million members, the SHGs proactively worked towards countering misinformation about COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the SHGs have done phenomenal work in lending a hand by not just stitching masks and preparing sanitizers, but also in ensuring livelihood to the most marginalized groups. The work done by the SHGs during the pandemic is worthy of being a template for optimal community-led response in times of crisis. 

(The article is written by Akriti Tyagi, who is a lawyer by education but a writer by disposition. Keen on all things historical, cultural and social. An avid traveller and a voracious reader)

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