Power of Collectives: UNDP-IKEA Foundation Helps Women Change Rules

Thousands of women are setting an example by defining their own empowerment and creating exciting opportunities for social change as a result of a project launched by UNDP and the IKEA Foundation.

Decades of poverty, deep-rooted caste hierarchies and subjugation of women are by no means easy challenges to overcome. But in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, thousands of women are setting an example by defining their own empowerment and creating exciting opportunities for social change.

Highlights

  • The project covers 500 villages to reach 50,000 women
  • Women-led federations in the dairy and crafts industry are being set-up and 238 SHGs have availed loans without collaterals
  • Effective access of entitlements has been enabled through several national government schemes
  • Federations that help eliminate middlemen are being set up in the crafts industry
  • A 100 percent increase in names in the electoral roll compared to 2005 has been witnessed in three village panchayats
  • Over 13,000 women in 1,011 SHGs are fast becoming agents of economic, political, social and legal change

Growing up in eastern Uttar Pradesh, 35-year-old Shiela Devi’s life mirrored that of thousands of women in India. Her brothers went to school while she could not. They ate three full meals while she got leftovers. At 15, she was married with a hefty dowry (bride price) paid to her husband and married life was no better.

But the mother of three never questioned what life dealt until recently when she began interacting with other women and became a member of a Self-Help Group (SHG). As a member of this group not only was she able to access credit she learnt that education and nutrition are as important for girls as for boys if she wants a better life for her daughter. “I know now I need to ensure my daughter is well-fed and goes to school,” she says, adding: “Women too can have a say in village matters.”

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and second largest economy. Poverty is widespread, with 40 percent population below the poverty line. Only 18 percent women are in the workforce and less than half are literate. Spousal violence, lack of awareness about entitlements and poor political participation holds women back.

In 2009, UNDP and the IKEA Foundation launched a five-year project across three districts of Jaunpur, Mirzapur and Sant Ravidas Nagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The project covers 500 villages to reach 50,000 women. Women are encouraged to form SHGs that provide better access to credit for setting up enterprises. Women-led federations in the dairy and crafts industry are being set-up and 238 SHGs have availed loans without collaterals- an achievement for a country where two-thirds of the population does not have access to banks.

Women are now ready to seize economic opportunities and reap market benefits without dependence on middlemen. As they begin to see themselves as entrepreneurs they are able to effectively access entitlements through several national schemes such as the enterprise development programmes, credit facilities offered by financial institutions and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This synergy holds immense potential to bring women decisively into the economic arena.

New entrepreneurs include 35-year-old Samodha Devi who took a loan of `10, 000 (USD212) from her SHG to purchase a buffalo and now sells milk at `15 per litre. UNDP is also helping set up women-led federation in the dairy industry that will enable Samodha to earn `18 per litre, eliminating the middleman. Similar federations are being set up in the crafts industry. In addition to economic empowerment, the project attempts to make women politically and legally aware through SHGs.

Fadzai Gwaradzimba, Chief South and West Asia Division, Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific, UNDP who visited the project during her recent trip to India, says: The UNDP-IKEA Foundation is unique as it pools together all the threads that have direct impact on the lives of women and communities – political, legal, social and economic through a process that is very much organic, building on local processes that tap into the strengths of women. The project is pioneering and represents an exciting public-private partnership that empowers women.

Results are already visible. A voter awareness campaign in the project area has increased the participation of people from marginalized communities in the forthcoming September elections. Data on three village panchayats including Rampur Nisfi, where Shiela lives reveals a 100 percent increase in names in the electoral roll compared to 2005. Further, 20,000 women have participated in meetings on political leadership and legal awareness and newly formed Women Vigilance Committees in 282 village councils will monitor the elections.

According to Caitlin Wiesen, Country Director, UNDP India, “Through participating in the political process, availing of entitlements and building economic identities, the project has demonstrated the power of women’s leadership in a short span of time. Further, we are witnessing a unique convergence of agencies, schemes, resources and knowledge which is helping women voice their priorities and make a difference in the development process in their villages.”

Over 13,000 women in 1,011 SHGs are fast becoming agents of change. To affirm their collective strength, these women have signed a 12-point charter that spells out what empowerment means to them. Traveling through 500 villages, the 10-foot tall charter serves as a powerful reminder to women that they are not alone and can change the rules.

“When the charter was being drawn up I suggested we say that girls should not be married before the age of 18 and I followed this for my daughter,” says 40-year-old Susheela Devi who was married at 13.

A formidable bond is being formed by these women in eastern Uttar Pradesh, one which has the potential to fundamentally alter decades of discrimination, poverty and deprivation.

Also Read: Making a Difference in the Lives of Women and Girls

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