We sit on the outside porch of a home in the hills. We are visiting with one of the most successful SHGs in a village called Samanthipuram, a panchayat (community) within walking distance of Padavedu. The members cluster around us, their children hanging off the ledge or sitting on their parents’ laps to get closer to the discussion. One of the accolades of this SHG includes a district award highlighting their work. In order to qualify for the award, the SHG needed to prove that they had initiated and supported Income Generation Activities (IGAs), educational support, health awareness to the public, and volunteer village cleaning.
When we ask the group how the animator, Mr. Ganeshan, helps to sustain their work, the SHG members explain that he provided information for the group formation in 2003, he introduced training for banana rope making, and he helped the group demonstrate that all requirements were met for the district award. The members also highlighted his role in presenting new technologies as they become available for increasing work productivity.
I am amazed by how social work theoretical framework is embedded in community development in Padavedu. Animators are both providers of direct social services, which through the US social work lens would be considered micro level work. They also act as influential social change agents on the mezzo and macro level, by helping SHGs receive microloans for their small businesses directly impacting all members of the group, and on a macro level encouraging SHGs to gain recognition by the government as being financially autonomous, which is not always an intrinsic right.
In my Community Organizing class last semester, we read the article, “Social Service or Social Change?” Author Paul Kivel examines the idea that as social service workers, we often provide pathways to help individuals and groups within systems; however, creating social change requires workers to go beyond preserving the status-quo and striving to change the existing structures. It is clear that animators, who are selected to work in villages in which they reside, are not just facilitators. They are also friends and neighbors. Meetings are not just transactions; they are also social events with people who seem to mutually respect one another. I watch the animators interact with the SHG members as counselors, providers of service options, and also as motivators to keep pushing their businesses to a new level – I feel that animators’ work is done as a labor of genuine passion, not merely the function of an occupation.
In considering the Community Organizing class that inspired me to continue my career as a human rights activist, I start to think about organizing in the US. I wonder if an SHG model would work in the US. SHG members embody various qualities such as trust, commitment, openness, and dedication to the work, which are essential traits when working in groups, and important qualities that contribute to group cohesion, especially for disempowered girls and women seeking ways to engage in the community. When problems arise in the SHGs, they use their weekly meeting as the time to share obstacles, and if necessary, the animator is present to intervene if someone is “not holding their weight” (though the animator is not a supervisor or manager).
When I return to the US, I hope to research more about the practices of credit unions, which I understand to be more focused on community development than banks, and could encourage Income Generation Activities (IGAs) amongst women based on the SHG model here in Padavedu. Maybe if credit unions became more popular in the US, the market competition would push private banks to be fiscally responsible to the communities in which they operate.
SHGs are not solely based on economic growth, and through their collaborative efforts they are also empowering communities. What is particularly remarkable is that with just a small amount of savings per week, SHGs are able to contribute to the development of their community. SHG members are constantly giving back to improve quality of life of all inhabitants in the village by donating to schools, arranging village clean-ups, and sharing awareness about health education. Membership in SHGs is recognized and respected in Indian society. SHG members are models for many people, particularly women, inspiring people to band together to live more sustainable and self-supportive lives.