A Life-Changing Trip Through a Changing India by Lauren Hirshon and Jennifer Gillard

January 30, 2013

By Lauren Hirshon, Fels Director of  Consulting, & Jennifer Gillard, Communications Coordinator for the Department of Bioengineering

While most of our friends in Philadelphia were toasting the start of 2013, we were on the other side of the globe studying microfinance and women's empowerment. A group of twelve Penn graduate students from the School of Social Policy and Practice, the Fels Institute of Government, and the School of Arts and Sciences spent the final days of 2012 and the first week of the New Year traveling in and around Mangalore, India.

Our classmates represented several master’s programs across Penn, including social work, social policy, non-profit leadership, public administration, organizational dynamics, and liberal arts. With a diverse set of interests and long-term aspirations–from leading international development work to understanding global cultures and management–each of us had a particular passion for economic development and women's empowerment that drew us to the course (offered through Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice).

Before we left for the trip, Dr. Femida Handy (Professor at SP2) assigned a dozen books and articles to familiarize us with microfinance and microenterprise; women's rights, roles, and responsibilities in India; and the Indian culture and development.  The Indian government has established ambitious goals around poverty alleviation and financial inclusion, that is, ensuring that all people (and especially the underserved rural poor) have access to financial services including bank accounts, credit, and insurance. 

India has relied heavily on microfinance schemes in order to achieve these goals. Microfinance, as described by its founder, Muhammad Yunus, is lending money without collateral to the poorest women so they can help themselves out of poverty through income-generating activities.  Self-help groups (SHGs), typically ten to twenty women who meet regularly to save small amounts of money and take out loans as a group, are an essential element of microfinance, and were one of the main focuses of our trip. 

During the whirlwind tour, we heard first-hand from professors, economists, bankers, non-profit leaders, and hundreds of members of SHGs about the impact of these programs.  In total we visited 19 different SHGs in rural Mangalore. Their microenterprises ranged from tailoring to pickle-making; cultivating jasmine flowers to manufacturing phenol oil; catching and drying fish to rolling beedis (local cigarettes); local agriculture, and more.  These ventures came with great rewards for many of the homes we visited. We saw that women had been able to purchase household goods like fans and TVs, and in a few cases, temporary curtains hid the ongoing construction of home additions or latrines. We also heard about the investments these women were making in their children’s education and even health insurance.

The story of one particular young woman we met exemplified the power of change contained within the SHG model.  We were visiting an SHG of 18 Muslim women who had been saving and working together for eight years. As we listened through our translator, a younger woman named Mubeena began chiming in from the back of the room—and she was doing so in English! Mubeena’s mother was a member of this group, which had delved into pickle-making, the firewood business, and a particularly successful tailoring endeavor that involved buying cloth at a discounted rate from Bangalore and sewing it into clothes that could be sold locally for a good price. 

Mubeena shared that before joining the SHG, her mother always stayed in the house and was too insecure to interact with visitors her father invited.  Following the success the group, Mubeena saw her mother gain confidence.  "Now she speaks more," Mubeena said.  As if to prove her point, when we asked which woman was her mother, she pointed at the woman who was in the middle of answering questions and telling our class how many rupees their SHG had saved.  On top of these changes for her mother, Mubeena’s own life had been changed by the SHG: it had provided her with a scholarship which was allowing her to attend law school.

Across Mangalore we heard many stories like Mubeena's, where an SHG had changed its members’ lives. But this model hasn’t changed the lives of just a few villagers. The scale of the impact of these SHGs became evident when we attended a special ceremony organized by SCDCC Bank, a major microcredit lender in the region.  As guests of honor, we stepped out of our van and were greeted by a sea of women wearing maroon and gold saris provided by the bank.  Although only 1,000 SHG members had been invited, over 3,000 attended, some of whom walked up to four hours to get there.  Their eyes beamed and their faces lit up with proud smiles as they flocked to meet us and shake our hands at the end of the ceremony. 

This memory, and many others from the trip, has left an indelible impression on those of us who attended the trip. Before we came, we knew that India was a powerhouse on the rise, with an impressive growth rate second only to China. We also knew that 37% of the population lived in poverty. But based on what we saw and heard, we learned that microfinance and SHGs are positioned to play an integral role in leading change in India, especially for the rural poor.  Penn provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience that opened our eyes to potential poverty solutions and ways to increase women’s empowerment. And since we weren’t toasting champagne on New Year’s at the start of 2013, we’d like to toast to the continued success of women like Mubeena and her mother, who gave us hope for India’s future, and a better understanding of what that future might look like. 

Acknowledgements: The students who attended this trip would like to thank Dean Richard Gelles of the School of Social Policy & Practice for his support through the generous Dean’s Travel Award; and, the Graduate And Professional Student Association for their support through a GAPSA Travel Grant. And of course, we thank Dr. Femida Handy, Dr. Moodithaya, and Mr. Vinod Dixith for teaching the course and arranging the itinerary.

(1)    A women’s self-help group in rural Mangalore, India; one of their businesses is making beedis (local cigarettes).
(2)    A collection agent measuring the delicate chain of jasmine buds; the chains will later be picked up and sold in markets.
(3)    Mubeena, who is studying to be a lawyer, is the daughter of a woman in a successful entrepreneurial self-help group.
(4)    Thousands of self-help group members gather at a sari ceremony organized by SCDCC Bank.

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