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Bank for women by a woman

Calcutta, Oct. 9: A young activist from Mumbai travels to a village, pursuing a human rights mission. There, she falls in love with a farmer, gets married, gives up her life in the city and settles down in her husband’s home. The economics graduate soon shifts focus to the plight of the women in her village. Her movement gives birth to a cooperative bank.

In less than 10 years, the bank — giving loans to only rural women — is thriving and the lives of 27,000 women are transformed.

It reads like a film script. But this is a true tale of grit and determination, vision and detailed planning. Chetana Gala Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, has sparked a minor revolution in rural Maharashtra with her holistic model aimed at empowering women through self-sufficiency.

After her marriage to Vijay in 1985, Chetana left her support structure and moved to the small village of Mhaswad. The activist in her soon grew concerned about the plight of the wives of migrant workers and woman heads of families. In a bid to help them gain economic independence, she formed self-help groups in the area.

In 1994, she began to sow the seeds of a bank. A small group of uneducated village women, led by Chetana, took on the mighty Reserve Bank of India, convincing the authorities that they would be able to run the bank as good as any one else.

Chetana attributes the success to the fact that she developed a model based on the specific needs of the community. “I am a citizen there. My agenda is their agenda,” says the mother of three sons.

The formula worked magic. In three years, the bank broke even. Small-savings schemes — which require women to save as little as Rs 5 a month — added up over the years and the bank now has deposits to the tune of Rs 4.6 crore, a share capital of Rs 32 lakh and a registered profit of Rs 6.5 lakh. The Mahila Bank has sanctioned 17,000 loans — ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 35,000.

Each of its 225 self-help groups operates as a federation with 20 members and its own funds and can give loans up to Rs 5,000. It has created vegetable vendors and tailors, sheep and goat rearers. Through the self-help group network, 15 dairies were set up, which produce 15,000 litres of milk a day.

Though the bank offers 1 per cent less interest than nationalised banks, the account-holders are more than happy as they know money made from their deposits is ploughed back into the community. Pension and insurance schemes, innovative girl-child education projects and youth development schemes are a part of the foundation’s activities.

Women’s land rights are a key aspect of Chetana’s current agenda. “Unless women have a right to the house they live in, their husbands can always throw them out,” feels Chetana, who won the Ashoka fellowship for innovative social schemes and visited Calcutta last week for a workshop on micro-credit. She has found a novel way around this problem, convincing all 500 men of one village to sign their homes over to their wives. “We called them to a public meeting and asked them to write down all the things their wives did from morning to night. We asked them if they felt the women had earned a right to that home or not,” she smiles.

Chetana was selected for Yale University’s world leaders programme, and spent last year giving lectures and seminars in the US on her experiences. She is also working with the Harvard Business School as a consultant to an initiative that aims to marry micro-finance with education.

Her model is not without drawbacks. “We don’t want to create superwomen. Women are taking on more and more responsibility. Even men must participate,” ponders the 44-year-old. Though men are free to save in the Mahila Bank, they are not eligible for loans.

Chetana has resisted this despite repeated requests, firm in her belief that “men are not efficient managers”. But with an eye on the next generation, she has started youth development programmes that concentrate on vocational training.

Chetana’s mahila army has become “powerful”, standing its ground against any opponent. “They do not tolerate violence from their husbands,” says the gentle yet assertive woman. But to set right the equations within the home, she is trying to encourage parents to acknowledge the value of their daughters. “Then alone will they be valued by their fathers-in-law and husbands.”

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