I am nearing the end of my internship with The People’s Social Development Foundation (PSDF) and have had an incredible experience. PSDF works to improve the socio-economic welfare of the Dalit community and women in the rural and slum villages surrounding the city of Pondicherry through awareness programs, childcare support services, disaster relief, family counseling, micro-credit entrepreneurship programs, and vocational training.
My favorite day of my internship thus far included site visits to 3 of the crèches (daycare/ pre-primary education centers) that PSDF runs in coordination with the Government of India’s Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme. The Rajiv Ghandi National Crèche Scheme For the Children of Working Mothers was started by the Government of India (GOI) in recognition of the “failure to meet the needs of working mothers” in need of “quality substitute care for their young children while they are at work.” As free, public education is not provided for Indian children until they reach 4 years of age, families unable to afford private daycare fees must care for their young children on their own until they can begin school. Most of the children’s parents work as day laborers in factories, and while this provides generally consistent work, wages are very low, between 80-100 rupees day (approx. $1.30-1.62), and no benefits are provided. If both parents are able to bring in these wages consistently, the family can cover its basic shelter, food and clothing costs, but face difficulty any time a large or unexpected expense comes up, such as school tuition or sickness. Mothers who have to take care of children are unable to work at the factories as they provide no childcare services, thus imposing a great amount of financial stress on these families. Even if the child remains at home with their mother or another relative, it is rare for them to receive the kind of educational attention provided at the crèches, as many families are illiterate and/or do not speak English. Children thus enter school with little prior experience in reading or educational activity, making it easy for them to fall behind quickly.
I headed out to the crèches in the hopes of gathering lots of information and individual stories about the children in the crèches in order to assist my grant-writing and fundraising for PSDF and was able to gather quite a bit of good material even if it wasn’t what I was expecting!
I did not anticipate that so many of the crèche teachers would be involved in or lead PSDF Micro-Credit Self Help Groups (SHGs) as well as teach in the crèches. I was struck by how both of the women that I interviewed more intensively really focused in on the social/non-economic impact of the SHGs and microfinance plans. I kept pushing questions about how/if microfinance had raised their living standards and what kind of income micro businesses generated in relation to other jobs – but after awhile my translator Segar laughingly told me that this topic didn’t seem to be what they were most interested in. Instead, the women kept telling him about the support system that the SHG had created for them.
Instead of simply grouping together in order to be able to have access to loans, PSDF requires its SHGs to save on their own through monthly contributions (usually 50-100 rupees) by each member. The women talked about how having this pool of savings took away their fear that even a small misfortune, such as a family member falling ill, could wreak havoc on their family financially. All of the women understand that misfortune could hit anyone of them, and thus know that even if their savings are going to help someone else in the immediate term, in the long term it is also providing security for them. Furthermore, the women told me about the strong bond that the SHG creates. For example, one told how in her group they are “each other’s biggest cheerleaders” and that if one woman opens a microbusiness, the group all comes on the first day to be her first customers. They then make sure to wear/show the products they bought around the village and surrounding villages, as a form of free advertising by word of mouth. The sari she was wearing that day was made by a member of her SHG, and she said that she drops that fact into conversation as much as possible to get the word out. Furthermore, through the education and awareness programs that PSDF conducts each month with the SHGs, the women bond even more by talking about issues that are often taboo, such as menstruation, domestic violence, dowry issues, and child abuse. The women see that they are not alone in their problems and can brainstorm ways to help each other or encourage each other to bring large issues to the Family Counseling Center at PSDF.
I did not expect that my main takeaway from these visits would be learning so much about how microfinance participants view the value of the assistance that microfinance provides them! It is a good lesson for me that while economic empowerment and a raising of one’s monetary standard is important in the context of impoverished peoples, “non-economic” empowerment is also extremely important and perhaps even more important to some, as these women indicated. This provides an important counter to the connotation that often comes with the term “non-economic empowerment” in the development community that denotes that this is somehow a lesser achievement than economic empowerment. I’m thankful that the women resisted the way my line of questioning/interviewing was going and instead shared what they really cared about – it’s difficult to be sensitive to that on my own when going through a translator, so I feel lucky to have gained this insight despite my preconceived notions about how microfinance worked. In the words of Radna Gandhi Madhi, a PSDF Self-Help Group Leader and Crèche Volunteer Helper, “Microfinance goes beyond improving one’s economic position, for me it is even more about the social effect of coming together.”
If you are interested in learning more about PSDF’s Crèche Program and how you can help them, please click here to be taken to their website. PSDF is currently conducting a 1 month “Crèche for Success” fundraiser to raise money to reopen 5 crèches that have been closed in the past 2 years due to lack of funds, leaving 125 children without free care and education during the day. $14 and 5 minutes of your time is all it takes to cover 2 children’s basic educational costs for an entire year! Thanks in advance for your interest and generosity!!
Anna Wiersma – American University of Paris