There can only be so many…

Today was the last day of visits. That means that tomorrow we have to decide what NGO we’re going to work with. Which in turn means complete confusion. So instead of making specific decisions right now I’ve decided to reflect upon something that I’ve come to think about during all of these visits.

India is a country that has a lot of Self-help groups for empowerment; they especially focus on women’s empowerment. These groups are usually provided with education opportunities, vocational training and micro loans. This means that women, through these initiatives, will be able to sustain themselves by becoming entrepreneurs and run their own businesses that they started with the micro loan, producing something that they learnt during period of vocational training or from the educational opportunities they were given.

Basically, I’ve had two reflections concerning these self-help groups, or SHGs as they’re called. First of all, even though I definitely like the idea of women becoming entrepreneurs and being empowered through small-scale business development, I question why women’s empowerment is linked to women starting businesses. After these days visiting NGOs I feel like there is an alternative missing in regards to empowerment. I mean, is the option for a woman who wants to be empowered really only to start her own business?

The issue and focus on entrepreneurship can be viewed in different ways. One of the ways is linked to my second reflection/observation on SHGs, which is the skills and the kind of business that the women are starting up. Every SHG that we have visited that offer vocational training offers it within different kinds of arts and crafts; making dolls, doormats, sewing, making soaps and oils and so on. So I ask myself, how sustainable is it to teach all these women the same things and make them business owners? There can only be so many businesses that make doormats, which would mean that after a while the women will start to compete with each other. The women will almost have their own market, and with that segregation they will probably rarely, if not never, participate in the mainstream market and in the same platforms as men.

Which brings me to my second concern, the actual skills. Not only from the idea of letting the women create sustainable businesses, but also from a pure feminist perspective, why are the women only taught those specific skills? Where are the self-help groups that teach women about electricity, IT, mechanics, construction and so on? Like I said before, it feels like the women are being maneuvered into their own market. The fact that they are not being given the chance to enter the male-dominated arena of work makes the empowerment of women through self-help groups seem like a façade. They are empowered to some extent, for example because are able to develop their own livelihood. But will they ever fully reach the male dominated sectors? If not it could be seen as though they’re still less than men, below and beneath, not worth as much.

The conclusion I draw is that if I were to start my own self-help group, I would give the women other practical skills to help them reach another market if they wanted to, and not for the women to be forced to be handicraft entrepreneurs. I do realize that we have only seen an extremely small portion of the SHG’s available in India, my thoughts on this matter is therefore solely based on what we have experienced here and not SHG’s in India in general. So based on what we have seen, it frustrates me that a man can be respected for having any job but a woman is “only” empowered when she’s an entrepreneur within a market based on arts and crafts.

Malin Persson, Linnaeus University (From 2014-12-29)

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