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Mumbai To Mukteshwar: In Ahmedabad Exploring Are Women In-charge Of Their Own Money?

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I have a crib with women ‘empowerment’ not just because it loses the nuances of power dynamics, but because our discourse then focuses on women who do not show agency vs women who do. So, one of the things I started doing in my life and my travels was to start collecting stories of women who show agency and that just changed the way I looked at the issue. Of course, we need to fight institutional bias and bad laws and also continue to dig deeper into why the agency is often so limited. A young woman we spoke to put it very well, “Up to four digits, financial decisions in my house are taken by my mother, anything above five digits is taken by my father”. The demonstration effect of this on girls vs boys is obvious and my curiosity in what will trigger a change to this social reality knows no bounds. It also comes across sharply that women judge themselves harshly for mistakes. One wonders if that is because of the fact that they are always being told that it was their fault, or being punished for what was often not their mistake at all.

But let’s go back to our stories for my second day of travel. In Ahmedabad…

Read all Mumbai to Mukteshwar stories here 

Amita Shah’s Story

Amita Shah, a well-known economist, is our gracious host. I tell her about my decision to startup in the space of women and money and she tells me the amazing story of her mother. Her father left his higher studies to come back and work with the Mahatma during the freedom movement. In one of his public speeches, there was a much younger woman, in her late teens, who decided she would marry him. Much effort went into her attempts to pursue higher studies, live independently in Mumbai and meet him, but eventually, when he did agree, he put forth two conditions that arose from his convictions and political work; he would not marry until the country became free and he would never earn any money for himself as he always wanted to work for people. They waited for the country to be free. She worked and supported the family and went on to become a member of Parliament while he served his people as Minister in the Gujarat government. What a story! What a woman!

It is a very nice day to wear a cotton saree. I love wearing sarees. Post COVID-19, it has become rare, so I decided to wear one every day during this trip. The sun is bright but kind and there is a mild breeze when we get down at the Sabarmati Ashram. We realise it is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the house of the Mahatma has an open courtyard, verandah and one can peep through the window into the simple room and the frugal kitchen. The courtyard is lovely. It has an aura-I feel peace and inner beauty, but that might also be because I love small courtyards, brick laid, bordered by a green creeper. I seek blessings and we move on to meet Jayashreeben, the woman at the helm of the SEWA Bank.

Meeting Jayashreeben

It is a bit of a maze, the SEWA organisation, and the premises. I call a young woman I know who is working with SEWA to understand it and she says it would require a proper tutorial. I understand. Almost all of our organisations end up with several legal entities and structures because one wants to solve many problems and our laws and regulations largely drive us to solve one problem with one license. Of course, it increases the compliance and capital burden, but as practical people, we continue to set up entities and move on. I hope that in my lifetime I will see more elegant solutions, solving primarily for clients and not for regulators.

Jayashreeben has a presence. She comes across as kind and wise. The highlight of this conversation is the story of a woman whom she met early on in the journey of SEWA Bank. This woman who made a living as a ragpicker had lost all her savings (Rs 7,000) because she kept it safe by digging a hole in her house and burying currency notes in it. Jayashreeben asked her why she had never thought of going to the bank nearby and deposit the money. The woman replied, “I went there thrice. But no one asked me why I was there. So I came back.” In SEWA bank branch, I notice a large and crowded desk at the entrance. It is meant to ask every woman entering through the door, “What would you like to do with us today’. Wow!

Women As Community Influencers

Jayashreeben has many nuggets for me. Another great one is when she talks about how women quickly become influencers in their communities and that helps them get more women in the network. She cites the example of her peons in the SEWA bank branches. These women are paid to serve tea and water and to move files. But they start to help clients to deposit cash in the deposit machine and generate instant receipts and passbooks. Her clients have adapted well to technology, provided it is friendly and useful, she says. For example, the cash deposit machine often has longer queues than the Teller counters, because almost everyone who deposits money instantly also updates their passbook. The passbook is important. Very.

Challenges During the Pandemic

I ask her about the COVID-19 and lockdown experience and she talks about the usual challenges, but also the silver linings. They saw many instances of overdraft withdrawals because women started to make masks or sell other essential items. They also saw more fixed deposits. She talks about migrant workers who repaid their loans before leaving town because they did not know when they would be back and they did not want their loans to accumulate interest. #Respect.

Jayashreeben talks passionately about the power of compounding and how her clients have begun to understand the concept of insurance and pension. She talks about what it has taken to build this awareness and to come this far. I feel humbled and also inspired and optimistic. More power to you Jayashreeben and team. Keep blazing.

Meeting SHG borrowers

We go to meet a group of (Self Help Group) SHG borrowers. My husband with his plaited long hair is a subject of much mirth among the women, maybe because he tells them the truth about who manages the money in our house. They talk about their husbands, their children who are attending classes on smartphones and their hesitation to use the internet because they do not know English. Yet, some of them use Google Pay to transfer money and Paytm to buy tickets or products and of course, WhatsApp to stay in touch with families. Their savings are always with a public sector bank, even if they have to trek a few kilometres and lose an hour of work. I ask the older women if their daughters are more comfortable with digital media or understand more about money and they say no. It’s pretty much the same. They manage the money for the house. Any big financial decision is the man’s prerogative.

These are women that make lace and other products that go into making the famous Gujarati garments. Their houses are clean and have small fridges and large televisions. The lanes are clean and so are the drains. Their children are comfortable with smartphones and smattering of English. COVID-19 has meant loss of work and business. But they have diligently repaid their loans or got it restructured. They understand credit and repayment. But they do not understand how to make the most of their own money. They are wary of schemes that can cheat them of their deposits, but their faith in LIC is touching. It is an arrival point in life to buy LIC. LIC is still synonymous with saving. I hope to live to see that change.

Picture Credit: Shinjini Kumar

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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