Today’s Solutions: October 27, 2021

Jaya Arunachalam is leading a movement for women’s independence in India. Ode spoke with her about why mircrocredit is not enough.

Marco Visscher | March 2007 issue

On the table between us is a copy of Ode. “Turning poverty into peace,” reads the cover, showing a photograph of a beaming Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus revolutionized economics in the developing world by establishing a system of small loans for poor people that he called “microcredit.” As soon as Jaya Arunachalam recognizes him, she begins to sing his praises. Then she adds a critical note. Leaning forward, she says emphatically, “By providing microloans, we’re not going to solve poverty.”
Jaya Arunachalam ought to know. For nearly 30 years she has managed the Working Women’s Forum (WWF), a social justice organization that now serves more than 800,000 women spread over some 5,000 villages and slum areas in the south of India. Offering microloans that enable the women to start their own businesses is one way the WWF empowers women. But Arunachalam feels the government must also be involved in alleviating poverty. So the Working Women’s Forum organizes regular protest marches and lobbies government officials to help women advance, regularly introducing initiatives to make education more available, for example, or healthcare more affordable.
One of Arunachalam’s main aims is preventing people who have climbed out of poverty from finding themselves back where they started. “Earlier, microfinance was seen as a solution to end of indebtedness of the poor to save them from the clutches of the moneylenders. But seldom was a thought given to the other vicious cycles and shocks that encircle the poor to push them back into poverty all over again. Sickness, accidents, epidemics and natural disasters are equally disastrous, pushing families into poverty for years.”
That’s why the Working Women’s Forum offers microinsurance. The women in the alliance – food vendors, washerwomen, lace makers, silk weavers, silkworm breeders – spend only a small portion of their incomes on insurance premiums under this plan, and they get healthcare when they’re sick or benefits in case of natural disaster. “We must have a backup for them,” emphasizes Arunachalam, who has seen epidemics and disasters push communities that had escaped poverty thanks to microcredit back into the poverty.
As the daughter of a civil servant who worked for both the British Empire and the Indian government, Arunachalam’s life has been shaped by the theme of independence. When she studied economics and geography at the University of Madras during the 1950s, she realized that the struggle for liberation was not over after India received its independence in 1948. Another group of “colonizers” – men – was continuing to repress women.
Gandhi said that women in India would eventually have the same rights as men. But 60 years later, the politicians, lawyers, judges, teachers and journalists in India are virtually all men. These men, says Arunachalam, rarely allow women to have a voice in politics or manage the household funds, and often prevent their daughters from attending school. As a young woman, Arunachalam was keenly aware of the privilege of being allowed to study while so many of her fellow citizens waged a daily war for survival. She decided to dedicate her life to improving the position of women, starting with politics. Joining the powerful Congress Party with plans to become a leader, she made inspiring speeches about the rights of women – until she realized that the women listening to the speeches were more interested in earning a couple of rupees than hearing her visions of political change. Rather than talking, she needed to do something.
So she rolled up her sleeves and got down to work on behalf of underprivileged women, becoming an activist within the party who focussed on the broad theme of combatting poverty. But she believed change comes from the bottom up rather than the top down. It wasn’t enough for Arunachalam to work to make the women of India independent; they had to want it themselves and participate in the process.
She travelled extensively through villages and slums, talking with women night and day. The women told her they couldn’t do anything; they weren’t working and they couldn’t even read. Many pleaded with Arunachalam to set up an organization to help them. “I agreed to form an organization, only if they would be part of it. An organization for the poor, by the poor. They should be the network of advocates to work for positive economic, social and political change. And so, steadily, we built a movement.”
Since the Working Women’s Forum was established in 1978, Jaya Arunachalam has become one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in India. The government awarded her the prestigious Padma Shri honour for her work.
And even though the journey to full equality and freedom for women shows little sign of nearing an end, Arunachalam is not losing faith. “No one can stop me from being present wherever there are poor communities, and from voicing and echoing their needs. Once you empower a woman,” Arunachalam says, “you have changed her forever.”
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