A few years ago I heard about something called Kudumbashree which I discovered was a movement unique to Kerala; an anti-poverty and gender equality movement for women. I thought that it would be helpful to write about this initiative given that Kerala Crafts was also set up to give women employment and empowerment.
Kudumbashree means ‘prosperity of the family’ and will shortly be celebrating its 20th birthday. It is built around 3 critical components – micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment. To be poor, from a low caste and a woman, is a triple blow in Kerala. This scheme is to help women such as these, to move forward and upwards in life. This incredible movement takes some unpacking!
Kerala Crafts has been supporting the ladies of Kudumbashree through its purchases of handloom aprons, oven gloves and tea towels, and more recently, umbrellas (Kerala is the ‘umbrella capital’ of India – probably because it has 2 monsoons!)
Who can join Kudumbashree?
Poverty manifests in various ways, not simply regarding the lack of income. Kudumbashree members are not identified only by absolute poverty or income levels.
At present, 3.5 million poor women participate in the Kudumbashree movement, which cuts across political ideologies and religious faiths. This government aided programme works to give poor women equal opportunities in all areas of life that will empower them socially, economically and politically.
Kudumbashree units are formed throughout neighbourhoods and groups comprising of no more than 20 women, form the backbone of Kudumbashree. Signing up to join the Kudumbashree scheme, means that the women must attend weekly meetings which are held in the homes of members, where schemes and other issues are discussed. The meetings also give the women a chance to socialise, and this makes them more confident about themselves and also ensures a steady income.
“More than anything, it has liberated women to get out of the house and go to work. In a traditionally male-dominated society – women participating in regimes, going to vocational training programmes and starting small businesses was not the norm. Kudumbashree has helped to change this” states K.J. Sohan, former mayor of Kochi.
Micro finance is one of the most important functions of the scheme to alleviate poverty at grass roots level. It operates various activities including a thrift and credit programme. At the weekly meetings all members bring their thrift or savings, which can be as low as Rs10 (12p). “The idea behind small savings is to encourage women, even those below the poverty line, to save. Savings are collected and recycled in the system by way of sanctioning loans” says Priya Paul, project manager with Kudumbashree for more than 10 years.
Each neighbourhood group opens a joint account in a local bank, while each participant is given a separate pass book. Once trained to make simple banking transactions, these women become more empowered. Once savings are generated, heavily subsidised loans are granted.
These units can apply for loans either as a group or as an individual, from the panchayat (village based form of self-government) in rural areas, or the corporation in urban areas. With the loan, the women are able to start up small-scale businesses, and they are eligible for subsidies too. If they borrow 100,000 rupees (£1,140) they only have to repay 80,000 (£911) over a 2-3 year period.
Some of the units that have formed small businesses have made their way up the ladder and are doing well. They initially started with soap making, agarbathi (incense sticks) and washing powder etc. This has now led to an extensive involvement in the food business in Kerala. Snacks, pickles, curry powders and handicrafts are now widely available at fairs, festivals and stalls, and also through the local value chain ‘Homeshop’, set up in 2015 and now has stores in 200 village locations, providing self-employment to more than 400 producers and 1200 women.
Kudumbashree has many strings to its bow, and these are some of the successful enterprises firmly established by Kudumbashree, embracing local, economic and social development and women empowerment:
- Santhwanam – detection and health checks, before hospital treatment may be necessary.
- Amrutham Food Supplement – nutritional food supplement provided at rural mother and child care centres for children aged 6 months – 3 years.
- Cafe Kudumbashree – specialising in Kerala cuisine, through food festivals, catering orders and canteens.
- Kudumbashree Travel – addressing concerns about safe travel for women and children, especially at unsociable times. It provides a professional taxi service with vehicles bearing the Kudumbashree logo, which makes it easily identifiable. The newly operational Kochi Metro, the 8th city to get a metro rail, is employing a workforce of 1,000 women to work in the 18 Kochi metro stations. This makes it the first all-women run metro in the world. The jobs include 7 women train operators as well as ticketing, customer relations, housekeeping, parking management and running canteens.
- Kudumbashree Wellness Centres – evolved from the Santhwanam scheme (above 1.) The centres house modern equipment and holds classes on health issues and cookery classes.
- Kudumbashree Women Construction Teams – maximising the skills of women labourers in new technologies and emerging standards in the construction industry – this project is being piloted in
Ernakulam (Kochi). Based on its success, it will be replicated in other cities.
- Farming Initiatives – increasing the visibility of women in agriculture, reducing drudgery and providing a livelihood opportunity by adopting sustainable and eco friendly agriculture. Agriculture is perhaps Kudumbashree ‘s most successful endeavour, most probably due to Kerala’s fertile soil. Not only has the project increased agricultural production, but it has also brought considerable fallow land back under cultivation and financially empowered thousands of women. Currently, through consumer pressure, the provision of organic milk and poultry is being seriously looked into, which will be a great improvement. The fresh milk and fresh chicken now provided from neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu is poor quality.
A family of 5 in Kerala (Land of Coconuts), consumes at least one coconut every day either in the form of oil, pulp or milk. Kerala has 180 million coconut trees, but an acute shortage of climbers. Ideally, coconuts have to be harvested every 45 days, which calls for at least 50,000 climbers for the trees, according to Kerala’s Economics & Statistics Department data.
Several years ago, the state realised that by opening up the job market to women, this would go some way to solving the problem. Women from districts like Kozikode, Thrissur and Malappuram were trained to climb the trees with the help of a device and also given subsidised 2 wheelers and mobiles. These devices prevent chest pains and scars usually associated with climbing trees.
Many women in the district can now earn up to Rs650 (£7.70) a day by climbing coconut trees, something no-one would have imagined possible just a few decades ago.
- Asraya – rehabilitation of destitute women with full support of local self-governance structures. This provides destitute families with food, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care and clothing.
Part of this programme is BUDS – schools for children with special needs, where there is no discrimination. There are now 63 of these schools in Kerala.
- Balasabha – specialised work with children to prevent inter-generational transmission of poverty.
- Tribal Development – bringing marginalised tribals under the aegis of the Kudumbashree network to provide them with facilities currently less accessible or denied.
- Rangasree – a programme to train selected women from Kudumbashree Theatre, with the aim of establishing community theatres in the state to promote awareness of social justice and equality.
- Anti-human trafficking – this is the 3rd largest organised crime in Kerala. Human trafficking caters to flesh trade, forced labour and illegal organ transplantation. Preventative and rehabilitative interventions aiming to equip the victims, escapees and survivors, and to identify high risk groups are in operation.
- Nirbhaya – helping to prevent sexual violence against women and children, and to also prevent child abuse and sex-trafficking through accessible help-desks and counselling.
- KAASS – Kudumbashree accounts and audit service society; a home grown enterprise to ensure proper account keeping in the community network.
In addition to all these initiatives, I read this in the newspaper whilst in Kerala recently – so one more thing to add!
Stop press: The Hindu 14.1.18
“Vigilant groups to be extended to all wards.
In its latest move for the protection of women and children, vigilant groups constituted by Kudumbashree mission will be extended to all wards in the state. Of the nearly 20,000 wards in Kerala the vigilant groups have been constituted in 15,000 wards. An activity group will ensure immediate intervention to prevent violence against women and children. Each vigilant ward group will have 5-10 members forming part of a national mission for empowerment of women with support from the social justice department and Janmaithri police*……………..”
*Pink Beat is a Kerala initiative by the state police department that will encourage women to seek help
rather than be reluctant to approach a male officer. It has been set up for enhancing the safety
of women and children in public places. Patrols will be present at bus stops, schools, colleges etc.
Their role is to: a) ensure reserved seats on public transport for women and the physically challenged are not
misused by the general public b) shut down any avenue of eve-teasing or molestation threats. c) assist children and passengers with physical disabilities to reach their destination.
Critics of Kudumbashree say it needs to consolidate its strengths and work on its weaknesses, but the impressive list above, shows there is definitely a bright future for properly managed Kudumbashree units.
Kerala Crafts is currently establishing a link with Marari, a company owned by Kudumbashree Neighbourhood Groups – a social enterprise established in 2003 to support rural women in Kerala. They make food products,
beverages, hygiene products and umbrellas.