According to a report by The Indian Express, the number of working women in India has been steadily falling. This fall is especially critical in rural India, where compared to 49 percent in 2005, only 36 percent rural women remain in the workforce. Shantha (53), however, has been fighting this steady fall with great vigour.
Shantha was born amidst great poverty and was married when she was a teenager. After her marriage, she moved to the village of Kodapattinam, situated in Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram district. Despite a lack of education and experience, Shantha decided to work and bring her family out of poverty.
She took up a volunteer job at a local government office. The job didn't pay her anything except her bus fares. She hoped that with improved skills at work and communication, more work would come her way.
It was during these days that she heard of self-help groups (SHGs). Based on the model of micro-finance, SHGs had the potential to alleviate poverty. Each member had to contribute an equal amount of money, which would be matched by the bank as a loan with subsidised interest rates. They had to present a business idea, and if approved by the bank, they could get their business going.
Shantha asked more women to join in. However, since everyone in her village was poor, it took her more than two years to find 20 women who were willing to pay Rs 10 each. "I was the only one excited about it. But I knew I should start it in my village," Shantha told the BBC.
They started with buying cows and selling their milk. With time, the bank started trusting Shantha and her team. "Today, the bank trusts us more than they trust most men in the village," Shantha adds.
Her big break came in 2009 when she came across a Chennai-based bag manufacturer looking to outsource packaging. Although it took her time and a lot of effort to find a space for the job and convince other women to join in, she did not give up.
Today, 26 women work at the packaging unit and manage to package 5,000 bags each week. With financial freedom and skills, these women entrepreneurs are fighting poverty and other social evils at the grassroots level in their own way. As for Shantha, she has been inspiring women to start their own SHGs in nearby villages and helping them with skill training and ideas.