A Women's Self-Help Group in Hyderabad, India

10/25/2012 11:37 am ET | Updated Dec 25, 2012

I spent three days in Hyderabad and came to specifically visit the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty programs. They provide micro-financing loans through small self-help groups of women in rural villages. These groups allow women who many times may not have jobs outside of the family to access credit and to learn about money. The group that I observed was from a village about one and a half hours away from Hyderabad.

Most of the women in the self-help group that I observed were illiterate, so the member who could read and write the best was the secretary/treasurer. One of the interesting things that I discovered about the group I observed were women from different castes and religions. Women who previously would not have socialized were coming together for the purpose of improving their lives. During the meeting I saw confident women who were very organized and had a process for the collection of outstanding funds which everyone paid. I could see the peer pressure that being in that group would provide, because I could not imagine sitting in that circle and saying that I didn't have my payment for that month. There was a sense of pride in which the women pulled out their monthly payments. So I asked what the women had used the money for and I was suprised by the answers. I assumed that the women used the money to cover household expenses like food, clothing and other unexpected expenses. Most of the women used the money to buy livestock for as much as 55,000 rupees ($1,100 USD), which is a large sum especially for rural women many who may not hold jobs outside of the home. Some of the women bought buffalo which their husbands used for farming and to sell the milk. This allowed their families to invest in an asset that provided income on regular basis. This was a large sum to borrow since many poor people may only make 3,500-5,000 rupees per month and the repayment terms require a monthly payment of 1,500 rupees over 60 months, but the women were making it happen. I also saw a woman take out a new loan for the medical care of her son who had injured an arm or leg. There was a question about whether they should have a separate medical fund that can be use specifically for just for those type of expenses, which some other self-help groups apparently have -- but each group decides its priorities for itself. This group mainly focused on lending.

I was curious how -- or if -- these self-help groups affected their marriages. The women said that it made them feel strong and an equal partner in their relationships. Some even became the primary breadwinners, and most surprisingly changed the expectations they had for their daughters, many insisting that they expected that their daughters be given the same educational opportunities as the boys. They talked about their daughters becoming doctors and engineers and I put in a plug for some of the girls to become future lawyers. These women were poised, confident and had very definite ideas and opinions. I also saw the nutrition/day care center that was built to provide three healthy meals for pregnant and lacating women each day, which had positive outcomes for mothers and babies. This allowed maternal deaths and infant deaths to fall to zero for women who were a part of the program over several years. The programs are run by the local women and their community liason support who give them training about health and hygiene issues and how to provide for the health needs of their children from before birth up to six years old. The really innovative aspect of the program was understanding that if you gave the women food to take home they would just give it to their family members, and that many times the women were the last ones to eat. This program makes sure the women get food but also gives them a place to socialize and learn.

The wonderful programs are run by a 2011 Eisenhower Fellow from India and the Executive Director of the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty. I continue to be amazed at the quality of fellow that the Eisenhower Fellowship continues to attract. I have found them to be brilliant and committed, and have a real understanding of how to execute programs successful in the real world where people live. I think that is what makes a leader great, the ability to not only have an good idea but be willing to make changes based upon the actual conditions of their environment and the people they are trying to help.