Thursday, 15 September 2016

Saris on Scooters: How Microcredit is Changing Village India by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Read this book! The women described within these pages demonstrate an extraordinary courage and determination to not only survive, but to thrive. One of the ways they shift oppression into small industry supporting struggling communities is through the action of microcredit, a concept made famous by Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus. Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos, who has won the GG literary award and is a former journalism professor, based on trips between 2001 and 2008, spent 21 months in India meeting the grassroots women who put their communities on the map with their brilliant use of the microcredit system. She dedicates the book to the Dalits who showed her such trailblazing courage. The book is organized into 26 chapters, each with several charming photos telling the story of women facing extraordinary adversity. Opening with the story of a young woman who drove the bootlegger out of her rural community, (where moneylenders were charging as much as 120% on interest) she and her collegues established self-help groups to escape loan-sharking, enslavement and dowry deaths, and accessing life-changing microcredit for their projects. Enslavement, generally to the high-pesticide cotton crop-picking industry, is extremely common for girls, as child labour is poorly protected, (according to the 2001 census, there were 65 million child slaves across India). Rural women activists fought back with a cotton seed collective, forming a federation of 35 villages and determining there were at least 800 girls enslaved in their region, many of them sick from pesticide-related illnesses. The group is slowly making headway, producing profitable pesticide-free cotton and prohibiting child labour on their crops. The book continues with stories of literacy campaigns, including education for girls forced to drop out in order to work in cotton. In each case, they directly challenge tradition and unite to make a better future for themselves in the process. In chapter 10, McLeod Arnopoulos visits the Navdanya farm, and interviews the women in 2004 who are maintaining the seedbank that grew into the familiar name and made Navdanya the world-famous story of inspiration it is today. Also of note in the book are the various examples of Muslim and Hindu women working side-by-side, during an era of deadly conflict and strife. The author comments that the streets of Amedebad reminded her of the October crisis, with tanks in the streets because of sectarian violence. Despite his, she locates SEWA, the Self-employed Women's Association, who had organized themselves into cooperatives and unions, and then started their own bank after existing banks refused to help them. Through the bank, which allowed the members to pay off debts and take out loans under very reasonable conditions, the women also accessed accident and health insurance coverage for their members. The membership was a mix of Muslim, Hindu and other groups, and offered literacy programs and leadership programs. Arnopoulos writes, “consisting of a blend of gutsy young college-educated women organizers along with steadfast grassroots women leaders from slums and villages, SEWA was responsible for the formation of a range of unions covering incense stick-rollers, street vendors, home garment workers, headlong workers, construction workers, paper-pickers, bidi-rollers, and more. In addition, over 85 autonomous cooperatives had been created for several occupational groups.” By reading of these success stories, we can imagine the hope microcredit offers for women in Canada, where many ghettos exist, such as those experienced by women who may have trained for a speciality such as nontraditional trades but have no support, no possible way to transport their equipment to work, no way to demonstrate their skills to their market and are overlooked for jobs younger applicants consistently fill. The microloan system gives hope to those who have lived below the poverty line their entire lives in so-called developing and first world nations alike. Microcredit and the spirit behind microcredit systems suggests a world where the poor may use their own volition to better themselves, something that is surely a human right. To use our own strengths to build a future based on our own basic skills, driven by our own healthy human ambition and industriousness is a right we find frequently an issue even in Canada, while in places such as India where microcredit is used brilliantly by the women in this book, a future hope in this life-and-death struggle is made a little more fathomable to millions.

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