Kudumbashree – Kerala’s Empowered Women
By Shreya Rajagopal | Staff Writer
There isn’t even a hint of a tremor in Ramala’s voice but her eyes tell a different story. As she briefly touches upon her family’s financially tumultuous past in a documentary by a regional news network, she holds back tears. Ramala hails from the Malappuram district of Kerala with a majority of the population being Muslim. When her husband, a daily wage laborer, broke his back in an unfortunate accident, her world turned upside down. The orthodox family she was a part of wouldn’t allow her to get a job and she didn’t have any marketable skills either. Yet today, she is single handedly paying for not just her son’s college education but her husband’s medical bills as well. Her story is neither a sensationalized one nor an isolated one. It is one of the million success stories brought about by a unique women’s movement called Kudumbashree. This initiative launched by the Kerala Government in 1998 has borne fruit and today holds the record for being Asia’s largest women’s movement with 45 lakh women in its folds. No private company in Kerala comes within a hair’s breadth of its annual 3000 crore turnover.
This project, initiated in Malappuram district of Kerala, aims to convert dependent women, who are recipients of financial assistance from the government, from a liability to an asset. To serve this purpose, training sessions and meetings are held for the women in question, which progress into swift employment in predetermined fields. These fields initially included only agriculture and agro-based products but have now expanded into nearly every available field, be it running cafes, paramedical services or even male dominated professions like cab and auto-rickshaw driving. The spirit of entrepreneurship is also encouraged with subsidized loans being provided for startups at negligible interest rates. The success of this project lies in its having identified a long neglected strength which is the strong maternal instinct of women in low income households to provide a better life for their children. It also capitalizes upon the managerial skills of these homemakers who have learnt the hard way to run their households on limited finances. While the intention behind this endeavor was merely to eradicate poverty by bringing women by the masses into the workforce, the consequent effects have been far reaching. It has resulted in a drastic change in the social image of a female. With women often having a higher income and a more stable job than their husbands in its wake, women’s voices are now respected and their views are given an open platform to be heard. Their representation in politics has also improved by leaps and bounds.
While the empowerment of women in itself is no mean feat, the social impact of this program doesn’t limit itself to only this. Savitra, a Dalit woman, had two strikes against her just by the accident of birth. She had spent a lifetime in poverty, as a daily wage laborer in the fields of upper caste landlords. Today, she has claim to a piece of land of her own where she, along with a few other women, grows bitter gourds organically. Cases like hers are slowly starting to blur the strongly etched lines of the caste system. Another group that has reaped the benefits of this program are the children of the Kudumbashree workers. Baal- Sabhas are children’s groups which meet on a weekly basis for cultural activities and discuss future education plans. Children from these groups are actively studying to venture into fields previously unheard of in the community like journalism and medicine. BUDS is yet another group which has sprung out of the Kudumbashree enterprise. It is a school for differently abled children who weren’t previously receiving specialized care.
The documented success of this program in eradication of poverty and the general development of economically backward communities hasn’t gone unnoticed by other states. This project has been deemed a National Resource Organization wherein its members will assist interested states in the replication of this program albeit tailored to their specific needs. Countries from the African continent, namely Ethiopia and South Africa have sent their representatives to study this system. The highly successful women entrepreneurs it has generated have resulted in several awards from the United Nations. Despite all the success these women have singlehandedly achieved, there isn’t any external assistance in sight. Their incomes have stabilized and the burden of branding and marketing their products falls squarely on their unskilled shoulders. While we are quick to eloquently criticize faulty government measures, it is heart wrenching to find little representation of a movement as vast and successful as this one in the general media. The knowledge of Kudumbashree’s existence must be made universal so it can expect more helping hands.