After weeks of preparation and eager anticipation, the Pathways India team set out for Kalahandi, a rural district in the state of Odisha. Our team of eight boarded an overnight train from the capital city and headed southwest, where we would visit four villages participating in Pathways. We awoke on the train whizzing past rice paddies, fields of banana trees, and jagged hills carpeted by thick jungle. Square patches of red tilled soil dotted the agricultural landscape as we approached Bhawanipatna, our field base for the next four days.
After a quick breakfast and hot chai, we met up with the rest of our Kalahandi fieldwork team: four local NGO community resource personnel and two CARE India district staffers. By mid-morning we arrived at Dedar Village, where Pathways participants were ready and waiting for us. Removing my shoes at the door, I entered a small concrete room, and was delighted to see ten women in bright saris already sitting cross-legged lined up on one side facing the opposite wall.
“Namaskar,” we greeted participants pressing our hands together close to our chest.
We took our seats on the floor across from the women. Participants spoke fast and loud over the distracting cry of babies, meandering goats, and inquisitive men and boys who stood impassive in the doorway, observing our conversation.
A few key points were made during the discussion: first, there was a general consensus that husbands’ perceptions of wives have changed since the inception of Pathways, and in isolated cases, husbands have begun to adopt some of women’s household tasks. This gives the women time to go to their self-help group (SHG) meetings where they discuss marketing strategies, saving their income, and pooling their money to take bank loans. Also, the fact that women can go to the market and bank by themselves is a new social norm that has slowly developed in Dedar over the last few years.
A hearty lunch of rice, dal, and vegetable curries, gave us the sustenance to complete another round of focus groups for the afternoon in Dundelmal village. What we heard from these women was a very different story compared to the women of Dedar. In terms of women’s empowerment and independence, Dundelmal is progressing differently than Dedar. The women here want to revive the SHGs and request training on record-keeping and financial management. They believe that if they can contribute more to the household income, then they will have more authority to voice their opinions and influence family decisions.
Vast disparities in women’s access to financial support services exist between the two villages. Dedar, with its functioning self help groups, appears to facilitate more self-confident women who are taking charge of their lives, while the women of Dundelmal lack a social support system, and seem less mobile and less able to influence household decisions. These two villages provided important insight into Pathways India that we’ll use to tailor the program to best serve its participants. Supporting the women’s Self Help Groups appears to be beneficial for participants in increasing their savings, loan re-payment, and self-confidence. The Pathways team will continue to dismantle obstacles to women’s empowerment by helping women generate their own income and by providing gender-trainings for men and boys in the villages.
Texts and photos by Eliza Cowan, graduate qualitative research intern for the Pathways Midterm Review in India