Indian women win struggle for self reliance


Posted: 20 May 2003

Traditionally, the women from the Mararikulam peninsula in the south Indian state of Kerala, have relied on their income from fish, coir (cocunut fibre) and coconuts. But globalised trade has undermined these industries and, in May 2002, women from eight villages vowed to find other ways to become self-reliant. A year later, they have achieved not just financial independence but also self-confidence and respect from their men. Sreedevi Jacob reports.

Mararikulam, a strip of land jutting into the Arabian Sea, is a state assembly constituency. Most of the population depends on the coir industry,fishing or agriculture; it is one of the poorest areas of Kerala.

While coir spinning is common in many parts of Kerala, the coir weaving industry itself is restricted to this belt. According to a survey conductedin 2000, 41,119 of the 71,327 households in the area (60 per cent of the population) languish below the poverty line. The coir industry,which employed 70 per cent of the people here, has almost been destroyed since the market was liberalised. As the soil is not suitable for traditional farming, families had very few ivelihood options.

But the Mararikulam Experiment, a women's neighbourhood group movement led by 30,000 women, has changed things. "The project addresses the practical needs of women and the empowerment of women is a pre-condition for their success," says Dr T M Thomas Issac, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the chief inspiration behind the project.

Issac learnt how to organise women from the government-run Kudumbasree project. But while the Kudumbasree project was based on self-help groups (where a few women represent the entire village), in the Mararikulam Experiment, each household was represented by one woman member.

The women were involved in various activities - stitching, weaving,pickle-making and fish cultivation. But it is the making of the Maari soap which charted their course to ndependence.

"Soap is a commodity that reaches every person in the house. No other item has its penetrative power,which is why we chose to make it ourselves," says Padmakumari of Janani, one of the soap-making units. "Besides, the ingredients are simple and available to all." The women make six varieties of Maari soap - Sandal, Priyam, Janata, Jyothi, Jasmine and Lime - with prices ranging from Rs 6 $US1=Rs 47.5) to Rs 12 per cake.

"The making of Maari soap taught us that we can also do business. Today,our world has grown out of the kitchen, collecting firewood and drinking water. Even our children value us more," feels Nalini, another member of the project.

"Initially, people were apprehensive about buying our soap. They doubted its quality; they said it didn't have any fragrance and dissolved too fast. Some even complained that it didn't have a wrapping. But those were eething problems," says Nalini. Made of pure coconut oil, the soap soon sold without a wrapping (as a covering would invite sales tax) and is hugely popular today. "We plan to capture the local market first and then penetrate others," says Lalitha of Kanjikuzhy village.

Another success story is that of vegetable cultivation. The women collectively cultivate beans, gourds and leafy vegetables. "The land is not very fertile. That's why we chose to grow vegetables. We were a little worried about how to sell them. But the truckers' stir (in April) came as a boon and all that we cultivated got sold in no time," informs Anitha,another member. In the next season, the women plan to take their vegetables to the Kochi market, 60 km away. "Now we have become bold. We know that we can do it ourselves," they chorus.

Most of the women, who barely studied beyond primary school and rarely ventured out of their neighbourhood, are now providing an alternative to the villagers. A product that can challenge the monopoly of the multinationals. They promote their products in different localities. Impressed by their entrepreneurial zeal, banks and (local government) panchayats have loaned them money to expand their business. The Central government has also granted Rs 850 million to help the project grow further.

Their struggle has also given the women the vision to position themselves in the global world. A private limited company will soon be floated to brand and market all their products. An export house, Marari Marketing,will also be set up to expand business abroad.

An insurance and healthcare programme and a model fish farm are also on the anvil. The project proposes to have one computer in each of the 150 wards in the area. "We want to use e-governance as a tool for development and not merely to issue birth and death certificates," says Issac. "We will soon start an information system for a gender awareness programme."

Source: Women's Feature Service, New Delhi