The Lesson of Kerala Women

Published on Dec 30, 2010 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: Microcredit

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Grassroots women that have set up farm collectives of their own in Kerala have now entered municipal politics where they will take community development to new heights says Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, a Toronto professor and researcher.

At the end of November in Toronto I spoke at a fund-raising dinner for the Toronto-Calcutta Foundation which has for 23 years been expanding community services for the poor around Calcutta and is now interested in supporting marginalized women seeking microcredit loans.

Promoted largely by Toronto Indians with a Calcutta heritage, the foundation has set up literacy classes for adolescent dropouts, a vocational training centre, pre-schools, village medical clinics, and  where 3,000 needy people received testing and eye glasses.

At the dinner I was lucky enough to sit beside fellow-speaker Ananya Mukherjee-Reed a York University professor and researcher with a long list of publications dealing with South Asian development.

Recently she has been monitoring women’s agricultural collectives in the Indian state of Kerala under Kudumbashree an anti-poverty organization with a microcredit dimension. Launched by the Kerala government, more than three and a half million women are members of neighborhood groups that link to community development societies tied to local self-government.

This fall, Mukhergee-Reed observed the ground-breaking work of 250,000 women farmers in Kudumbashree who have formed cooperatives that are leasing, growing and marketing their own food.

Here are more exciting examples in India of how women that started with microcredit have forged their own models of development through cooperatives controlled by them. I observed this in Andhra Pradesh at Gram Abhyudaya Mandali where 15,000 women now run their own full-fledged dairy, and in Gujarat with the Self-Employed Women’s Association which started its own bank and launched over 100 cooperatives.

In articles in One World Asia, Mukhergee-Reed attributes the well-known high human development index of Kerala to the remarkable contributions of Kerala women drawn from the full range of castes who are now moving into a whole new realm – municipal politics.

In October civic elections in the state, where 50% of municipal level seats are now reserved for women, thousands of women who belong to Kudumbashree now have council seats across a range of municipal organizations.

As several political commentators have pointed out, enlightened policies not only around agriculture, but also education, health, and environment are the expected result. And under the women’s leadership, with its focus upon family and community, the blight of corruption will be kept to a minimum.