BackgroundIndia’s urban areas present countless developmental challenges including lack of basic services, high incidence of poverty and few opportunities for the personal and professional development of women. This situation is further aggravated due to structural gender discrimination in society which prevents women from raising themselves and their families out of this bleak socio-economic situation. This situation was highlighted by consultancy firm IPE Global and it was decided to raise the standard of earning and inculcate the habit of savings among the poor families in the urban slums of Bihar by skilling women through improved and sustainable livelihoods. This was done through the Samvardhan programme—implemented in 28 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) as a joint initiative of the Urban Development and Housing Department (UDHD), Bihar, and DFID, UK. This Learning Brief condenses findings from the project—Empowering Women through Skilling and Financial Literacy in Bihar Slums.ProcessThe consulting agency took a path that has been well trodden on by umpteen NGOs and governments by imparting training to women in managing Self Help Groups (SHGs) and thereby empowering them at an individual and a social level. However, the big difference was that this was in Bihar, a state where the government’s entire poverty-eradication focus was on rural areas and not its towns. After persuading the government to apply this tried and tested approach of skilling women in SHG management with a view to opening up more livelihood opportunities and providing access to finances, IPE Global undertook a participatory approach with a view to involving the maximum number of women residing in the slums of Bihar. The project, over the next six years, therefore, focused on building communication and management skills by training the women in organising SHG meetings; building financial skills so that they could calculate, take and give loans and understand loans and repayment practices and, lastly they also learnt new trades and skills. The underlying idea was that given an opportunity, women will not only bring development and empowerment to themselves but their families and the larger community as well. The programme began with the creation of SHGs with representation of each family in the slum. Each SHG constituted 10-12 women and these women were trained in the three broad aspects of management, finances and new livelihood skills. All of this came with a plethora of challenges for the project staff as well as the women themselves.ChallengesThe challenges were numerous – opposition from family, lack of education, gender inequality, low levels of confidence and no access to banking and financial services. Right at the outset, the family posed the first challenge to the women. Family members, especially the mother-in-law and the husband, were skeptical about the abilities of the women to indulge in income generation and SHG activities. They even thought that these activities and skills were a waste of time. However, the women were able to withstand the pressure through peer support and with the constant backing of IPE Global’s social development staff.Added to this was lack of education of the women. They were nervous and lacked confidence while dealing with government officials and banks. Most of the selected women, and the best possible women had been picked, were barely literate and had minimal exposure to the banking mechanism. Often, they were ignored by the bank officials and this had to be overcome with the support and continuous handholding by local NGOs and IPE Global officials.The women residents of slums hardly had an insight into modern banking and financial systems. Moreover, they had no access to such services considering that their only source of loans and similar financial emergencies was the local moneylender who would charge exorbitant rates of interest. Steadily, this aspect also was overcome with financial training and, more importantly, the fact that the women depended upon peer learning and developed trust in each other over financial transactions.Another big challenge that the implementing agency as well as the women had to take on was acquiring new livelihood skills considering that they hardly had a role outside the immediate family and kitchen matters. IPE Global imparted training in animal husbandry, bangle-making, horticulture and even mushroom cultivation. This allowed the women to start small businesses by taking small loans and they were able to add to the family’s income and savings. Key Findings1- Multi-stakeholder partnerships deliver growthThis project demonstrates that multi-stakeholder partnerships, if implemented properly, can deliver social change and bring the benefits of growth. In this project, the partnership between UDHD, Bihar, and DFID, UK in collaboration with IPE Global and local NGOs has resulted in building the capacities of slum women in many areas which has led to a positive financial impact in families as well as the society as a whole. The stakeholders worked with a single goal—Empowering Women through Skilling and Financial Literacy in Bihar Slums—and were able to meet the objectives of the project because they worked in tandem. The women beneficiaries too rose to the occasion as they saw an economic opportunity and were willing to acquire new skills and move ahead in life. 2- Social harmony in slumsWith the local NGOs and IPE Global staff members deeply involved in hand-picking women for the SHGs, they have been able to create a robust social network of women that has learnt to share their concerns, experiences and family issues besides picking up skills which has inadvertently resulted in strengthening social bonds in the community. In other words, the regular meetings related to SHGs and other skill-building interactions has led to the emergency of a sisterhood which has brought about better understanding between the women and consequently among the families also.3- Leadership among womenThe entire SHG process was based on picking out the best possible and the most conscientious candidates from among the slum women so that these representatives lead the community and do not begin to serve personal interest. After the multi-skilling processes, many women have turned out to be leaders amongst their communities and have been leading by example. They are able to take the women from their slums to the bank and ensure that accounts are opened up for them. Many have seen the benefits of working as a group as that enables them to leverage their power within their families and their immediate neighbourhood.4- Confidence and empowerment of slum womenThe various kinds of skills—management of SHGs, financial processes related to lending as well as the skills for small businesses—imparted to women has given to them a sense of independence. The women gained the respect of their family members and were also able to encroach upon the space reserved for the decision-makers regarding family decisions and savings. Not just within their families, the senior members of the SHGs were also able to articulate with confidence their demands and requirements of loans and bank accounts to the bank officials. They could also maintain accounts related to lending and other financial transactions which are mandatory for running a small financial institution.5- Diversification of livelihood opportunitiesThe diversification of livelihood opportunities within the family as the women picked up new skills and opened businesses, apart from taking up loans from the SHGs, have pushed up the income levels of the households, while simultaneously decreasing their vulnerability to local money-lenders and other financial emergencies. With the slum families becoming double income families, the women were instrumental in saving their money and also ensuring better education of the children and healthcare.ConclusionThere is no doubt that the project has been able to create small entrepreneurs out of women residing in slums. This entrepreneurial quality has resulted in better earnings for the family and increased savings with women having a stronger say in the family’s financial matters. The women have been able to take this new-found empowerment out of their homes into the larger society as well. They have become economically active, socially aware and motivated enough to provide a voice to the slum community to raise and ask for its needs. The economic independence has considerably increased the bargaining power of SHG women both at the household and the level of the immediate society. One of the drawbacks felt in this project was that though the women have been empowered in many ways, the men and the larger family too has to be sensitised. This will make the entire family rally around and support the woman as an equal partner at home and in the community.Another fear is what will happen to the small businesses being run by women and the SHGs once the project is over. The sustainability of the SHGs is difficult to predict but many of the SHG women showed optimism about the longevity of their groups as they feel sufficiently trained and empowered.