Front Cover
 The beginnings
 The women
 Forum members' businesses
 Joining the forum and how the forum...
 The credit program -- how...
 A woman's perspective on credi...
 Results of the credit program
 In support of women's economic...
 Impact and new developments
 Future directions
 Lessons learned
 Appendix 1. Organizational...
 Appendix 2. WWF financing
 Back Cover

Group Title: Seeds
Title: The working women's forum
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00088778/00001
 Material Information
Title: The working women's forum organizing for credit and change
Series Title: Seeds
Physical Description: 20 p. : ports. ; 26 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Chen, Martha Alter
Publisher: SEEDS
Place of Publication: New York N.Y
Publication Date: 1983
Subject: Women -- India -- Madras (District)   ( lcsh )
Women -- Employment -- India -- Madras (District)   ( lcsh )
Women in rural development -- India -- Tamil Nadu   ( lcsh )
Credit   ( lcsh )
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Spatial Coverage: India
Statement of Responsibility: story by Marty Chen.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00088778
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 10102228
issn - 00736833 ;

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover 1
        Front Cover 2
        Page 1
    The beginnings
        Page 2
    The women
        Page 3
    Forum members' businesses
        Page 4
    Joining the forum and how the forum operates
        Page 5
    The credit program -- how it works
        Page 6
        Page 7
    A woman's perspective on credit
        Page 8
        Page 9
    Results of the credit program
        Page 10
        Page 11
    In support of women's economic roles
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
    Impact and new developments
        Page 15
        Page 16
    Future directions
        Page 17
    Lessons learned
        Page 17
        Page 18
    Appendix 1. Organizational chart
        Page 19
    Appendix 2. WWF financing
        Page 20
    Back Cover
        Page 21
        Page 22
Full Text

SEEDS is a pamphlet series developed to meet requests from all over the world for
information about innovative and practical program ideas developed by and for low
income women. The pamphlets are designed as a means to share information and
spark new projects based on the positive experiences of women who are working to
help themselves and other women improve their economic status. The projects
described in this and other issues of SEEDS have been selected because they
provide women with a cash income, involve women in decision-making as well as
earning, are based on sound economic criteria, and are working successfully to
overcome obstacles commonly encountered. The reports are not meant to be
prescriptive, since every development effort will face somewhat different problems
and resources. Rather, they have been written to describe the history of an idea and
its implementation in the hope that the lessons learned can be useful in a variety of
settings. They are also being written to bring to the attention of those in decision-
making positions the fact that income generating projects for and by women are
viable and have important roles to play in development.

Publication of SEEDS is made possible by the support of the
Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation. Oxfam-America, the
= L= Population Council, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and the
Women in Development Office, Agency for International
No6 1983
Statements made and views expressed in this publication are
solely the responsibility of the author and not of any organization
ISSN 073-6833 providing support for SEEDS.

The Working Women's Forum:

Organizing for

Credit and Change

Story by Marty Chen


Most of the women who live in the slums of Madras, a large city in southern
India, work as small-scale traders and vendors to provide for the needs of their
families. Their economic contributions, however, generally have been dismissed
by politicians and planners as insignificant or merely supplemental to the earnings
of male family members. In actual fact, these women entrepreneurs provide, on the
average, one-half of the entire family income.
For years these women went about their work virtually unnoticed by most of
society. Then, in 1978, a group of politically and socially active women became
disenchanted with traditional approaches to meeting poor women's needs. They
began to talk directly to the slum women and soon discovered that most were in
business for themselves and that their main concerns were not social problems, but
credit-getting money to maintain and expand their businesses.
In response to this need, the Working Women's Forum was created. This
pamphlet tells the story of how the Forum came into being and how it has brought
together more than 13,000 poor urban women around the issue of credit. It also
describes how the Forum not only has provided its members with access to funds,
but has expanded to include support services such as child care, education, health
and family planning and how the sense of strength and purpose that has grown up
among the members is helping them to tackle the political and social problems that
affect their lives.

The Beginnings

The city of Madras has been called a
"rural metropolis." Capital of a large state in
south India, Madras (with a population of 2.3
million) is the fourth largest city in India. As it
has grown by swallowing up surrounding
hamlets, most of its slums are actually vil-
lages made up of thatched huts rather than
multi-storied tenements. Yet the economy of
these areas is no longer rural. Residents
now work as day laborers or in petty trade,
catering as best they can to the demands of
the metropolis for goods and services.
Typically, men of the slum households
work as casual laborers three or four days a
week. The women generally work at what
are termed "other services" such as petty
vending and hawking. They usually work
every day of the week. On the average,
these women earn about U.S. $20.00 per
month, an amount that often accounts for
half of the entire family income. When
swings of income of casually employed men
are taken into account, along with their typi-
cal consumption habits (e.g., frequent out-
lays for tobacco and liquor), slum families
are heavily dependent on the earnings of
women for survival. In addition, approxi-
mately one woman out of ten is the sole
wage earner for her family.
In November 1977, Jaya Arunacha-
lam, a well-known political and social
worker, was engaged in flood relief work in
Madras. As she went through the affected
areas talking to women, she became
acutely aware that they were not interested
in flood relief or politics. Their main pre-
occupation was their capacity to earn, and
the main problem they faced in trying to earn
was lack of credit. In the words of one of
Jaya's co-workers (now a vice president of
the Working Women's Forum):

Jaya and I went on a fact-finding trip
around Madras between October 1977 and
February 1978. We found out we were doing
wrong by calling women to political rallies
... We offered nothing in return. By meeting
the women in small groups we found out that
each and every woman is engaged in some

occupation and indebted to the money
lenders. We decided to organize women
around economic concerns.
During this period, Jaya took the op-
portunity of a speech to Bank of India offi-
cials to challenge them with the question:
"Why aren't you helping poor women?" The
banks of India were nationalized in 1969
with a mandate to extend credit to the poor.
Yet little, if any, credit had reached poor
urban women. The local bank manager, an
unusually progressive man, took up the
challenge and agreed to meet with and fund
credit worthy groups of low income women.
So, with Jaya's encouragement, 30
women petty traders in one slum area orga-
nized themselves into a group, met the bank
manager and received loans of 300 Rupees
(U.S. $33) each. The group elected a leader
and every day she collected money from the
members to repay the Bank of India. Within
a matter of months it was clear to everyone
that the system was working. The repay-
ment rate was 95%. By April 1978, 800
women had been organized into 40 groups
and had received loans. The Working
Woman's Forum (WWF) was born.
While credit was the focal point around
which the Forum was founded, its leaders
recognized the wider social and political
forces that limit women's economic oppor-
tunities. They therefore outlined broad
objectives for the WWF:
To create an association of women em-
ployed in the unorganized or informal
To identify and address the critical
needs of working women;
To mobilize working women for joint
economic and social action by exerting
group pressure to demand their social
and political rights;
To improve the entrepreneurial skills of
working women through training, mate-
rial inputs, credit and extension ser-
vices; and
To organize support for social services
necessary for working women and their
families (e.g., child care, education,
health, family planning).

Moreover, in recognition of the poten-
tially divisive factors of caste, religion and
politics within Indian society, the Forum's
founders adopted certain strong ideological
positions. The Forum would be
Pro Women: exclusive mobilization of
women who provide the backbone of
family income and welfare.
Anti-caste and Pro-secularism: sup-
port of cross-caste and cross-religious
groupings of women, inter-caste wed-
dings and religious tolerance.
Anti-politics: strict avoidance of in-
volvement in party politics yet mobiliza-
tion of women around issues affecting
women and the poor.
Anti-dowry: organization of mass
demonstrations against dowry, rape
and divorce.

The Women

According to a 1971 census, there
were at least 23,000 women in the Madras
slums working in "other services." However,
it wasn't until the WWF began that much was
known about the economic activities of
these women. The Forum has identified
more than 65 petty businesses and trades
operated by its members. The majority fall
into four occupational categories: vege-
table vending, managing "idly" (snack
food) stalls, trading cut cloth, and flower and
fruit selling.
Within the various occupations there
are even more subtle differences. Some
women work at home while some work at a
fixed site; others remain mobile. Some
women buy wholesale while others buy re-
tail. Some pay cash; some buy on credit.
Some women sell within their neighbor-
hoods; others trade at local markets. Some
women work part-time while some work long
hours or travel great distances to ply their
trades each day. Almost all, however, en-
counter tremendous difficulties in their work,
difficulties that almost always revolve
around low productivity, low income and
perpetual debt.

Forum Members' Businesses

(As recorded on loan applications)

Vegetable Vending
Sari/Cut Cloth Trader
Fruit Seller
Greens Seller
Ready-made Garment Sales
Fish Vendor
Firewood Seller
Aluminum Utensil Sales
Incense Maker
Silk Trader
Pandal (ornament) Maker
Plastic Flower Maker
Tea Stall Owner
Pottery Stall Owner
Hay Seller
Snack Shop Owner
Toothpowder Maker
Lime Seller
Salt Vendor

Lungi Trader
Waste Paper Shop Owner
Beedi Roller
Biscuit Maker
Sari Block-Printer
Stationery Shop Owner
Brush Maker
Groceries Seller
"Idly" (snack food) Shop
Flower Seller
Wire Bag Maker
Cart Loader
Peanut Vendor
Sweet Shop Owner
Mobile Ironer
Snack Food Maker
Cycle Shop Owner

Rice Trader
Meat Shop Owner
Junk Shop Owner
Scrap Iron Shop Owner
Bead Stringer
Wood Box Maker
Bangles Seller
Mat Weaver
Chili Powder Seller
Leaves Stitcher
Gold-Threads Garland Maker
Sweet Stall Owner
Egg Seller
Wood Utensil Maker
Toy Maker
Gunny Bag Seller
Footwear Shop Owner
Coffee Powder Seller
Cardboard Box Maker

The factors confining women to the
lowest levels of trade and business are
varied and complex. The structure of the
economy and the marketplace favor men
who monopolize wholesale markets and the
supply of goods and credit. Women fre-
quently are harassed and inhibited at
wholesale markets where they are con-
sidered high credit risks due to the low
volume of their trade. Since expansion of a
business requires access to greater sup-
plies and credit, it is obvious why the
women's ventures remain small-scale. In
addition, many women have been restricted
in mobility, due to social customs, and thus
have not been able to engage in more pro-
fitable activities. Others have limits on the
amount of time they can devote to their busi-
nesses because of their heavy domestic

Joining the Forum

The main reason women join the
Forum is to gain access to credit. The loans
provided through the Forum offer women
access to larger sums of money than have
been available to them previously from
moneylenders and at a reasonable rate of
interest. Access to credit has made a big
difference in the lives of the more than 7,000
women who, so far, have received loans
from the Forum. For example:
Kamala runs a small snack food busi-
ness from her front yard. She sells steamed
rice and lentil cakes in the morning and fried
rice cakes in the afternoons. Every week she
buys rice and lentils and every night she
grinds these staples into flour and prepares
the dough which must ferment overnight.
Previously, Kamala had to buy her supplies
on credit with a daily interest charge. After
paying back what she owed with interest,
she earned about 50 cents per day. After
receiving a loan through Working Women's
Forum, Kamala now is able to purchase
supplies in bulk, without high interest, and
she is earning $1.00 per day.
In Kamala's neighborhood there are at
least 100 women who operate similar snack
food businesses. Countless other women

are vendors of vegetables or kerosene, or
they work at tasks such as mercerizing
thread (treating with caustic alkali solution to
strengthen and make it more receptive to
dyes) or rolling charcoal-and-dung balls
used as cooking fuel. Some slum women
work piece-rate for large traders while
others work as wage laborers. In some
households, both husband and wife work at
the same business. In the majority of cases,
however, the women have their own, inde-
pendent sources of income.

How the Forum Operates

Despite its large membership, the
Forum's organization is fairly simple. Per-
haps its most noteworthy aspect is that, with
the exception of Jaya Arunachalam, its
founder-president, all the executive and
administrative staff have been recruited
from the Forum's membership, i.e., poor,
often illiterate, women from slum neighbor-
hoods. These women have been selected
either because of previous organizing expe-

rience with political parties or on the basis of
demonstrated organizing potential. Gen-
erally, staff are not given any formal leader-
ship or management training but learn on-
the-job, through experience.
The principles of political organizing
were applied by the Forum staff in' develop-
ing their organization. The grassroots ap-
proach is emphasized. There is at least one
local organizer for every 1000 people, work-
ing right within the community. And there is
continual emphasis on organizing new
groups and developing new leaders so that
the source of the Forum's direction is always
its grassroots membership.
The basic structure of the organization
was developed around the requirements of
the credit program. (See Appendix I for an
outline of the organizational structure.)
The Credit Program How It

When the Government of India nation-
alized the banks, it prescribed a differential
interest rate (DIR) of 4% per annum for the

"weaker section of society." This program is
commonly referred to as the "small bor-
rower" scheme. Although in theory the work-
ing women of Madras were entitled to re-
ceive the DIR, they in fact rarely if ever were.
able to obtain credit from banks. Money-
lenders or next of kin were the only sources
available to them, generally at 120% per
annum! When Jaya Arunachalam chal-
lenged the bankers to do something to help
poor women, they had to admit that they
only had thought of the DIR scheme as ap-
plying to poor men.
The women themselves said that the
banks were reluctant to extend credit to
them because they did not recognize the
women's petty trading activities as legiti-
mate businesses and they did not like to
finance a large number of very small loans.
Banks also require male co-signers on loans
to individual women. In addition the women
were reluctant to approach banks because
they found them very formal and imper-
sonal, rarely willing to assist illiterate bor-
rowers with the large number of forms that
must be completed to secure a loan.
In order to circumvent these problems,
the Forum's founders decided to organize
the potential borrowers into mutual-
guarantee loan groups which, through an
efficient administrative process, would link
them to the nationalized banks.
Neighborhood Loan Groups. The
key element in the Forum structure is the
neighborhood loan group. Anyone inter-
ested in joining the Forum must become a
member of one of these groups. Each group
is made up of 10-20 members, all women
from the same neighborhood. Most groups
are formed by word of mouth. Forum mem-
bers and staff continually hold group meet-
ings and discussions to acquaint women
with the program. A usual pattern is for a
potential leader to approach a Forum staff
member. She then is told to bring together a
group of 10-20 women and explain to them
how the Forum works. When a sufficient
number have committed themselves, they
elect a group leader. On some occasions
Forum staff will approach a woman and en-
courage her to put together a group.

Once a neighborhood group is orga-
nized, it is registered with the Forum. Each
member then files an individual application
form and pays a membership fee. A woman
may become either a full member or an
associate member. Full members pay an
annual fee of 12 rupees ($1.33) which en-
titles them to participate in the credit pro-
gram. Most women become full members.
Associate members pay half the annual fee
and participate only in the Forum's non-
credit activities (described below).
The membership requirements are
simple: a member must attend group meet-
ings regularly, repay loans consistently, and
act as a mutual guarantor for the loans of all
group members.
Loan Procedures. Once registered,
group members may apply for loans. All
members apply together at one time. The
group may apply for a second round of
loans only after the first loans have been
repaid in full. The following steps are in-
volved in applying for a loan:
Review of Credit Worthiness
The group leader assesses the
need, capacity and productivity of

individual members before recom-
mending them to the WWF area
organizer for loans.
* Group members review each other's
ability to earn before offering their
mutual guarantee or security.
Loan Application
* The group leader refers the mem-
ber-applicants to the area orga-
* The group leader, member-appli-
cants, and WWF area organizer go
to the Forum's office to file the appli-
* The member-applicants fill out a
loan application (a simple, one-page
form) at the Forum's office with the
assistance of the group leader, area
organizer, general secretary and
loan officer.
The general secretary and loan
officer sort the applications and
submit them to the respective local
bank branches (at present, the
Forum is working through eight local
branches of the Bank of India).

The general secretary and loan
officer inform the area organizers as
to which local branch has received
the individual applications.
Loan Disbursement
The area organizers contact the
respective local branch to determine
on which date the individual loans
will be disbursed.
The area organizer takes the mem-
bers to the bank on the stipulated
The members fill out two forms at the
bank under the supervision of a bank
official; the bank official in turn fills
out additional forms (at least half a
day goes into processing and re-
ceiving loans for each group).
Loan Repayment
The loans are taken at a 4% DIR in-
terest rate.
Loans are taken on a ten-month re-
payment schedule (ten monthly in-
stallments were preferred to twelve
in the interest of keeping the mathe-
matics simple).
The group leader is responsible for
collecting and depositing the
monthly repayments. She collects
on a daily or weekly basis, depend-
ing on the preference of each indi-
vidual member.
The group leader must deposit the
repayments before a stipulated date
each month.
The area organizer is called in to
help collect repayments only in the
case of default.

A Woman's Perspective on Credit

The nationalized banks stipulate that
loans should be invested only in what they
call "productive" purposes (i.e, commercial
or business investments) and most of the
money the women borrow does go directly
into their businesses. However, a majority
also divert some portion of their loans to

meet critical consumption needs (food,
clothes, utensils or household repairs) or to
repay debts. As the intermediary between
the working women and the banks, the
Forum has been able to develop a flexible
repayment system that takes into account
the realities of poor women's lives.
For example, the Forum has devel-
oped a broader definition of productive and
economic activities that includes house-
work and childcare. It also has recognized
the need to borrow to purchase staple items
or to meet health expenses. In addition, it
recognizes social consumption patterns
that reflect vital elements in the Indian cul-
ture such as marriage or religious festivities
which are perceived by the women to be
social and economic investments. The
Forum also recognizes the importance of
repaying debts to moneylenders and sup-
pliers since this eventually will enable a
woman to make more money available to
her business. It also will keep her on good
terms with the moneylender who still re-
mains a reliable source of funds in an

It is the Forum's loan officer who ulti-
mately decides who gets a loan and who
may default or adjust a repayment sched-
ule. A number of reasons for rescheduling
might be viewed as highly unusual within the
banking community, but are very realistic in
terms of the lives of poor women. These
Unusual or unforeseen fluctuations
in supply or price of goods, such as
when monsoon rains flood streets
and houses and affect the supply
and prices of perishable goods,
transportation and communication.
Marriages. In reality this is an eco-
nomic transaction since the bride's
family must invest a suitable amount
to secure a good marriage and both
families must invest considerable
time, energy and cash in preparing
for the various wedding ceremonies.
Childbirth. Although women return to
work within days (even hours) of
delivery, there are still costs (e.g.,

midwife) and loss of time (breast-
feeding, childcare) to be taken into
Medical Procedures. When women
must visit a health facility for an ex-
tended period (e.g., major illness,
sterilization, etc.) or have a very sick
child or family member, there is time
lost from work.
Accidents and Disasters. Fire and
floods are frequent calamities affect-
ing slum dwellers that can wipe out a
woman's entire stock and savings.
Festivals. Religious rituals are an
important part of the women's lives.
They not only provide a source of
inspiration and hope, but are often
their only opportunity for recreation.

When a member has a "good reason"
she can postpone one or two of her pay-
ments. Most "good reasons" have a sea-
sonal pattern and a flexible program like the
Forum is able to take these into account. In
the case of death, the banks will recognize
the default as legitimate. However, if an
elderly woman wants to joint the credit pro-
gram, she must have an heir guarantee her
Of course, there are always a few who
default for no good reason. When the Forum
first began, some defaulters would try shift-
ing to another group to try to get a second
loan. Now, the Forum returns the defaulter's
fee and terminates her membership. Only
those who are judged to be genuine self-
reformers are given a second chance at
membership. Occasionally a dishonest
group leader will attempt to divert the repay-
ments of others to her own use. However,
once the bank notice comes to the group's
attention, they can bring pressure on the
leader to make the proper payment. The
whole system works on the basis of peer
pressure. The group exerts pressure on
individual members to repay loans because
their own credit worthiness rests on the
group's repayment record. Likewise, they
can exert pressure on the leader to carry out
her responsibilities honestly and efficiently.

Results of the Credit Program

The loan program has had a very tan-
gible impact on the women's businesses
and on the welfare of their families. An esti-
mated 2,800 new jobs or businesses have
resulted from the program and earnings
have increased an average of 50% in exist-
ing enterprises. It also has assisted many
women to expand and diversify their eco-
nomic activities.
Previously Ramanji was a vegetable
vendor. She used her first loan from the
Forum (Rs. 100 or $11) to reinvest in her
business. She used her second loan (Rs.
200) to cancel the debts she had accumu-
lated in the vegetable business. With her
third loan (Rs. 300) and Rs. 500 borrowed
from another source she invested in a new
business: the manufacture of cloth brushes
used to polish metal. She now employs four
other women in this business and has given
up vegetable vending to devote full time to
brush-making. She now wants to take out
another loan of Rs. 1000 to purchase a sew-
ing machine.


Ramanji's husband is a semi-perma-
nent painter. Her three sons are unem-
ployed. Only Ramanji brings in a steady,
daily income.
Still other women, through the credit
program and moral support provided by the
Forum, have started businesses for the first
Before joining our Forum I used to work
as a coolie (day laborer) at building sites. At
that time I met Pattammal (a WWF leader).
She inquired about me and I told her all my
difficulties. Then she suggested I enroll
myself as a member of the Forum and that
she would get me a loan to start a small
business. I enrolled, got the loan and started
a cloth goods sales business.
Murugammal, General Member
The women themselves report that the
most basic indicator of the success of the
program is that they are eating better; fami-
lies that often had to get by on one meal a
day now can eat twice and are consuming a
better quality and variety of foods. A study*
of how 300 loan recipients invested their

extra earnings revealed the following prior-
ity of expenditures: food, clothing, savings,
avoidance of the moneylender, household
durables, medicines, improved male edu-
cation, household repair, improved female
education, and jewelry (for Indian women,
investment in jewelry is not a matter of vanity
but a primary means of saving for future
Most women report an increased
feeling of economic security since joining
the Forum. For the first time, their economic
activities are on record with an established
financial institution and they are being
recognized for their work. It is also the first
time poor women have been able to get
bank loans without a male guarantor or
We have totally eliminated male mem-
bers of the family as guarantors. Women
have taken on full economic roles.
Jaya Arunachalam

*Hllde Jeffers. Organizing Women Petty Traders and Producers A
Case Study of the Working Women's Forum Madras WWF

In Support of Women's Economic

The credit program is seen by the
Forum staff as one stage in a larger strategy
for social change, a strategy which shifts
gradually from addressing basic economic
needs to tackling the related and often more
complex social and political problems of
working women. Now that neighborhood
credit groups exist, it is possible to move on
to other activities and programs.
Support Services. A number of social
service projects have been developed.
Many have been initiated by general mem-
bers. In some slum communities, several
loan groups have joined together to set up
programs such as:
Day Care Centers. The Forum con-
siders day care to be an essential ser-
vice for working women. Ten day care
centers have been opened by Forum
groups. Literate general members are
selected and paid to serve as teach-
ers. They are supervised by the group.
A typical day care center is described
by one of the teachers:
Thirty-six children, between the
ages two and five attend. They stay at
the center from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00
p.m. One maid (paid by the Forum)
and one mother (on rotation) help me
clean, oil and comb the hair of the chil-
dren. After prayers and attendance-
taking, I teach the children Tamil (the
local language), English and math. We
feed them a nutritious, low cost lunch
consisting of lentils, vegetables and
rice or greens, tomatoes and rice plus
biscuits and snacks. The mothers help
cook the midday meal. The children
sleep after lunch.
Often these centers are no more than a
modest thatched shed. Finding space
for more centers has been difficult and
is the main reason why this activity
hasn't been expanded further. In addi-
tion to finding more space, the Forum
recognizes the need to develop a
higher quality of care and instruction
and the need to provide more toys and
other equipment.

- ,- -= -

Night Clases. Twenty-two evening
classes for primary and middle school
children (35-50 boys and girls per
class) have been opened. Again, liter-
ate general members are hired as
teachers. They are paid and super-
vised by the group. The classes are
designed to improve the children's
academic performance and prevent
them from dropping out of school. The
teachers help children with homework
assignments from their regular school
and coach them in weak subject
areas. There has been a considerable
improvement in the school perfor-
mance of children attending these
night classes.
Skills Training. The Forum has
started ten training centers to expand
and upgrade members' skills. These

centers focus on the unemployed and
those engaged in extremely low pay-
ing work. Upon completion of the train-
ing course, women who wish to seek
jobs in local industries (particularly the
ready-made garment industry) are
given certificates of completion. In the
future, the Forum hopes to organize
graduates into cooperative production

Health and Family Planning. In 1980, the
Forum launched an experimental manage-
ment training program in health and family
planning. The goal not only was to improve
health within the community but also to
develop the leadership and management
skills of a cadre of Forum members who
could then assume greater responsibility
within the organization.

,, -'- c"i

Sixty women have been trained thus
far as field workers. They disseminate infor-
mation on health, nutrition and family plan-
ning to families living in their own communi-
ties. All trainees must have at least minimal
literacy in order to record data. They are
given a special training course and earn $18
per month for their work.
The Forum considers the family plan-
ning program to be an essential component
in improving both the health and economic
status of the community. To quote one staff
member: "The family planning program was
an outcome of the realization that income-
generation and large families do not go
together. Many of the loanees face serious
difficulties in raising the quality of life for their
families due to their sheer size."
The health and family planning pro-
gram has had an important impact on the
community. One trainee describes the
situation in her neighborhood:
The slum dwellers here never know to
talk to others. But after joining in WWF, I
have come to know many things. Previously
the slum children were not shown (i.e., kept
hidden) when the corporation (public
health) people came for vaccination. After
our training each of us were given 100
houses'to take care of. Now that we our-
selves have explained the advantages of
vaccination, they bring out the children and
have the benefit.
Marayammal, Health & Family
Planning Worker

Social Action. Organization and
mobilization are the essence of the Working
Women's Forum. The Forum has utilized the
strength of the local loan groups to unite the
women on issues that traditionally might
have divided them (caste, religion, party
politics). As a group they also feel more
confident to confront political forces that
might be threatening to them as individuals
(civic authorities, police, middlemen, mon-
eylenders, wholesalers). Some activities
undertaken by the Forum to help strengthen
the cohesiveness of the local groups

Inter-Caste, No Dowry Marriages. Al-
though discrimination on the basis of
caste is illegal in India, centuries old
customs die hard. For women of low
caste, this is an added burden to bear
besides poverty. One member de-
scribes her own situation.
I never used to talk to anybody in my
school days and others used to say
that I was a Harijan* and low caste ... I
even used to tell my father and cry,
saying: "Some people differentiate
and talk low of me." My father used to
say: "We have more love and affec-
tion, they only have money." After join-
ing this Forum, we do not have caste
differences that much.
Another old custom that has been
illegal for decades but still persists is
dowry. The WWF has been able to
strike a blow against both of these de-
bilitating customs through the promo-
tion of inter-caste marriages. Some
300 WWF members have been mar-
ried in mass ceremonies conducted
without dowry and at low cost. Many of
the marriages simply serve to legiti-
mize long-term common law unions.
They therefore provide both legal
security and social status for the
women. The mass weddings are
attended by government officials and
provide the Forum with an excellent
opportunity to publicize its anti-caste
and anti-dowry position and to put
pressure on the government to insti-
tute the economic incentives for inter-
caste marriages that it has promised.
Lobby for Public Goods and Ser-
vices. The Forum has assisted mem-
bers in lobbying (and on occasion
fighting) city officials on vital issues
such as: protected pavement or stall
space for women vendors; construc-
tion of thatched sheds in markets for
women vendors; construction of toilets
for women in markets and other public

*Harijan means "children of God" and is the name Gandhi gave to those of
the lowest social class, who had generally been called "untouchables,"
as an attempt to improve their status.

places; building and repair of roads,
latrines and houses in slum areas; pro-
tection from police harassment.


The mobilization of the women around
social and political issues as well as credit
has resulted in perceptible changes in their
attitudes on matters ranging from caste to
family planning. Today, the majority of
general members oppose dowry and favor
inter-caste marriages and they are even
more strongly convinced that women
should play active economic roles. Most
favor women working outside the home.
There also is a growing realization that it is
possible to have some control over their
lives, including their fertility.
Most Forum members report that they
have gained greater respect, power and
decision-making authority not only within
their own homes but within their communi-
ties as well. They recognize that their capa-
city to bargain and to bring pressure for their
rights increases as the degree of their soli-
darity increases.

Many of the women are illiterate; some
are educated but most are very poor.
Through the organization they have gained
some status- new respect-in the com-
munity Through the discipline of the
organization, we have seen a great ad-
vancement for women.
Kala, Family Planning
The neighborhood loan groups, then,
are more than a mutual guarantee system for
credit. They also provide a social network
for the members. Often, the group is the first
opportunity women have had to establish
relationships outside their families. It offers
women a base where they can air problems
and seek solutions. Through these groups
the Forum has been able to tap and develop
a vast reserve of dormant "woman power."

New Developments

Through the WWF, the nationalized
banks to date have disbursed over 7,000
loans to poor women. The banks now view
the group guarantee loan system as highly
favorable and, with a repayment rate of over

90%, are expanding the program. However,
the Forum still experiences some chronic
difficulties in working with the nationalzied
Delays in receiving loans due to the
high volume of very small loans often
means that some women must con-
tinue to rely on moneylenders while
waiting for their loans;
Inflexibility in disbursement and re-
payment schedules; the Forum has
been able to introduce the flexible re-
payment procedures noted earlier only
by absorbing the cost itself.
The Forum therefore decided to build
on its own experience managing the initial
credit-referral program and open its own
bank. It opened the Women's Cooperative
Credit and Social Service Society in 1981.
Selected Forum staff were given special
banking training and the borrowers with the
best credit ratings from among the general
membership (5,000 out of the 13,205
members) were invited to become share-

holders at the cost of 20 Rupees ($2.30) per
share. Each shareholder is entitled to a
credit line ten times the value of the shares
she holds. In time, the Forum hopes the
Society will provide not only credit but
technical and marketing assistance to
shareholders as well.
National Union of Women Workers.
In 1980, the Forum began to work with rural
as well as urban women. With the assis-
tance of a government program called Lab-
to-Land, Forum staff organized a scheme
designed to disseminate technological
know-how to women in rural areas. WWF
helped 400 landless women to acquire live-
stock and receive training in animal hus-
bandry. The Forum also helped organize
and negotiate credit facilities for rural fisher-
women and lace makers.
As a result of their work WWF staff rec-
ognized the potential power of organizing
women along occupational lines (not only
on the basis of neighborhood ties) to in-
crease their negotiating power. They there-
fore inaugurated the National Union of

Women Workers in May 1982, to provide a
legal umbrella for expanding the "union-
izing" work of the Forum and to publicize the
need to unionize women who work in the
informal sector (i.e., those outside factories
and workshops).

Future Directions

When asked to reflect on the future
directions of the WWF, Jaya Arunachalam
had many thoughts and plans. In terms of
general strategies, Jaya sees a need for:
SAdditional social services to provide
women the necessary backup and sup-
port for their economic roles;
More complete and competent techni-
cal services to increase the efficiency
and productivity of women's enter-
Alternative marketing systems to trans-
form women's petty trading businesses
to higher commercial status;
Increasing bargaining power and
strengthening pressure groups to
demand greater access to and control
over government goods and services.
In terms of specific activities, Jaya and
her staff already have proposed the follow-
Cooperative production units to pro-
vide more secure and productive em-
ployment, especially for unemployed
women and those engaged in ex-
tremely low-paying work;
Wholesale marketing depots to supply
trade items (saris, cloth goods, ready-
made garments) and raw materials to
women at the lowest possible whole-
sale prices; and
A wholesale marketing network to link
the marginal and landless farmers with-
in a 25-mile radius of Madras to women
traders within the city and, thereby, to
eliminate the middlemen.
Lessons Learned

1. Very small loans (as low as $10) can
be made to large numbers of women

borrowers by commercial banks at a
repayment rate of over 90%. To do so
does not necessarily require high
levels of overhead, supervision or
technical assistance.
2. A loan program can be built and ex-
panded quickly if built around small
groups of women (10-25) who share
neighborhood, occupational or other
ties. When a loan program is linked to
formal financial institutions, loan pro-
cedures need to be reworked so that
the review of credit worthiness is un-
dertaken by peers and the women's
micro-enterprises can serve as col-
lateral. Repayment also should be
structured around peer pressure.

3. It is preferable to begin a program by
supporting women's existing eco-
nomic enterprises rather than attempt-
ing to train them and create new jobs.
Technical assistance, skills training
and enterprise development can be
added later.

Women Workers in May 1982, to provide a
legal umbrella for expanding the "union-
izing" work of the Forum and to publicize the
need to unionize women who work in the
informal sector (i.e., those outside factories
and workshops).

Future Directions

When asked to reflect on the future
directions of the WWF, Jaya Arunachalam
had many thoughts and plans. In terms of
general strategies, Jaya sees a need for:
SAdditional social services to provide
women the necessary backup and sup-
port for their economic roles;
More complete and competent techni-
cal services to increase the efficiency
and productivity of women's enter-
Alternative marketing systems to trans-
form women's petty trading businesses
to higher commercial status;
Increasing bargaining power and
strengthening pressure groups to
demand greater access to and control
over government goods and services.
In terms of specific activities, Jaya and
her staff already have proposed the follow-
Cooperative production units to pro-
vide more secure and productive em-
ployment, especially for unemployed
women and those engaged in ex-
tremely low-paying work;
Wholesale marketing depots to supply
trade items (saris, cloth goods, ready-
made garments) and raw materials to
women at the lowest possible whole-
sale prices; and
A wholesale marketing network to link
the marginal and landless farmers with-
in a 25-mile radius of Madras to women
traders within the city and, thereby, to
eliminate the middlemen.
Lessons Learned

1. Very small loans (as low as $10) can
be made to large numbers of women

borrowers by commercial banks at a
repayment rate of over 90%. To do so
does not necessarily require high
levels of overhead, supervision or
technical assistance.
2. A loan program can be built and ex-
panded quickly if built around small
groups of women (10-25) who share
neighborhood, occupational or other
ties. When a loan program is linked to
formal financial institutions, loan pro-
cedures need to be reworked so that
the review of credit worthiness is un-
dertaken by peers and the women's
micro-enterprises can serve as col-
lateral. Repayment also should be
structured around peer pressure.

3. It is preferable to begin a program by
supporting women's existing eco-
nomic enterprises rather than attempt-
ing to train them and create new jobs.
Technical assistance, skills training
and enterprise development can be
added later.

4. A project to help poor women should
begin with activities that produce
quick, tangible results. It is best to
address their most immediate and
concrete problems first. Additional
activities then can be sequenced,
moving from basic economic needs to
more complex social and political con-
straints. Only those issues most often
discussed and most adequately
analyzed by the women themselves
should be addressed.
5. Program planning should not follow
any definite blueprint. Requirements
for staffing and financing should
develop out of an evolving program.
6. A program for women is more likely to
succeed if it adopts at least two ele-
ments: (a) a strong, pro-women ideol-
ogy to instill a spirit of solidarity and
self-confidence in the women, and (b)
a commitment to grassroots leader-
ship as a means of strengthening and
nourishing the dormant power of poor
7. It is preferable to make use of existing
government programs whenever pos-
sible. Whether they exist in actual fact

or only on paper they can be activated
to serve the needs of poor women. The
Forum proved this by implementing
the "small borrowers" scheme and
thus institutionalizing its benefits for a
broader audience. In principle, exist-
ing programs should not be dupli-
cated. However, there are times when
it may be necessary to create parallel
delivery systems to guarantee that
established programs reach poor
8. An organization wanting to reach and
benefit large numbers of poor women
need not have a lot of money, edu-
cated staff or technical expertise. The
success of the Forum is due primarily
to four factors: (a) selection of one cri-
tical issue (credit), (b) utilization of
local leadership, (c) organization of
women around existing neighborhood
ties, and (d) decentralized, participa-
tory management. With this structure
the WWF has not had problems in
communicating messages or receiv-
ing feedback from its members.

Appendix 1

Organizational Chart

General Secretary

Health-Family Planning
Project Director
Field Staff


Chief Organizer

Urban Branch
Area Organizers

Support Credit
Services Program

Rural Branch Organizer
Group Leaders



Group Leaders


General Members General Council. The general members, either full or associate,
constitute the General Council of the Forum. They meet regularly (at least once a month) in
their neighborhoods as individual groups; periodically in their locality with members of other
groups; and annually in large public meetings or other functions. At individual and local
meetings, the group leaders and area organizers try to instill the discipline and spread the
ideology of the Forum. In the words of one area organizer, "We convene meetings to explain
the rules and regulations of the Forum and to instill the discipline of regular attendance." At
the same time, the general members are able to voice the problems and issues they face and
would like to have addressed.
Group Leaders Governing Body. The group leaders (currently 320) constitute the
Governing Board of the Forum. They attend monthly coordination meetings at the Forum's
office in which problems of individual groups and members are discussed and processed.
They are expected to convey the gist of the discussion and the content of any decisions back
to the general members. They also perform several key functions of the Forum: scrutiny of the
loan applications of individual members and monthly collection and deposit of individual
repayments. The group leaders work on a voluntary basis but are entitled to larger loans than
the general members:


Area Organizers Field Staff. As the Forum membership grew, several group leaders who
proved committed and skilled in organizing were promoted to supervise several groups in
their locality. Their job is to meet the group leaders in their area at least once a week, to come
into the WWF office twice a week, and to supervise the teachers of the creches or night
schools. They also review loan applications recommended by group leaders, explain rules
and regulations and assist the group leaders in cases of default.
Loan Officer, Chief Organizer- Administrative Staff. As the Forum's membership grew,
and once the Forum decided to open its own Cooperative Credit Society, a chief organizer
and loan officer were recruited (again from the ranks of the general members). The loan
officer makes the final decision on all loan applications and on default. She also helps
process loan applications. The chief organizer supervises and assists the area organizers in
their work.
Office Holders Standing Committee. The elected office holders include: three area
organizers, one general secretary, two vice presidents and one president. They are the final
decision-makers on all administrative and policy matters. The vice presidents and the
general secretary also act as area organizers in their own localities. They periodically are
deputed as members of spear-head teams when new branches of the Forum are opened.
Founder President. Because of her special background and experience, the president
has certain distinct and separate responsibilities. These include: (a) negotiation and liaison
with banks, donor agencies, government and other organizations; (b) negotiating repayment
schedules with the banks; (c) general administration; (d) fund raising; and (e) periodic group
meetings and area visits.

Appendix II

WWF Financing

The majority of administrative costs of operating the Forum are met by an annual grant
of Rs. 25,000 (U.S. $2,834) from the Indo-German Social Service Society. The money pays
for the salaries of the organizers, a clerk, typist, other administrative assistants, and for office
supplies. A no-interest loan of Rs. 50,000 (U.S. $5,700) from the same organization has been
deposited as margin money in the nationalized banks, covering the borrowers' required
contributions and guaranteeing the loans. Based on this guarantee, Rs. 200,000 (U.S.
$22,700) in loans can be extended to members.
The annual membership fee (currently Rs. 12 per year) should bring in Rs. 96,000
annually. However, as the women usually pay only at the start of a new bank loan-the dues
being deducted from the top-the actual amount taken in each year is somewhat less. Funds
collected as dues are used to meet additional administrative costs, to support recreation and
other member activities, to provide transportation (especially for poor members to attend
meetings), to cover the cost of coffee and snacks served at meetings, to aid women in urgent
economic crises, and to underwrite anniversary celebrations and inaugural functions.
The monthly expenses of the Forum now average Rs. 14,000 (U.S. $1,555). The Forum
gets about $1,000 per month from grants and another $300 per month from membership
fees. At present, WWF is running at a slight deficit, but only because it has not actively sought
Outside support is primarily from private organizations such as: The Indo-German
Social Service Society, the Family Planning Foundation of India, Appropriate Technology
Int'l., Rabo Bank Netherlands, the Ford Foundation, Oxfam-America, and ICAR Lab-to-Land
and FAO for the rural program.

Design: Ann Leonard
Typography: Village Type and Graphics
Photos: Marty Chen
Printing: Graphic Impressions, Inc.

We invite your comments and your ideas for projects which might
be included in future editions of SEEDS. If you would like additional
copies of this issue or would like to be included on the SEEDS
mailing list, please write to:
Ann Leonard, Editor
P.O. Box 3923
Grand Central Station
New York, New York 10163 U.S.A.

P O Box 3923 Grand Central Station. New York, N Y. 10163

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