June 30, 2009
My struggle to balance what I want to find and what I actually find continued today. Again I went out into the field, hoping that I would find the magical interview that would show women why they needed to make the tough decision to put something away now for a distant future. Needless to say, I did not find that interview and I still lack the right spin for a Pension platform (if any readers have any ideas, pray tell! But seriously… please?)
So off my translator, Rashmi, and I went in a rickshaw away from SEWA Bank. We did not have a SEWA worker with us today because our first stop would be a smaller SEWA branch established on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. As SEWA membership grew they opened small branches far away from the main one to better reach out to people in poor communities who could not travel all the way into the city. At this branch we picked up a SEWA employee who worked directly with this community. Out we went to our first home of the day.
I, of course, did not find the magical interview, but I did find four very interesting stories, all of which gave me a richer and deeper understanding of the culture of the poor in India and the capabilities of microfinance.
We enter the home and sit on the floor. A girl in her early twenties is already sitting there with a baby in her arms. The mother of the house, Heera, comes in and sits down with us. Heera and her daughter-in-law make simple stoves out of tin. It takes her one day to make the stove. The raw material for one stove costs 40 rupees and then she sells them to someone that comes to collect them for 50 rupees. I am appalled that she could be getting so little for a day’s work of labor. I ask her if that is a fair price and she says she can get an additional five or ten rupees per stove if she sells them at the Sunday market. However, in an effort not to let the stoves build up and to get the money quickly, she often sells them to the middleman when he comes by.
Heera makes so little selling her stoves I question how she can survive and save anything. Her sons are carpenters, she explains, they receive decent wages. Heera says she likes to save with SEWA rather than keeping the money around the house because it keeps her family from taking it to spend on trivial things. It sounds to me like she knows something about financial planning, so does she have a pension account to plan for her future.
She says no, she doesn’t think she needs one because she does not want to stop working. She is adamant in that she would not want to just sit around and not contribute. I ask what will happen if she gets sick or too weak to work. She looks around at the large family that has filtered into the small room to watch the interview. Then I have my children to take care of me she says.
Heera says she has been with SEWA for 20 years but in those years she has only taken out one loan. I find this strange since many of the woman I have talked to have been with SEWA for much less time but have taken out up to 7 loans over the years. When she tells me that she could make the stoves much more quickly if she had the proper tools I am surprised. Isn’t that what SEWA loans are supposed to be for? To be invested in things like equipment, so that someone living in poverty can maximize the returns on their labor and climb out of poverty? “Why don’t you take out another loan to buy the materials? I asked. She told me she is trying to save now because she needs to have more in her savings account before she can take out a large loan for the tools. I write this down with a bit of frustration – I didn’t think this was the way microfinance was supposed to work, is this a SEWA thing? Something that happens when a microfinance bank gets large? A microfinance thing in general?
From Heera I walk away having a firmer understanding of the importance of family in the Indian culture, as well as a question or two about microfinance and SEWA. It may not be the interview I was looking for, but I am sure glad I didn’t cut it short.
The next home we go to is bigger, but as I soon found out, it had to be in order to accommodate the 16 people living there. Minakshi comes out into the front room to talk to us. Her slight frame is dressed in a simple salwar, she is 23 years old and a member of SEWA Bank. Behind her I notice two slightly older women. They stand out to me because unlike Minakshi they both have sheer scarves that they drape over their head and face. One of the women lifts her the scarf up a bit but does not remove it as she tries to encourage two toddlers to eat their food.
Minakshi sits down on the floor with us and begins to tell us about her large family. She stitches chindi blankets, as do some of the other women, her brother is a computer operator, and her father and uncle work as laborers for daily wages. Though there are a lot of mouths to feed, they are all doing something so they are able to save. Minakshi opened her pension account three years ago when SEWA first started offering it. She saves regularly and is excited to have the money as a cushion when she is older.
As she talks about the work she does as a chindi stitcher, it comes out that she went to nursing school and she used to have a job in a private hospital for 3 months. When I ask why her first response is that girls don’t work out of the house in her family so her mother made her stop. I am confused as to why she was allowed to for awhile and then had to stop. I wonder if it has something to do with a husband so I ask if she is married. She is married but for the time being she only sees him during Diwali. After two years of marriage she will go to live with his family. Then it will be up to her mother-in-law whether she can work out of the house.
I notice that the two women in the back casually pull their scarves back over their face. They had sat down next Minakshi and had let their scarves fall in the presence of just women. I look to the door and realize a man has come in with another woman. From the looks of things the family is not too strict about covering the face, but it is nonetheless something I am conscious of.
The other woman is older and seems to carry more clout than the rest. She is Minakshi’s mother, Nandu. As she sits down she tells us that she was at the school when her husband came and said there was someone from SEWA at her home and she should go talk to them. I assume that she came back because of her affection for SEWA and her desire to help them if they need her, but a small part of me wonders if she also wants to know what her daughter is saying.
Nandu has been a member with SEWA for thirteen years and saves regularly in a pension account. However, as is becoming a familiar answer, when I ask her if she wants to retire she says no. “I want to work, I can help my family more by working, I would be letting them down if I just sat and rested,” she says earnestly.
Then she tells us proudly that she has two daughters who work for SEWA. Now I am confused, why are they aloud to leave the home but Minakshi cannot? When I ask she tells me that no, she is not that rigid with her daughters but now that Minakshi is married her husband can call for her at any time. She would have to leave Ahmedabad immediately and that is too much uncertainty for a stable job in a hospital. I decide Nandu isn’t too bad but it is a crazy system for marriage that they have worked out here. I don’t have it all figured out, but lucky for me I am about to learn a least a little bit more.
The next home is much smaller, as is the family size. Sonal, age 25, welcomes us in and shows us the work she and her sister do. There steady work is to make party decorations. They use a sewing machine to sew small shiny triangles of paper onto a string to make that can be hung around a room as party decorations. She says they also do beading and embroidery work when someone comes to them with an order. Sonal’s brother is away from the home but he is earning well in an auto shop so they are able to save some. Her father used to work in a mill but now that they have almost all closed down he works for daily wages in a tailor shop. Her mother sells sweets and bananas right outside the house for extra income. As a family they make enough that they can put away some money in a savings account. The mother says she has no plans to retire, since she works from home she can do this work into her old age and she does not want to just sit around.
I realize that I am not going to find the perfect interview on pensions here but I am not starting to get curious about the marriage question so I ask Sonal if she is married. “I am working on that one now,” chimes in her mother who has come into the house from selling things outside. She tells us that she has already fixed up Sonal’s brother who is 21, but it is with someone who is 16 so they must wait two years till she is at the legal marrying age. As for Sonal, she will also get an arranged marriage, but she will be able to say whether or not she likes the person. My translator calls it “an arranged-love marriage,” but to me it doesn’t seem like their needs to be a lot of love, just not too much hate. I ask how they find someone for her to marry and her mother says they will have friends or relatives of their caste come to them and say they have a son or know a boy and then the families will set up a meeting.
As we leave Sonal’s home I am left to think about the fact that there are still arranged marriages and how closely many people pay attention to caste. Though the idea of the caste system in India is not new to me, I had expected that I would see only its remnants. I thought its effects on the culture today would be similar to the way in which the effects of slavery are still felt in the US. Until coming to India (I am slightly embarrassed to say) I had no idea just how important the caste system still is.
The last home of the day, further highlights present day aspects of (poorer) Indian culture that I had always thought of as being from “a time long ago.” We arrive to find four women, all of different ages, sitting outside their home working. One of the women looks to be quite old, my translator points it out to me. I think she is starting to hope even more than I do that I find the perfect interview so she can go home.
The three younger women, ranging from 18 to about 35 are sitting around a bag of scrap pieces. I quickly realize the scrap to be the rolley wheels of old office chairs. They are breaking apart the plastic wheel with hammers to get at the screws and metal pieces on the inside. As the pieces splinter off I worry for the safety of a three year old boy sitting only a few feet away and playing with a hammer.
I ask the youngest woman first how old she is, my original guess would have put her at about 15 but she says 18. When I ask if she was done with school she tells me she only went to school until fifth grade and then stopped to help work at home. Together the three women will be able to break apart the 30 kg bag of scrap in two days. Their income for this two-day task is 90 rupees (2.5 rupees per 1 kg).
The eldest woman, Ashu, is not breaking apart scrap but making a stove similar to the woman’s at the first home. She is over 60 years old, though she does not know her exact age. She says she has breathing problems, backaches, and pains in her hands from the many years of doing this type of manual labor, and yet she does not think about retiring. She will work for as long as she can, and she does not want to sit around and do nothing. She tells me that she has two sons who are carpenters that will support her if she gets too sick and weak to continue to work.
It is becoming clear to me that working is a way of life for many of these women. They work for their children and their families till they no longer can and then their children are expected to support them. In the family structures of the poor this works as long as a woman has sons. Sons bring their wives home to their family. Sons and daughters-in-law are responsible for supporting the eldest members of the family if they get to a point where they can no longer work. However, it is worth noting that I have not yet seen any women at that point and all the women I have talked to seem determined to keep working until they physically cannot any longer.
I left the outskirts of Ahmedabad and traveled back into the city with ideas and questions running through my head. Can SEWA be more effective? Will the pension scheme really be able to take hold? How quickly is Indian culture changing? Looking back on my day of interviews I am beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, they were magical after all