Women’s Leadership in COVID-19 Response: Self-help Groups of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission Show the Way

During COVID-19, it was recognised that the far-flung network of National Rural Livelihood Mission’s women’s self-help groups, spanning the length and breadth of the country, could be leveraged to ensure prevention and containment of the virus in rural areas. Women’s SHGs and their federated structures harbour tremendous potential because of the social capital and solidarity networks they possess. This article presents insights from a study and summarises good practices, strategies and innovations that were spearheaded by SHGs amidst the pandemic. Findings from the report provide early lessons from ground-level action taken and recommendations for strengthening women’s leadership to respond to crises.

The world over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has not been gender-neutral (Gates 2020). Women have faced severe economic and health impacts, shouldered the disproportionate burden of unpaid work and remained more vulnerable to gender-based violence (UN 2020). Nevertheless, amidst the grim reality that the pandemic may reverse hard fought gains in women’s empowerment and gender equality, a beacon of hope and inspiration was provided by the unsung women who have been leading from the front in COVID-19 response. This has been best exemplified in rural India, where inspiring stories of resilience and innovation emerged of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) supporting COVID-19 relief efforts. 

Launched in 2011, the National Rural Livelihood Mission, renamed as Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM)1 in 2015, is India’s largest government programme working exclusively with rural women. Operating in 6,318 blocks and 686 districts in 28 states and six union territories of India (MoRD 2021), NRLM’s approach centres on building strong institutional platforms of the poor, organising 10 to 20 women members into SHGs, which are turned into primary and secondary level federations. The programme aimed at reducing poverty by providing access to gainful self-employment and skilled wage employment opportunities, operates at a massive scale, comprising membership of 7.14 crore rural women mobilised into 66 lakh SHGs (MoRD 2020).

During COVID-19, it was recognised that this far-flung network of NRLM’s women’s SHGs, spanning the length and breadth of the country, could be leveraged to ensure prevention and containment of the virus in rural areas. Women’s SHGs and their federated structures harbour tremendous potential because of the social capital and solidarity networks they possess. Since SHG members belong to the same milieu, they live among and remain closely connected with communities, enjoy their trust and have invaluable local knowledge, including who constitutes the most marginalised socio-economic groups and individuals. In part because of these attributes, women’s SHGs emerged as pivotal actors in COVID-19 crisis management, remaining well-placed to reach the last mile, drawing on their interpersonal ties to support communities and acting as a “conduit for providing relief to the most vulnerable” (Kejrewal 2020). 

Lessons from Crisis Response 

With the objective of recognising and visualising the work that women’s SHGs undertook as part of COVID-19 response, and highlighting their indispensable economic and social contribution, the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) completed a report, “Community and Institutional Response to COVID-19 in India: Role of Women’s Self-Help Groups and National Rural Livelihoods Mission” (Tankha 2020b). Based on secondary data sources,2 the report summarises good practices, strategies and innovations that were spearheaded by SHGs amidst the pandemic. This article, based on the findings of the above report, outlines early lessons from ground-level action taken, indicating the importance of the following key characteristics of crisis response, as well as challenges and opportunities for the way ahead.
 
Women as barefoot responders: The NRLM has trained and deployed more than 3 lakh community resource persons (CRPs) (MoF 2021: 359), who are considered the “pillars” of the programme, and who spearhead the doorstep delivery model, providing services on a range of themes for communities (MoRD 2019). Sustained and intensive rounds of capacity building and nurturing of these women CRPs meant that at the time of COVID-19, these cadres were at the forefront of crisis response. This is best demonstrated by the cadre of NRLM’s business correspondent sakhis, who provided doorstep access to financial services during the lockdown and facilitated access to cash transfers under the national COVID-19 relief package. Between 25 March and 31 July 2020, around 6,934 business correspondent sakhis from 14 states conducted 83.63 lakh transactions under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) amounting to 1,845 crore, and transferred 30,957 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) to 20.65 crore women account holders during April, May and June 2020 (Sinha 2020).

NRLM also conducted large-scale online training on risk communication for prevention of spread of COVID-19 with the support of its staff, to its ready cadres of capacitated CRPs, who in turn were expected to relay awareness generation to the lowest tiers of SHG members and communities in villages. This cascading approach was at the core of being able to target rural communities for preventive health information and behaviour change communication on COVID-19. NRLM reports suggest that over 5 lakh community resource persons, cadres and community workers and more than 5 crore SHG members were trained in this streamlined fashion (MoRD 2020: 54–5). 

Decentralised response and context-specific solutions: Heightened by mobility restrictions, the pandemic brought to the fore the need for localised response and for trusting communities to act to implement the best solutions. Kerala provided the leading example of this, with its Kudumbashree network of women’s groups working in close partnership with tiers of local self government and local actors such as health workers, volunteers and the police to engineer a decentralised and participatory response (Isaac 2020). Of their own accord, SHG members also displayed ingenuity and resourcefulness to tackle COVID-19. For raising awareness on the virus, women used creative outlets and digital media, such as wall writings in Chhattisgarh (PTI 2020), rangolis in Uttar Pradesh, WhatsApp groups in Kerala, voice messages in Bihar (PIB 2020a) and community-operated vehicles with a loudspeaker in Assam. Other out-of-the-box SHG-led innovations included the construction of locally made bamboo pole hand-wash facilities promoting safe hand hygiene in Nagaland and a boat-operated floating supermarket delivering supplies to households in the backwaters of Kerala (Paul 2020).    

Adapting skills and repurposing activities to meet crisis demands: At the height of the crisis, when regular supply chains were disrupted and most other stakeholders were facing an economic slump, the SHGs rose to the challenge of manufacturing essential commodities and providing services for meeting emergency needs. Across states, the SHG women showed initiative and enterprise, pivoting their skills and engaging in the large-scale production of masks, sanitisers, hand wash and protective gear and activating community kitchens. The NRLM data indicates that 2.96 lakh SHG women from 58,581 SHGs across 29 states produced 22.54 crore face masks, 13,662 women across 17 states produced 4.8 lakh litre of sanitiser and 1,790 women across 10 states produced 1.02 lakh litre of handwash (DAY-NRLM 2020). Community kitchens managed by members of women’s SHGs provided cheap and nutritious food to the most vulnerable in Kerala, Odisha, Jharkhand (Mukhya Mantri Didi Kitchens and Dal Bhaat Kendras), Bihar (Didi Ki Rasois) and Uttar Pradesh (Prerna Canteens). 

A defining example of how SHG members repurposed their livelihoods was in Assam, where women who make Gamusa (cotton cloth having cultural significance) in large quantities in anticipation of its market demand during the Assamese festival of Rongali Bihu instead used this Gamusa material to make masks (Hazarika 2020). Innovations from selected states also show how SHG members were able to evolve with the times, branding and diversifying crisis-related products by using superior raw materials and local designs. For instance, masks were made of handspun khadi in Uttar Pradesh, of Pochampally fabric in Telangana, depicted famous Madhubani paintings in Bihar, and were branded and marketed under the name “Asomi” by the Assam State Rural Livelihoods Mission (Hazarika 2020). 

Essential services and gender-based violence: The extraordinary circumstances of the lockdown put into the spotlight concerns of gender-based violence and women’s health and well-being. Responding to these intensified needs, focused support was provided to communities in locations where projects are being conducted by the NRLM with technical resource agencies. In particular, under the IWWAGE-supported SWAYAM3 project, community-managed Gender Resource Centres (GRCs) were established, with the aim of helping women voice their concerns, access rights and entitlements and grievance redressal in case of violence. In Madhya Pradesh, a physical Lok Adhikar Kendra (gender justice centre) was established in Karhal and Sheopur blocks of Sheopur district with the support of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ANANDI, while in Odisha, NGO partner Project Concern International launched a telephone-based gender facilitation centre providing tele-counselling services. In Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, under the Swabhimaan Project being undertaken in association with UNICEF and ROSHNI Centre for Women Collectives Led Social Action (CWCSAA), SHG women supported front-line health workers in the delivery of antenatal and postnatal care and provided micronutrient supplementation for malnourished pregnant and lactating mothers (PIB 2020b). In selected pockets of Odisha, cases were reported of SHG women going door to door to identify pregnant and lactating mothers and children in need of immunisation (Salve 2020). 

Additionally, to ensure supply of essential commodities for women and children during the lockdown, the SHG women undertook the distribution of sanitary napkins (Asmita Plus) in Maharashtra, and Kudumbashree-operated units of Amrutham Nutrimix powder (health supplements for infants and children) remained operational in all districts of Kerala (Tankha 2020b). 

Voluntary social action: Driven by a sense of wanting to serve their community in times of crisis, the SHG members also showed empathy and concern for the most vulnerable sections. They assisted in distributing benefits of government programmes such as food rations under the Public Distribution System and Take Home Rations (THR) under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme (PIB 2020b). Bank sakhis helped manage rush and ensured social distancing of customers at banks (PIB 2020c). In selected locations, SHG members provided catering services for public hospitals and the quarantined as in Bihar and Kerala and extended doorstep delivery of dry rations and essentials, including to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), destitute and bedridden in Jharkhand, women-headed households in Maharashtra and disabled persons, elderly, and widows in Madhya Pradesh (MoRD 2020). Voluntary donations (in kind and cash) were also made by SHG members in selected instances—distributing masks free of cost, donating farm produce for the most vulnerable and making monetary donations to COVID-19 relief funds (Tankha 2020b).

Challenges

While SHG members took the lead in crisis-related production and service delivery, there remain gaps in the knowledge on the extent of economic benefits or remuneration women received from these activities, and whether this provided them respite, especially when most other household income sources were hit. While motivated by a sense of altruism to serve their communities, more research is needed on the individual toll taken on SHG women’s health and bodily integrity from engaging at the front lines, and how this was reconciled with the increasing burden of domestic chores and care responsibilities of children, sick and elderly, induced by the lockdown. The functioning of SHGs too was impacted, with groups being restricted from conducting regular in-person meetings of members in the initial phases of the lockdown, and with challenges remaining for group survival from depletion of savings and difficulties in accumulation of new savings by members (Siwach et al 2020).

A recent evaluation of the National Rural Livelihoods Project (NRLP),4 conducted prior to COVID-19, revealed that the programme showed no significant impacts on women’s household decision-making and bargaining power (Kochar et al 2020). With an external shock like COVID-19, gender inequalities for women and girls within the household—in access to and consumption of entitlements such as food and nutrition, human development inputs such as education, control over resources and access to opportunities, including paid work opportunities with the return of male migrants to native villages—shall likely intensify in the challenging times ahead (Tankha 2020a). 

Within NRLM, and even before the pandemic, inequalities afflict the SHG ecosystem, for example, inequalities in capacities of community resource persons and office bearers/members; in solidarity of groups based on their maturity, duration and nature of facilitation; in access and equitable use of NRLM funds across members; and in access to and ownership of assets, including financial, property and digital assets of members. In the long run, these inequalities—among members and among groups—may widen, further impacting access to credit, information, skills, opportunities, entitlements and institutional actors, posing challenges for both intra-group cohesion and group sustainability.

Way Ahead

In the union budget for 2021-22, the NRLM received 13,678 crore, an increase from 9,210 crore in 2020-21 (CBGA 2021: 55), representing the sharpest hike of 48% in this year’s budget vis-à-vis the last year, of all programmes under the purview of the Ministry of Rural Development (Chatterji 2021). With this increased budgetary provision, the NRLM faces a landmark opportunity to pursue an inclusive road map for recovery, with gender equality at the core, to support and rebuild the lives of the same women SHG members that were a lifeline for communities across the nation during COVID-19.  

Decision-making and agenda setting by women: COVID-19 demonstrated that the SHG members can serve as promising role models for navigating crisis management of their own communities. Learning from this, during the recovery phase, it would be critical to centre-stage the voices and priorities of women and communities in charting the way forward, allowing them to articulate needs most relevant to them. As a start, this could mean promoting women’s participation in nationwide decentralised planning processes such as the preparation of the Village Poverty Reduction Plan (VPRP) and the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP), which the NRLM has initiated. Bringing women to the fore in community planning harbours potential for a bottom-up agenda setting process, with women engaging in decision-making in local governance and building rapport with local actors and institutions for demanding due rights and entitlements. Importantly, there remains the need to broad-base capacities and leadership of all members of women’s SHGs (not only community resource persons), towards developing women’s collectives as sustainable, inclusive, democratic, self-managed and self-governing community institutions over the long run. 

Revival strategies for women’s economic empowerment: The crisis showcased the agility of the SHGs to jump into action and contribute to the quick and timely production of crisis-relevant goods and community services. Immense possibilities emerge from sustaining the momentum of the enterprise demonstrated, to increase its scale and benefits for women, including by according formal recognition to the SHGs for performing essential services and providing them institutional support. For instance, public procurement by national or state governments of SHG products would be an important strategy going forward, guaranteeing markets and minimum prices for goods, while securing livelihood prospects. Further, by partaking in growing opportunities to meet needs of the crisis and fulfil market demands, the SHG members showed dynamism, which harbours possibilities for claiming diversified livelihood opportunities for women, including in higher-order farm and non-farm value chains, in processing, post-production and marketing roles, in non-traditional and non-gender conforming skills and trades, and in the service sector (Tankha 2020b). 

In the wake of possible depletion of savings, adverse impact on steady income sources for households and the alarming decline in women’s labour force participation aggravated by COVID-19, now more than ever it would make sense to leverage and strengthen group-based strategies for livelihoods promotion— pooling scarce resources and labour of individuals and aggregating produce and products using cluster-based approaches, for both farm and non-farm livelihoods. This would include supporting and formalising women-owned and women-led producer collectives and enterprises besides ensuring that women are provided with necessary ecosystem inputs and support such as access to finance, working capital, financial and digital literacy, skills and mentorship. A critical strategy for ensuring lasting economic security for women would be to facilitate access to and ownership of assets or productive resources in women’s name.

Convergence and partnerships: It is imperative to recognise that while the women’s SHGs were at the forefront of the crisis response, an institutional impetus would be essential for recovery, through the forging of higher-order and institutional collaborations by the NRLM and State Rural Livelihoods Missions (SRLMs). A range of partnerships would be needed. First, convergence of the NRLM with other government programmes would be a critical strategy. On the one hand, this would ensure women and girls’ access to social protection, rights and entitlements such as food, health, nutrition, maternity, childcare services, and doorstep access to water, sanitation, fuel and fodder to alleviate the disproportionate burden of unpaid work performed by them. On the other hand, it would ensure job creation for the SHG women in paid public employment opportunities, including in community-based childcare and healthcare, while ensuring decent wages. Second, in order to protect women’s livelihoods, there is a need for strengthening institutional tie-ups with financial, market and government actors for both input and marketing support. Third, in order to guarantee women’s health, safety, bodily integrity and well-being, convergence and collaborations could be forged by the SRLMs with other ministries, departments, with the NRLM sub-programmes and verticals and with civil society organisations and women’s organisations. As an example, this would mean linking women with grievance redressal services for gender-based violence, through forums such as GRCs, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms, local legal authorities, psychosocial support and counselling, local bodies such as State Commission for Women and mechanisms such as the Nirbhaya Fund under the Department of Women and Child Development. Last, engaging with community stakeholders and institutions such as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), traditional village institutions and faith and religious leaders would also be necessary, to address community-held adverse social norms and intra-household gender-discriminatory behaviours.  

Gender-responsive programming in the NRLM: Though the NRLM is a livelihoods programme at its core, the pandemic taught us that women’s needs cannot be compartmentalised—any threat to the health, safety, security and well-being of women will undoubtedly negatively impact women’s participation in livelihoods and her household economic security. Taking cognisance of the interconnectedness of women’s lived realities, it becomes imperative that a large-scale women’s programme such as the NRLM not neglect basic needs related to freedom from gender-based violence, need for childcare services, maternal and child health and social protection. If the NRLM seeks to truly address the nature of multidimensional poverty, gender-intentional efforts would be needed, as well as mainstreaming of a comprehensive gender-responsive framework across its budgets, design, implementation and monitoring (Tankha 2014). The COVID-19 crisis has also made apparent the need for an intersectional approach to deal with its aftermath, recognising some groups and individuals may have been more severely impacted. Targeted strategies would be needed for the most marginalised, including components such as grants, asset transfers or engaging women as the NRLM CRPs or in government programmes. Finally, better and more robust data and monitoring systems would help in identifying the most vulnerable groups in need of the NRLM support. This would help in tracking disbursement, rotation and ensure an equitable use of funds across members.

 

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