a tool for women's collectives to access resources


This paper aims to share insights from collective learning strategies initiated by the Swayam Shikshan Prayog - a self education network of organizations and women's groups in India. SPARC - Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres acts as a participant facilitator of the network; presently, the network secretariat is located within SPARC.

In 1995-96 towards the preparation for Beijing and Habitat II, several workshops, information fairs or Mahiti Melas were held " with grassroot groups and communities to explore the processes around "Engendering Development". Engendering development was defined as a set of processes by which the texture of development changes when communities address gender and settlement issues through collective action.

Organizations and community groups shared their experiences of struggles to gain access and control over resources such as credit, land, housing and basic services. The articulation showed how every situation in the vicious circle of poverty was turned into an opportunity for learning and introducing a gender perspective in mainstream development processes.

I hope to use my participation in the workshop to reflect on how SPARC and other organisations have used learning exchanges to build and strengthen the capacities of peoples' organizations to participate in development on their own terms. After a decade of work at SPARC we believe that an alliance of collectives of women and their communities among the rural and urban poor can challenge development paradigms which seek their participation only as `beneficiaries' in projects. This mass of actors can identify problems and design solutions which are not only good for their own survival and growth, but which are good for the planning of their settlements, cities and the environment.

Today in all developing countries, women have formed informal collectives and local community based organizations, they have been elected to local governments and engaged in multitude ways to change development beliefs and paradigms. At the basis of this transformation is the confidence that collectives of the poor can, and will have to, convert every opportunity into one that empowers them and creates a new equation of power. The access to and control over resources by poor communities needs to be done from a position of strength and informed choice. This can only happen if collectives and communities are located within empowerment processes that (i) constantly expose them to new ideas and strategies, (ii) provide the space for them to reflect upon their own experiences, and (iii) allow them to set their own pace of learning. In addition, experience has shown that people learn most effectively from peers through an experiential methodology. This is doubly true for women. Teaching refines and sharpens self-learning and articulation. Learning exchanges are based on these insights.


Learning exchanges represent a "space" that allows experience sharing between collectives. This social and political space assists field groups to articulate innovations, reflect on their experiences, learn from those of others, and build a shared perspective.

Learning networks allow NGOs and groups to absorb new learning and translate this into changes that benefit communities. The learning cycle begins as informal groups are formed around collective action on settlement issues - employment, water, education, health, anti-arrack struggles and violence against women.

Many questions confront those of us working on empowerment strategies. If we need to move beyond the rhetoric of people's participation we need to ask ourselves:

Exchanges - A Tool That Meets Many Ends

Since it's inception in 1985, SPARC and then the rural network SSP - Swayam Shikshan Prayog were faced with the challenge of creating learning networks that enhance capabilities of the poor, empower them, and create institutional mechanisms that can be accessed by the poor. Learning exchanges have proved to be a tool that allow us to meet these objectives.

What do exchanges mean?

Creating a Learning Network

The SSP network has developed a unique identity that centres around collective learning through networking between women's collectives and organizations. At this juncture it is important to differentiate between creating a network and networking through learning exchanges. For us in SSP, creating a network per se is not the end, but the means by which learning occurs.

At the core of the networking process are experienced women's collectives who are the "teachers" and trainers and of course, the best story tellers. Their confidence emerges from their ability to transfer innovations to newer groups, mobility to new environments and interaction with institutions. Women who had never stepped out their houses, now recount stories of how they mobilized entire communities for drinking water, housing, credit and basic services.

The learning network alleviates the frustrations that isolated groups face by offering an array of strategies for field NGOs to adapt, adopt or restructure. In peer exchanges everyone gets as much as they give. The learning between groups that are not on the same footing allows the experienced collectives to sharpen their strategies.

The learning network which was facilitated by NGOs in the early stages has spawned a variety of learning fora where the women's collectives are responsible for developing their own learning menus. Learning fora developed include melas or information fairs, study tours, market visits and exposure visits to government offices and banks. These events have spin-offs: new credit groups are initiated, women gain confidence to approach government officials and banks and many groups gain confidence in their every day struggles.

Mechanisms for capacity building in the network encompass all the different actors involved - government, local organizations, elected members of local bodies and women's collectives themselves. The weight of a "critical mass" is necessary to make institutions responsive and accountable to women's groups.

Exchanges are a means to serve a larger goal of people's participation in change. They have been a means to create opportunity for the poor to reach out federate and develop a collective vision. They help to create strong emotional bonds between communities who share common problems and who need to know a wide range of options. Informed choice then becomes the basis of negotiation with institutions. Over the years exchange processes are seen as a vehicle that communities use to develop, refine and replicate strategies.

The cornerstone of the strategy of exchanges is that it allows women to participate centrally in addressing settlement issues. It also demands therefore that women and field workers be involved in the direct transfer of capacity building processes. Transfer of peoples technology and the basis of peoples participation can occur through exposure. Further, learning workshops and visits are followed up by support at every stage of the experimentation process within communities.

Instituting exchanges with communities requires a high degree of flexibility and a commitment to educational processes with poor women and communities. It is not possible to sieve out training programs on exchanges and offer to others not involved directly. In that sense transfer of `capacity building' processes developed in the network is best done by groups who are directly involved.

The SSP network has tried to maintain flexible and informal structures. When learning processes become part of formal structures they begin to exclude poor communities and women's collectives. Our challenge lies in diffusing these `interactive' strategies in the face of ever increasing demand for information and exposure by a large number of groups and a constant pressure to formalize and centralize.


In understanding the SSP network, it is necessary to examine the key components of the process, central to its existence and development. These are

  1. Savings and credit strategies
  2. Peer exchanges
  3. Establishing linkages
  4. Creating information networks
  5. Searching for alternate frameworks

1. Savings and Credit Groups (SCGs)

SSP as a network facilitates NGOs and women's groups to work together to create effective strategies that address access to resources. Forming women's saving and credit groups or SCGs was a strategy adopted to involve women in local decision making processes. Today SCGs are organized to meet crisis credit needs for poor communities and are recognized as one of the most powerful tools in mobilizing poor women.

Once the groups are formed, they have moved on to address several issues that confront local communities. They deal with actors be it bank officials, BDOs (Block Development Officers), Panchayats/village local government bodies or NGOs and maneuver for more space and increased access and control of resources. They have thus built their capacities to direct the changes impacting upon their lives. The trajectory of development of the savings and credit groups from being concerned solely with savings and credit to becoming arbiters of settlements' development processes depends largely on the opportunities that they have had to learn and build their capacities.

2. Peer exchanges

Peer exchanges, exposure visits and self reflection are the main ingredients of the learning process in SSP. These methodologies acknowledge the rich potential that lies in the experience base of organisations. SCGs and NGOs in the network learn simultaneously. This learning happens in workshops, study tours and melavas. Exposure visits to cooperatives, visits in which new SCGs get oriented to different income generation activities, interactions to exchange stories of success and failure of economic initiatives, dialoguing with bankers and government officials, are experiences radically different from traditional classroom-based training situations and are inherently more potent and sustainable.

For the SSP network, perhaps the most inspiring and exciting learning experiences have happened during `melavas' (fairs). Traditionally, for rural India, fairs (melavas) have symbolized fun. The SSP uses the `melava' form to promote learning, precisely in order to capture the joy that the form encompasses. Just like in a fair, the "mahiti melas" ( information fairs) pulsate with activity all around. Masses of women come to listen to stories of women's collectives, to be part of discussions in small groups on savings and credit or watershed development or social forestry of herbal medicine or local self-governance. Information flows and there is a palpable sensation of quantum change. Informal spaces for self-expression also dominate the scene with songs, and games.

3. Establishing linkages

Forging linkages at different levels is a primary objective as well as a strategy of SSP. The linkage with the formal credit sector has been inevitable, in that there is a growing need for larger amounts of credit among SCGs. As a strategy it is a logical step ahead in the empowerment process since it derives from the premise that poor rural women must have access to state resources and must be able to access these resources on terms agreeable to them.

For example, an anti poverty program was taken up through the network as a pilot project. In this pilot project SSP was accorded the status of a collaborator with the state, thus earning the right to bargain and negotiate, make changes in the terms set by the scheme and provide continuous feedback to the state on problems women face in relation to state policies.

4. Creating Information Networks

Upscaling participation by communities requires not only participation in large numbers but effective communication between various actors.

The design of the information network if so designed can offer windows through which different collectives can enter and glimpse the learning potential for women's collectives and communities. In the post earthquake project there was no acknowledgment of the fact that information to communities and transfer of technology was as important as the supply of building materials and credit for housing. On the other hand, communities were bewildered by the multiple actors and institutions who were part of the rehabilitation effort. An information network involving over two hundred thousand households was initiated through mass education campaigns, melas, workshops and mass media encouraged communities and house owners to `own' the process of reconstruction of houses.

Information networks sustain the "critical mass" i.e. the alliance of elected members, community organizations and women's collectives. In the recent elections to the village panchayats the SSP network conducted its women voters awareness campaign through monthly bulletins and meetings. Village women who contested elections for the first time felt supported by the network in their struggle for political participation.

5. Searching for alternate frameworks for women's economic empowerment

Women's groups and voluntary organizations were assisted to understand the complexity of transition from the rural subsistence to a market-oriented economy and its impact on women's lives. The starting point was the redefinition of key concepts and images that organizations and women's collectives had of the notion of income generation projects for poor women.

Instead alternate frameworks around asset building which acknowledged the existential reality of poor women, livelihoods and resources were promoted. Collective learning processes have in turn allowed both women's groups and organizations to experiment and move forward in developing new perspectives.


The challenge for SPARC has been to make available opportunities for learning and thus open up spaces for women and NGOs to grow, but at their own pace and without fear of loss of identity. It is this balance between suitable, proactive, intervention and deliberate non-interference that has governed SPARC's role as a facilitator in SSP.

SPARC has consciously resisted the standardization of strategies and interventions in the SSP process. As a facilitator it has allowed the SCGs and NGOs to learn by and large from peers and through reflections based on trial and error. The time and space that such learning entails is not a luxury, but an investment which must be made by any process which seeks to bring about sustainable change.

Our experiences show that when women's groups begin to change and reorganize community decision making structures through addressing survival concerns, the status of women's groups within village communities changes. Slowly but surely women are able to renegotiate gender relationships not only within families, but are able to push for reorganization of communities to create acceptance for the new roles women take on. Women are able to "gender audit" every intervention; whether it is monitoring of health services or village development programs.


SPARC's urban program works with federations of the urban poor in 21 cities in India. SPARC began its work with communities among the urban poor on issues of shelter, basic services, credit and employment. Learning exchanges between urban poor networks have broken all national barriers and the evidence from the exchanges with South Africa and other countries in Asia clearly suggests that this process is validated across regions, and has the potential for developing people's organizations and capacities.

Since 1989, the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a self education network was initiated with SPARC as participant facilitator. Information exchange, documentation, advocacy and lobbying for a gender audit of development policies links the organizations and groups in several states in India. The aim of this network is to facilitate ongoing capacity building of women's collectives/groups to address issues that confront poor communities in urban and rural areas.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog 58 CVOD Jain High School, 84 Samuel Street, Pala Gali, Dongri, Mumbai - 400 009
Tel: +91-22-3780730, 3700853 Fax: +91-22-3728833 Attn. SSP
Email: [email protected]

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