The concept of Self Help Groups among women refugees was first introduced in Tamil Nadu, India by the President of OfERR, Ms. Sooriyakumary. This development model offers a unique approach to mobilizing the community. For that reason it has become a key component of OfERR’s grassroots organizing efforts among newly resettled communities in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The idea is to bring together about 12-15 women of similar background in a village to empower them both socially and economically. Once the members are selected OfERR leads the women through a “crash course” in the goals and features of a Self Help Group, outlining the roles and responsibilities of its members. Examples of other successful Self Help Groups are often discussed.
The women begin meeting on a weekly basis with OfERR staff facilitating the meetings. From the ‘get-go’ the members are encouraged to start saving, contributing a small amount to the group (e.g. 50 rupees) each week. Initially OfERR provides a matching grant to the Self Help Group as a way of encouraging the women to do regular saving. Because economic empowerment – improving the incomes and employment opportunities for the participants – is such a key objective, OfERR encourages the group to invest funds into some form of economic initiative. By adding value to a basic product – e.g. converting chilis or rice into chile and rice powder, or palmyra product making, the women will be able to sell their products for a higher price in the local markets, thus earning additional income for their families.
Training is an essential component of the success of Self Help Groups. After the women have received a solid grounding in how to function as a Self Help Group, they receive training in leadership skills, business planning, production of value-added products, marketing, basic accounting and financial management, etc. Other growing societal issues such as gender-based violence, child abuse and alcoholism are also openly discussed in the group. Ms Sooriyakumary notes that one of the biggest benefits of Self Help Groups is that members feel they are part of a close knit family who they can rely on for support, protection and counselling should they experience personal problems. And for most of the women, the Self Help Group has provided them with an economic activity, enabling them to earn additional income, while developing new skills, knowledge and self confidence.
Self Help Groups in Talaimannar, Mannar Island, NW coast of Sri Lanka
There are two Self Help Groups of returnee women refugees from India, who have been meeting since 2006 in India where the group was first formed. I met with them one afternoon in the village of Talaimannar, on the far western tip of Mannar Island. Economic activities include chili and rice powder-making and soon marketing palmyra seeds to earn funds for new fishing nets for their husbands.Says Mercy, an older group member :
“We’ve been able to pool our savings and profits. We’ve bought a common ‘uniform’- a sari that each member wears to meetings, and we celebrate International Women’s Day together every year. We also do excursions together such as visiting the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Madhu Church“, Sri Lanka’s most famous Christian shrine.
Tellippalai, Jaffna – Self Help Group “Thanthay Chelvapuram”
There are two Self Help Groups working in two shifts in Tellippalai, Jaffna. They are composed of young women from very poor families who need to bring in additional income to help their families. Under the direction of their teacher, Ms. Jesina, they have learned how to prepare an assortment of traditional New Year’s sweets which they
hope to sell in schools and in Jaffna.