Chetna Gala Sinha: Rural Innovator and Strategist for Women

(This article is part of The Women Impact Series. Please click here to find our more about the series)

The building of social enterprise has often been seen as a male bastion, with the characteristics of ‘innovation,’ ‘leadership’ and ‘risk-taking’ as being traditionally attributed as male behaviour. What has gone long unrecognized, however, is women’s contribution towards running households and family businesses, mostly unpaid and often crucial to the success of these businesses. These very skills have today enabled financial institutions to lend money to the very poor, depending on the abilities of the women, in groups and individually, to not only return the money, but also use it in ways that are empowering to whole communities. 

The challenge, in this process, has been to ensure that access to financial services results in a consequent rise in independence and empowerment of the woman beneficiary. More often than not, men take control over the loan money, leaving the burden of repayment on the woman and the self-help groups. In addition, these services are often restricted to the larger villages and towns. Women living further out often do not access these financial services. Thus, financial products and services launched by financial institutions often failed to take these ground realities into account. 

To encourage more women to be entrepreneurs, any intervention must take into account these inherent paradoxes, even as they confront patterns of familial and social conditioning which reduce the confidence, independence and mobility of women. Innovations, thus, have to work at multiple levels to create structures systemically to enable and empower women entrepreneurs in all fields.

In this light, it is interesting to analyse the work of Chetna Gala Sinha through her organisation, Manndeshi. Chetna, herself a farmer, economist and activist, has been actively demonstrating how engaging women in entrepreneurial activities can result in positive growth in communities. Starting with financial interventions, Chetna convinced banks in rural Maharashtra to start lending to communities, and particularly women. At a time when no one wanted to lend to farmers, particularly women, Chetna persuaded banks to not only lend to the communities she worked with  A major challenge that she faced here was getting them to overlook illiteracy in their clients. “Just because a woman doesn’t know how to read,” says Chetna, “doesn’t imply that she can’t manage her money.” 

Through her work with the banks, Chetna realised that several financial products are created without keeping the end-client in mind. One such product was the piggybank scheme. “But if I was a woman who was using that scheme,” says Chetna, practically, “it would be so easy for my husband to break that piggybank and use the money for his own purposes!” It was this which propelled her to create India’s first rural financial institution which is run by and for women. While in its launch, Chetna faced opposition from local government officials. A demonstration on the streets led to the women involved going from house to house, explaining their plans and what the bank will do for the women in the villages. It was through this process that Chetna’s ‘doorstep banking’ program initiated. This program reaches out to women who are geographically excluded from mainstream financial services. This has led to a greater number of women, from more disadvantaged backgrounds, being able to rise out from poverty.

However, Chetna soon came to the conclusion that even with financial support, women still find it difficult to set up their own enterprises. She identified the lack of training as one of the main reasons for this. Chetna soon set up her own training units and colleges, through which Mann Deshi’s clients get training in financial and business management, training in community radio as well as in health and farming. This training too tries to include as many women in the area as it can, hence Chetna has pioneered the use of mobile buses to reach more women who might not be able to access these services otherwise.

Chetna’s insights into the world of women entrepreneurship is formidable. To encourage more women in the business, she uses ‘modelling’ as a key strategy. “When one woman entrepreneur from a village wins an award from the Prime Minister, all the other women in the village also dream of achieving the same.” Towards this, Chetna is involving local media to cover the work of some women entrepreneurs in the region, to encourage a spirit of healthy competitiveness and entrepreneurship of all the women in the area. 

Chetna’s work with women and insights in the field stem from her own passions and interests. Hailing from a strongly agricultural family, Chetna’s knowledge of farming comes from direct experience in the field. During her college years, she was strongly involved with Jaiprakash Narayan’s student movement, which armed her with the skills to lead and direct her own movement in rural Maharashtra. While working with communities in Maharashtra, she experienced first hand the difficulties women have in access to financial services and in starting their own enterprise. With these first hand experiences, Chetna has been able to accurately understand the realities of the field and tailor her interventions for maximum impact. 

By Sanjana Janardhanan

To read Chetna's profile, please click here.

To read more about Mann Deshi, please click here.