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M.G. Papamma is undertaking a mass mobilization of rural women in South India, creating a confederation of women's groups by marketing an alternate vision for microcredit based on poor women's investment in social development.

This profile below was prepared when M.G. Papamma was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


M.G. Papamma is undertaking a mass mobilization of rural women in South India, creating a confederation of women's groups by marketing an alternate vision for microcredit based on poor women's investment in social development.


South Indian women have benefited from microcredit programs, revolving loan funds, and communal banking schemes for many years. Credit and savings at the village level have become mainstays of both rural development and women's empowerment. Papamma sees an enormous opportunity to transform the basic social unit of microcredit–the women's "self-help group"–from a localized, somewhat insular project to a force for social development, more active in the community, and better connected nationally. The first idea is to make women's groups more active by having groups broaden their scope to include activities beyond members' own personal or household economic interests. From her own experience Papamma sees that at the same time women are seeking basic economic security, they are also seeking a more rewarding and just role in society. Papamma uses the groups to create new roles for women as investors in social development programs that benefit entire communities, like modest scholarships for children and antimalaria campaigns. This new role is also the creative force behind Papamma's mass mobilizing effort aimed at statewide and nationwide confederations of self-help groups coalescing around a common agenda.


The citizen sector overall has led an enthusiastic charge to elevate the "status" of women in India, generally defining women and their poverty as one of most important target groups in need of help. Programs to help women have attacked poverty, illiteracy, and the absence of that potent, if elusive, fuel for change, "empowerment," on a woman-by-woman basis. On one level the positive outcomes are clear: more women have more to share with their families, have more opportunities to learn and to act for themselves. Nevertheless, the lingering question is whether or not these individual steps will amount to an overall structural improvement in the lot of the rural poor.

The answer to this overarching question is unclear for two reasons. First, credit and self-help programs are by nature reflexive: women join the groups to help themselves as well as fellow members. The members are their own target group, and therefore the direct benefits are restricted to the number of members and groups that can be managed. Put another way, if 10 or 20 percent of poor women are enabled to buy cows or learn a new skill, will the 80 or 90 percent who are not directly served feel any impact? The second reason is that there is an enormous, yet largely untapped, political potential in the self-help movement: masses of women with similar histories of poverty and exclusion now have a foundation of shared social experience in the self-help group context. Their collective voice on how the state, the civil sector, and fellow citizens ought to perceive poverty and attack it could help inform and direct vast areas of the social sector, like the women's movement, community development, formal and nonformal education, and of course, the microcredit field itself. To date, the microcredit sector has been slow to branch out into more outward-looking forms of social action. Until it does, it will be unknown whether a mass mobilization of poor women at the grassroots level can in fact influence state- and citizen-sector policies on how to undo the knots of poverty.


Papamma is building a confederation of rural women's groups by using a new approach to microcredit among women. Papamma's insight into the role of credit in women's lives is straightforward: participation in a credit group gives women an identity, and developing this identity gets women more involved in society. Credit at rates better than those offered by local moneylenders, which routinely fall between 50 and 100 percent, is the practical incentive. Papamma's groups charge interest rates around 20 percent, higher than the standard for microcredit, but much lower than the local market cost. The interest repayments are divided in two: about half goes back into the fund, enabling it to grow so that more women may borrow, and the rest goes into a community development pot. Members of the credit groups decide how to use the development money. This creates two roles for members: as individual members in credit groups, they are beneficiaries; and as directors of local funds for community action, they are social investors. The format allows the groups to seek matching funds from donors for development activities, while maintaining the independence of the credit groups.

The groups have started a number of new activities. They have used community development funds to pay teachers to run night schools for children who miss school during the day. Scholarships have been created for girls from poor families. A Children's Federation, comprising the children of group members, has also been created as both a forum for children's activities and as a child-led and managed savings program. Children who save receive a twice-yearly dividend. Groups have also paid the travel costs for doctors and medical staff from public clinics to reach remote villages, particularly to give immunizations. Papamma's groups also succeeded in transferring government funds for a water tank de-silting program to employ local people in manual labor (as opposed to bringing in workers to do it with machines). The recovered silt was then used to fertilize marginal lands, and when crops flourished, the women's groups achieved unprecedented status as leaders and planners.
Using this microcredit model, Papamma's organization has established about 270 groups with a direct membership of 6,000 women. While Papamma expects the size of her own organization to grow, her strategy for broader impact is not to expand the organization itself, but to use it as an example and a base from which to launch a much larger movement. This is taking the form of a "confederation" of women's self-help groups. This confederation is designed to supervise the proper implementation of government policies affecting the rural poor.

Bringing women together under a public agenda is a more radical step in the world of microfinance than it may first appear. Founding and supporting self-help groups has, over the last decade, become an industry in itself, largely run by nonprofit organizations with varying degrees of engagement and contact with their "target populations." The self-help movement has generated enthusiastic support from development donors, foreign and domestic alike. Because the goals and methods of microcredit are mostly local and individual, there are not many opportunities for women to have direct access to new ideas about how they might organize themselves and turn their groups into engines for social improvement. Where such evolving roles are not part of the vision of the sponsoring citizen organizations, self-help groups and their women members may be missing an opportunity to create and fulfill roles as social leaders beyond the level of the household or small self-help group.

Today one of Papamma's main roles is as an organizer, building a network of self-help groups. In part this involves convincing existing women's groups that there is some benefit in expanding the scope of their activities. Many self-help groups operate more or less under the auspices of the outside organizations that help set them up. Participation in an overarching confederation with its own agenda may raise, for the first time, delicate issues of leadership, ownership, and relations between rural women and their sponsors. With the membership of her confederation at 125,000, Papamma is succeeding in helping women negotiate these organizational issues in a positive and collaborative way.


As the daughter of a Dalit schoolteacher, Papamma was one of the most educated girls in her village growing up. She was married at 14, and gave birth to her daughters when she was 16 and 18. Papamma lost her husband to chronic alcoholism when she was just 22. Thus a widow and a Dalit, she found herself in the class of those most disadvantaged in the prevailing social structure.

In 1994 Papamma attended a meeting for a new nongovernmental organization in her village. Reluctant to participate, she watched the proceedings quietly form the corner of the room. When it was proposed that the meeting start with a prayer song, the village women were reluctant to sing because of their shyness. From the corner of the room, Papamma began singing a classical song. From this humble start Papamma began working with community activities, growing to become the leader of her village women's group. In this role she led local women to deal with government officials in solving village problems and mobilized women by generating songs on women's empowerment and issues related to rural development. Subsequently, Papamma proceeded to help start women organizations throughout Karnataka, and she is now the secretary of the state-level women's organizations' federation.