The husband chose to answer all the questions we put to his wife, and he wasn’t alone. In house after house that we visited in this cluster of villages in and around Ajmer Tehsil, a few hours drive from Ajmer city in the North Indian state of Rajasthan, the men generally spoke, explained or interjected on behalf of the women.
We were visiting these villages in Ajmer to evaluate members of a community we had been providing low-cost credit to for the past two years. The borrowers, all of them women, were associated with the Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal Samstha (RMKM), an NGO that has been working for disability rights and livelihood generation in rural Rajasthan for the past 30 years.
The women had been provided funds to take up dairy farming to provide them with a livelihood, increase the household income and in the long run, we hoped, increased independence and empowerment.Yet, many of them were unaware of the details of their loans or the interest rates they were being charged. It was the men who did the answering.
Among the communities living in the Aradka, Bansda, Kanpura and Jilawada villages in the Ajmer and Srinagar tehsil, the landholding of the farmers averages three acres, with many families growing millets and pulses. Millets are a staple in the diet of the people in the region. So come harvest time, many families only sell part of the produce on the market, keeping the rest aside for personal consumption.
The produce that the families sell on the market fetch them anywhere between Rs 15,000–20,000 annually, barely enough for them to get by. In the absence of a substantial agricultural income, the men often migrate outside their villages in search of employment. The town of Kishangarh, the largest marble production and trading hub in Rajasthan, provides employment to many of the men in the villages, who earn an average of Rs 10,000 per month working in the marble trade.
While the men migrate outside their villages, the rigid and pervasive patriarchy among the communities in rural Rajasthan prevents the women from working outside their homes or owning businesses.
Confined to domestic roles in the household and the farm, dairy farming is an important and often the only viable source of livelihood for many women.
In Ajmer, as in many other regions of Rajasthan, goats are used as a form of currency, either to barter for goods or exchanged for cash. The rearing of the “Sirohi breed” of goat — named after the district in Rajasthan where they are sourced and instantly recoginsable with the distinctive downward curve on their bank — was taken up by practically every household we visited.
Since it is the women staying at home who tend to the livestock, we assumed that the income derived from the sale of dairy products or other commodities accrues to the woman. To make this assumption, however, is to misunderstand the nature of income in rural communities in India.
In many of the households that we visit, the lines between individual and the household incomes are blurred. For instance, the income from the farm does not belong to the farmer alone, it feeds all the members of the household, who lend a hand in tending to the crops during the growing season.
The downside to this is that the contribution of labour made by women while tending the farm, looking after the livestock or taking care of the household often goes unacknowledged. In several instances during our visit, we came across women were unaware of how much money their labour earned; they didn’t know how much a litre of milk sold for in the market or how much money an adult goat fetched. The men of the household played the intermediary when it came to money.
While the women have a degree control over the household finances — the men typically hand over some money to run the household — she earns no income that she can call her own. Contrasted with the men who earn a daily or monthly income through other avenues such as the marble business when not engaged in farming and can decide how to spend the money, the women in the village have no such options.
Disturbingly, this lack of control over personal finances is being compounded by the presence of microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the region. Numerous households have already taken on significant debt with interest rates of 12–15 percent, some even buying household items with fixed monthly installments. Many women remain unaware of how much debt they have taken on.
The Self-Help Groups (SHGs) formed and run by RMKM are a saviour in many ways. With Rang De’s help, they reach out and provide low-cost loans to people who cannot borrow from MFIs. Sometimes, these loans are offered with interest rates as low as 10%.
But given the situation on the ground, conducting financial literacy classes for the women who are given the loans is an important — and necessary — step towards addressing some of the existing social and economic problems in the region.