Building Skills, Building Confidence: How Ultra-Poor Women in India Are Taking a Step Toward Self-Reliance

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November 10, 2011

This is a guest post by Avinash Kumar, a staff member of The Livelihood School of BASIX who is working with Grameen Foundation as the project manager for the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest project in Gaya, India.

Asha Devi’s eyes sparkled as she rolled agarbatti (“incense sticks” in Hindi) for the first time. Asha is a member of an adapted self help-group (ASHG) in Pali, a village in India’s Bihar state, where the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest, a joint project of Grameen Foundation’s Solutions for the Poorest group and BASIX/The Livelihood School, is being implemented. The sparkle in Asha’s eyes reflects newfound self-confidence and pride that by selling handmade agarbatti, she will be able to supplement her family’s income.

Women from the program hold up their newly-rolled agarbatti (incense sticks) during training

Nearly 100 women from six village ASHGs participated in our week long training. Agarbatti rolling, which is a common activity in almost all of the villages in the Gaya district of Bihar, is one of two income-generating activities being promoted through the project. These activities require simple skills and provide modest increases in income to help households meet their immediate consumption needs. As the clients’ confidence levels and skills increase, the project team will transition them into entrepreneurial income-generating activities, such as poultry farming and goat rearing, which require higher initial capital investment and skill sets but can significantly help fill income gaps throughout the year.

The agarbatti rolling training was unique not only because it was the first time women from the poorest families were receiving it, but also because it was the first time local women were given a leadership role to train their fellow community members. The experience of having a local woman train them in this skill helped increase the participants’ confidence, leaving them optimistic about their prospects and ability to contribute to their families’ income. While agarbatti rolling is common in the region, many of the households participating in our project had never done it because they live in relative isolation, making it more difficult for them to access agarbatti agents and vice-versa. Instead, they have depended largely on wage labor from agriculture production, construction work and road building.

Faced with very unpredictable and insecure income sources, these families have not had the luxury of time nor the opportunity to experiment with an entrepreneurial activity. In fact, these households often lack the necessary self-confidence to take up and learn a new activity, even such low-skill ones as agarbatti rolling. One of the aspects of the project is building the self-confidence of the members and, which, thus far, has been successful.

This training is the beginning of a change in this aspect of these women’s lives. As their self-confidence grows and they see their income rise, this positive change cycle will encourage them to seek out other opportunities. As they move forward, our team will work with them to continue on this path.

Comments

I have never worked with poor women in this part of the world, but I have worked with poor children in the US and I am questioning the assumption that because they are poor and low skill they have low self esteem. When I was presented with this assumption by an after school program provider ( i.e., that low income, monority inner city children's self esteeem would increase as a result of their participation in the program) I decided to test it. We measured the self-esteem of the children when they came into the program using an age appropriate test. The results show that most of the children had average to high self esteem coming into the program so there was nothing to improve there.

Perhaps these women get their self esteem from knowing that despite their poverty, they still keep their household going... they must be doing something right then. And, aren't we all less confident when we are asked to do something we have never done, like rolling the incense sticks? Why not start from a strength perspective and find out what each woman's existing skills are, what they are good at, and help her strengthen those talents? Poor people are not used to being asked: What are you good at? because they have to do it all, no choice there. But when you help them answser this question and you then provide the means to build that skill, you will see them blossom. Is this building self esteem? I think it is, but it starts with what she already has, a glass half full rather than half empty.

In the slums of Bangalore we're experiencing an ENORMOUS shift in youths confidence as their capabilities are brought out, and thus bringing themselves out of poverty. No, they're not used to being asked what they're good at, yet for the individuals to prosper, we need to focus on the individuals, particularly the individuals of the next generation, the youth and street children, and when they are empowered their communities and societies will also prosper.

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