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Home  >  Features  >  Passage from India

Passage From India

This article first appeared in the 2012 issue of Life and Work


Jackie Macadam learns how women in Glasgow have learned financial lessons from an Indian model.


IN January 2011, 13 women from some of the most economically challenged areas of Glasgow went on a journey of discovery to India, organised by the Priority Areas Committee of the Church of Scotland.

But it wasn’t a holiday – they were there to find out about how women who live in the levels of absolute poverty organised themselves in self-help groups (SHGs) to help better their own lives and give their families and children a viable future.

The women were from seven locations throughout Glasgow – some had church connections and some didn’t. For ten days they met and interacted with women who were living and raising their families with no welfare state safety net in case they become ill or lose any of their meagre income.

“In spite of the poverty, the level of aspiration is really high,” Noel Mathias, Ministries Support Officer for Priority Areas and Project Co-ordinator in Glasgow says. “The women from Glasgow found that in spite of the differences in income and living standards between the Indian and Scottish context, many of their problems and experiences of poverty as women were very similar.

“But in India, they have developed a system of micro-credit that enables women in SHGs to engage in income-generating activities and take control of their lives in the economy and in the personal sphere throughout the country.

“There are around 40 million women involved in these self-help groups. They hold regular meetings, save a small amount of money at each meeting and train together. The SHG ideology enables the poor to gradually build their own institutions, create wealth and gain self-worth and confidence.”

Since their return, those who went to India have been busy ‘recruiting’ women and setting up Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs) built around the principles of trust, mutual help and solidarity. Some are further advanced than others. One has been running for a year.

Provanhill SRG in the north-east of the city, was established in February 2011. There are eight women in the group; they hold regular meetings and each person puts £1 away each time. As it’s a small, local group, they’re best placed to see what needs done in their own community.

“They saw themselves as a ‘self-reliant’ group,” says Noel. “With their local knowledge, they realised that there was nothing in the area for the elderly. There was nowhere for older people to go. They decided they wanted to do something about that, and not leave it to the government to step in.

“They started a lunch club with the capital they had built up through their meetings. That was such a success that the lunch club is now in profit. The women are planning a laundry service in tune with the local ‘market’.”


“There’s a delicate balance when the women involved are on benefits,” he says. “We want people to get confident enough of the income to come off benefits, but we don’t want them to be stripped of their benefits without that security. Policy change at the highest level to gradually reduce benefits and allow a smooth transition between income streams is needed. If you pull away the security of benefits too quickly, people are frightened off. They won’t even try to self-sustain.”

One of the most positive features of the project, called ‘Passage from India”, is the sense of community it builds. People often feel powerless and alone – but being in a dynamic, positive group who are helping the community directly, contributing ideas and stepping out on their own feet, is very empowering.

“As one woman said, ‘we realise now we don’t have to wait for the government to do it for you’. Why walk when you can dance?” says Noel.

“That sense of ownership, of being able to help yourself, is a tremendously powerful feeling. It helps raise self-esteem, gives people the confidence to make their own decisions, to plan budgets and inspires them to believe in themselves. It gives rise, as the women in India found, to hopes and aspirations for a better future.”

Noel admits that it is principally women who are involved in the projects at present. “In India, they did try to involve men initially too. Unfortunately they discovered very quickly that men tended to spend the income on themselves whereas women were much more likely to plough it back into the projects they were involved in, and helped many, many more people – including their own families – as a direct result.

The groups are progressing at their own pace and Noel hopes that more will be set up in other Scottish cities and areas – Edinburgh, Dundee and Fife – over the next three years.

“The microcredit system doesn’t look at the credit–worthiness or rating of the individual members in the way the current financial system does – it looks at the security of the group. Small loans to help launch microenterprises are made to the group as a whole, never to individuals, and only once the group is established and secure. Microcredit and the ethos of the SRG movement has the huge potential to scale up the aspirations and relationships in local communities and make a lasting impact on our Scottish socio-economic landscape; and that is our vision for Passage from India.”