SWAYAM SHIKSHAN PRAYOG (SSP)
Swayam Shikshan Prayog (or SSP) was founded in 1989 in Mumbai, India as a development women's organization facilitating self-education activities and networks of women initially in relation to issues of livelihoods, credit, and access to and management of resources in rural Maharashtran communities. In 1994, SSP began direct and intensive work with women's groups and communities in the under developed districts of Latur and Osmanabad. Appointed by the Indian government to serve as the "Community Participation Consultant" in the World Bank supported rehabilitation project to address the massive destruction caused by earthquakes in the area, SSP devised strategies to center stage the involvement of grassroots women's groups in a broad range of housing, planning, and infrastructure programs arising from this project in the period 1994 to 1998.
These efforts gradually scaled up and evolved into a broad based community development strategy where grassroots women's groups now function as leading actors in the context of local development and governance activities in these two districts. Today, SSP partners with women's groups and local governments across 800 villages in eight Maharashtran districts and facilitates capacity building activities involving 12,000 women active in more than 700 savings and credit groups in their rural poor communities. In 2001 SSP, offered to assist its neighbor state Gujarat, after earthquakes devastated scores of villages. Drawing from its four years of experience in Latur and Osmanabad, SSP is fostering women-led peer learning exchanges and community-to-community technical assistance where women share their practical experience in restoring housing and basic services.
With a long term vision of supporting a movement where women's groups in poor rural areas are able to socially transform their communities, SSP helps women become a critical mass through inter-village and larger federated associations that control information, assets and represent constituencies. Employing field resource teams that partner with women's groups and local governments in Maharashtra and neighboring Gujarat state, SSP's facilitating role focuses upon five capacity building strategies:
For more than a decade India has been reforming and liberalizing its economy, at different times applying structural adjustment programs. The pursuit of economic growth oriented policies, combined with a withdrawal by the state, has resulted in: increased privatization, less affordable services, and withdrawal of subsidies in food security, credit, livelihood support, and in key sectors such as water, electricity, and transport. Not surprisingly, the problems among the poor have increased and women and children have been the most negatively impacted (confirmed by social indicators).
Amidst these changes, SSP's central goal has been to bring women and the poor into the center stage of local governance and development processes, and to place their respective concerns at the center of village, taluka, and district level planning and budgeting processes. A facilitating agent (rather than an implementing one), SSP identifies opportunities for organized, grassroots women's self help groups to:
Self-education, the meaning of Swayam Shikshan, is the core of SSP's empowerment strategy. Practical learning (not programs and services) allows women in poor communities to reflect on their everyday experiences, articulate their needs and priorities, experience women-led solutions to daily problems, and move from being mere participants to resource persons and experts. As self-learning within women's groups grows, SSP facilitates the transfer of innovations/best practices across women's groups. Later as women's knowledge, people-base, and resources expand, SSP facilitates information transfers and capacity building so women elected members of Panchayati Raj (local councils) can emerge that will represent this movement.
The women's groups who partner with SSP organize themselves in savings and credit collectives as a base for their other activities. By mobilizing savings and disbursing loans to meet production and consumption needs, women build an economic base, learn about money management, develop skills to manage larger and larger funds, and explore community enterprise options. For poor women who lack assets such as land, houses or other property, the self-help ability to pool savings and to grant and access credit is extremely empowering. The group processes-regular meetings, regular savings and loans-establish trust and confidence building among women. Over time, the collective decision making abilities of the women's groups also grows and women begin to identify social issues that they want to act on collectively
Hundreds of women's groups are now working on their priority issues, including:
SSP and the women's groups collaborate to initiate demonstration projects, community planning processes, and relevant skills training in these areas and then find spaces for linking women's efforts to expanding their involvement with local governance bodies. For example, women's groups in 300 villages have initiated monitoring systems to insure the essential basic services outlined above are accessible to poor women and their communities and they press for direct control when they are not. Whether working on the privatization of water or the construction of new village sewage systems, women's groups link across villages to visit and learn from one another -extending the self-education process to co-planning and problem solving. Connecting across villages not only ends the prior isolation women's groups have experienced but it also gives them confidence to widen their contacts, forge partnerships, and claim more social and political space.
For a variety of reasons, women's groups begin to seek physical space to consolidate their development activities. Community information centers (called Mahiti Kendras), constructed and owned by the grassroots women's networks, are springing up across Latur, Osmanabad and Gujarat (and now represent a critical mass of 15 centers, with plans underway to double to 30). These visible, women-directed community spaces, disseminate information and offer access to on-going self learning and training, rooting a presence and identity for the women's groups as information gatherers, planners and do-ers and partners to government and local council decision making.
To build a larger, critical mass of women's groups, the collectives are also leveraging their savings and credit groups by establishing Federations. An umbrella of mature groups, the Federations link and pool group resources and establish an asset and constituency base that increases the likelihood that banks and government officials will offer better information, terms, services, and resources.
The massive earthquake in Gujarat state in 2000 has occasioned a recent, exciting extension of the scope and scale of women's self-education processes. Eager to help, the SSP team and leaders from the partnering women's groups traveled to their neighboring state to determine if their knowledge and skills from the Latur and Osmanabad experience could be useful in forging a community led reconstruction strategy in Gujarat. Today, in 200 villages in three Gujarat districts, SSP and the women's groups are developing community to community exchange visits and other training methodologies to transfer their insights and lessons in earthquake reconstruction, re-establishing livelihood strategies, and mitigating future disasters. Well aware that post disaster reconstruction is an opportunity to mobilize women to participate in community decision making and build their skills to long term development issues (such as credit and livelihoods and basic services) they are working with Gujarati women and their villages on a multi pronged strategy that includes information outreach, skills training for artisans, and the construction of mid term shelters and community owned centers to bridge the gaps in replacement housing and basic services.
SSP Partners with Institutions and Grassroots Groups Seeking to Support and Expand Grassroots Women's Participation in Reducing Poverty and Strengthening Local Development
Realizing the need to make governance mechanisms more accountable to the poor, SSP has consciously invested in a wide-ranging capacity building effort involving key stakeholders: women's groups, elected members, administrators and policy makers. SSP partners with the UNDP and national and state governments to implement projects for capacity building and facilitate women's participation in local (panchayat) government on issues of water, sanitation, housing repair, and education.
Similarly, SSP works in GROOTS and the Huairou Commission to share and adapt grassroots' women's successful development practices to other parts of the world and to advise inter-governmental bodies, policy makers, and other development donors on the changes required to upscale, not marginalize, this participation. As part of its sharing and educational mission, SSP has a wide array of publications that are available to active development practitioners. Some current ones, related to initiatives summarized earlier, include: