At the age of 13 Laxmi Shellar’s father abruptly pulled her out of 7th standard and married her to a 65 year old man as his second wife. At the ripe old age of 17, when most girls only begin to think of marriage, the heavily pregnant Laxmi was widowed. She says, “When I was 17, I was so alone. My life was so bad that I had two choices: forget everything and start again or commit suicide.”
Laxmi chose life with vigor, catapulting herself into a role of importance and respect in a community that had already brushed the young widow aside as a social outcaste. It is clear that there is no room for emotion or sentimentality in Laxmi’s life, but the spark of pride that appears in her eyes when she talks about her leadership in the local Self-Help Groups (SHGs) is unmistakable.
Becoming involved with SHGs was a turning point in Laxmi’s life. After her husband’s death, her life had consisted entirely of constant work to make ends meet. When she started organizing SHGs, she suddenly discovered a newfound confidence in interacting with the outside world, realizing that she relished leadership and had a natural knack for inspiring confidence in others. As she gained self-assurance handling money and doing interest rate calculations, she encouraged the women in her SHGs to take loans and save money.
Laxmi is extremely sensitive to the vulnerabilities of the illiterate women whom she leads. To help mitigate the risks of their circumstance, Laxmi has started her own literacy school, which she holds from 9-10 pm every night, all year. As a bright student deprived of her own education, Laxmi feels that other women deserve the opportunity to read and write. For Laxmi, the happiest moment in her life came a few months ago when she accompanied a new SHG member to the bank who had been a student in her literacy class.
The bank clerk asked the woman if she wanted to sign with her thumb print or her signature. The woman replied with pride, “Laxmi has taught me my signature. I can sign my own name.”
Laxmi’s story is unique in that her involvement in SHGs and microfinance revolves almost entirely around training, advising, and leading others; income generation is merely a sidelined occupation dictated by necessity. The women of Mann Deshi have become her family, and she gets up at dawn everyday to work hard on their behalf.