Vanita Jalindar Pise was always embarrassed to invite her wealthier sister to her own mud hut. Born into a comfortable middle class family, Vanita was married at the age of 18 into a seemingly prosperous family that ran a poultry business. Within three weeks of her marriage the mirage of plenty was shattered when Vanita’s husband brought her to his poultry barn. She assumed he wanted to show her his wealth; he assumed she would clean the shed three times a day. As the unhappy years of increasing poverty, debt, and hard physical labor wore on, she tried to hide her roughened hands from her parents and sisters, but instead became the object of her family’s pity. Ordinarily a woman of high spirits and positive energy, thinking back on those years causes Vanita to break down and struggle for a few minutes to regain her composure.
Although she still lives in a mud house, 36-year old Vanita has come a long way from hanging her head at family events. In April 2006 she was declared one of two national winners of the Woman Exemplar Award, sponsored annually by the National Confederation of Indian Industries. The woman with the calloused hands and bright smile shook hands with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he congratulated her on her accomplishments. The Exemplar Award is designed to honor “grass-roots, poor, under privileged community level women who have excelled in their contribution in the development process. The main duty of the person who receives the award is to empower others. Vanita has been doing just that for years.
When her husband’s state-driven poultry business failing in 1997, leaving the family 55,000 rupees ($1,375) in debt, Vanita decided to take matters into her own hands, despite her husband’s protests. While working as a wage laborer on other people’s fields, she took a loan from Mann Deshi and began rearing buffalos and goats while selling their milk from house to house. However, the opportunities for engagement and leadership she found in the Self Help Group (SHG) movement increasingly became her source of excitement and joy.
She says, “I had so much disappointment and frustration for so long. I would go to the field and come back, but in my mind I knew that I wasn’t getting new knowledge. I heard about the Bank and when I there was an opportunity to be involved, I felt like this was something new. My husband asked, ‘What good new things will this bring? You are wasting your time. I told my husband, that’s enough! I have partnered with you for everything and we failed, so now that an opportunity is here for me, let me take that opportunity. I became very active right away. When I was moving around in the villages to organize women, I saw that they were giving me respect for the first time and after a lifetime of frustration and pity this was a welcome change.”
Despite her natural charisma and charm, it still wasn’t easy for Vanita to start the SHGs. In order to be part of an SHG, all members must save; Vanita was teaching other women how to save but was unable to do so herself because she was supporting her 18- person extended family. Ever resourceful, she taught herself to stitch by candle-light and began a tailoring business on the side, the earnings from which went directly into her savings account with the SHG and Bank. In starting the SHGs, Vanita also had to overcome her deep-rooted fear of taking a loan and falling further into debt.
In addition, despite her poverty and Backward Caste, Vanita came from a middle class family, and had to build relationships with lower-class women and gain their trust, while ignoring her husband’s family’s continual efforts to subvert her work. Her eyes sparkle as she says, “Whenever you work with women, the most important factor is how you develop the trust and confidence. You have to continuously behave in a manner that shows you are one of them. It is a question of developing the communication and trust. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor; if you develop trust, they will have a confidence in you. From my side, my effort was in that.”
Vanita has organized 35 SHGs and began organizing the women in her SHGs to buy goats and buffalo for their own milk-vending businesses. In 2004 Vanita decided to take a 15,000 rupee ($375) loan for a machine to make paper cups for prasad, or prayer offerings. She bought the raw material and made and sold 5,000 cups each day. When she realized how successful her business was, she started a dealership of the machines so other women could also profit.
Through this initiative, Vanita has facilitated 17 women in the purchasing of their own machines. Vanita serves as the co-guarantor on a loan that each woman takes from Mann Deshi Mahila Bank for a machine. Then she brings the raw material to the women and collects and markets their final product for sale. Each woman makes 5,000 cups each day, and earns an income of 2,500 rupees ($63) per month, thanks to Vanita’s entrepreneurship. Vanita herself earns an income of 3,000 rupees ($75) per month. She also earns income from her buffalo, goats, tailoring, and land. The men in her family don’t work; she and her sisters-in- law work from 5am till 11pm to feed and clothe the men and the children, all of whom are still in school.
Because of her marriage, Vanita was only able to complete the 9th grade of school. She tried to continue her education after marriage but was scoffed at by her in-laws. Vanita has three children, all of whom have the same spark and drive that she possesses. Her priority is investing in her children’s education and postponing her daughters’ marriages so that they can study for as long as possible. Her oldest daughter is 15 years old and in the 10th grade; she is an extremely focused and serious girl who hopes to be a Class I government officer.
Vanita is determined to earn enough money to be able to buy her daughter the books she needs to prepare for this difficult exam, but quietly wonders whether her daughter might be too ambitious. Her son is 13 and in the 8th grade and her youngest daughter is 11 and in the 5th grade; both hope to stay in school so they can get good jobs in the future. For Vanita, giving her children all the opportunities she can afford motivates her to work hard each day. Vanita’s drive to achieve has made her a role model for the many women whose lives she has touched.
Winning the Woman Exemplar Award was both the happiest moment in Vanita’s life and the turning point for her personally. Despite the respect from the SHG women she led, she always felt inadequate compared to her wealthier sisters, and was still considered a pity case by her parent’s family and a work horse by her husband’s.
“Now, for the first time in my life, I find myself a significant person with my own achievement and I am getting some importance among both the families,” Vanita says. “After getting the award, I am considered as someone with more innovative ideas and something to show for myself.”
There have also been challenges associated with the award. The man who supplies the wholesale raw material for her paper cups business has refused to work with her anymore because she did not mention his name to the national press. Despite being proud of her, Vanita’s husband and his family are also meticulously watching to make sure she maintains her household duties despite her increasingly public persona. She also says that she feels “more responsibility on my side to prove myself and show that whatever I have been honored for I am doing.”
And indeed she is. With the award money, Vanita is helping one of her SHGs invest in a new spice powder machine, putting the group leader in charge of the initiative. For Vanita, microfinance in general, and Mann Deshi Mahila Bank in particular, provides women with flexible loans that allow them to pursue small businesses that they have the capacity to run successfully. She explains, “There is flexibility in microfinance. Women don’t have to fit in program of the bank, whereas in big banks or government a person has to fit in their program and if someone doesn’t fit they have to make a loss,” as her husband did. “Microfinance allows you to do what you are able and so to make a profit. It is very different when you start with a small loan - you know the details of everything so you repay.
Once you take small loans, when you move to a big loan you know the details of how to take a loan and how to run a business and it becomes easier to repay. With big loans, sometimes you want to start a business and have an ambitious project but if you haven’t gone through the phases you might not be successful. It is very clear in Mann Deshi that whatever you want the loan for, you take it for that reason, but don’t hide or lie. If it is for marriage or buffalo, just say and bank will give. Once women start a small business and succeed they are more motivated. There is no way out of hard work for women and small businesses aren’t like government jobs with a monthly salary where you don’t have to work. But if you start a small business and work hard and carefully, you will earn.” Vanita has proven this point by example and is able to provide a comfortable life for her family as well as pursue projects that genuinely interest and excite her, while also gaining leadership skills and community respect.
“After being recognized with the award, I feel that if you do anything and work hard seriously, nothing goes in waste, you do get a reward and it can come in money or appreciation. I was always very much ready to do everything but after the award it was the first experience in my life that I could see the returns. I feel even now that it is a dream that I got the award. I never could have imagined this would be the result of my struggle.”
- Vanita Pise