May 22, 2014
By Jane Maxwell
During my field visits to OfERR’s work in Mannar and Jaffna Districts, I have been introduced to a number of OfERR’s “Self Help Groups”. The concept of Self Help Groups among women refugees was first introduced in Tamil Nadu, India by the President of OfERR, Ms. Sooriyakumary. This development model offers a unique approach to mobilizing the community. For that reason it has become a key component of OfERR’s grassroots organizing efforts among newly resettled communities in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The Self Help Groups bring together about 12-15 women of similar background in a village to empower them both socially and economically. Once the members are selected OfERR leads the women through a “crash course” in the goals and features of a Self Help Group, outlining the roles and responsibilities of its members. Examples of other successful Self Help Groups are often discussed.
The women begin meeting on a weekly basis with OfERR staff facilitating the meetings. From the ‘get-go’ the members are encouraged to start saving, contributing a small amount to the group (e.g. 50 rupees, or $0.42) each week. Initially OfERR provides a matching grant to the Self Help Group as a way of encouraging the women to begin regular saving. Because economic empowerment – improving the incomes and employment opportunities for the participants – is such a key objective, OfERR encourages the group to invest funds in some form of economic initiative. By adding value to a basic product ““ for example, converting chilis or rice into chile and rice powder, or palmyra product making– the women will be able to sell their products for a higher price in the local markets, thus earning additional income for their families.
Training is an essential component of the success of Self Help Groups. After the women have received a solid grounding in how to function as a Self Help Group, they receive training in leadership skills, business planning, production of value-added products, marketing, basic accounting and financial management, and more. Other growing societal issues including gender-based violence, child abuse and alcoholism are also openly discussed in the group. Sooriyakumary notes that one of the biggest benefits of Self Help Groups is that members feel they are part of a close knit family on whom they can rely for support, protection and counselling should they experience personal problems. And for most of the women, the Self Help Group has provided them with an economic activity, enabling them to earn additional income, while developing new skills, knowledge and self confidence.