In the picturesque and rustic rural landscapes of Auroville,Tamil Nadu, India, where women's lives are penned within the confines of financial constraints and societal norms, a captivating female centric movement has begun to blossom. Under the leadership of AVAG's director, Ms. Anbu Sironmani, the organization has become a beacon of hope, empowering women from diverse backgrounds to dream and achieve beyond their circumstances by facilitating access to low-interest loans through its network of women's federations, women's groups, and bank linkages. These stories of women’s resilience and triumph now paves the way to empowerment in rural India for young girls and women alike.
How did it all begin, you ask? With a serendipitous encounter – An introduction to the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG).
Meet Malini from Kazhuperumpakkam village - one of the 16 women of unwavering determination from Udhayam Senthuram Women's Club. She came to AVAG hoping to apply for a total loan amount of Rs.635.000 on behalf of her group for education, housing and business purposes respectively. Personally, this would also help her pay back an existing mortgage on her house. Much like others, her past was marked by financial hardships, with the ominous threat of losing her home hanging over her shoulders like a dark cloud.
"I had borrowed a huge loan from the bank and was not able to pay back the monthly installments" she confides.
Motivated by the older existing members of AVAG-affiliated women's groups, she was the driving force in bringing together women from her neighborhood to form their own group. She recalls the journey with pride, "It wasn't easy to convince and inspire the women in my village to join this effort, but it's because of this collective endeavor that I managed to clear my mortgage and secure my home."
AVAG, in her eyes, is nothing short of a lifeline, offering substantial loans without the need for collateral at a low rate of interest of 1.5%. She emphasizes the change it brought to her family dynamics, saying, "Now, I'm an active participant in my family's financial discussions, and they trust my ability to safeguard their financial well-being." Malini's gratitude shines through as she explains further, "Without AVAG's intervention, I'd have been shackled by interest rates as high as 18% compounded monthly, coupled with rigid repayment plans that would have been nearly impossible for us to uphold. With AVAG, it became possible for us to not only apply for 3 loans, but to pay them back due to the flexible repayment system! " Like Malini, many other women once led lives confined within their remote villages. Now, they travel to meetings and events, directly manage money and cherish their newfound independence, all thanks to the transformative impact of AVAG.
Meanwhile, in the lush, fertile expanses of Uppuvellore, where the vibrant cultivation of watermelon and paddy flourish, for someone like Manjula of the Udhayam Bharathamatha Women’s Club, the demand for financial resources takes center stage, particularly during the crucial agricultural seasons. Additionally, her family had built a temporary shelter for themselves on government land with constant fear and lack of stability. Reluctant and discouraged by her circumstance at first, she then decided to take a chance on AVAG.
Manjula explains, "Women come together in groups organized by their locality. Each group comprises up to 20 women, and sometimes, women might switch groups if they happen to relocate. Anyone with the desire to join these groups is warmly welcomed." This sense of community and collective effort defines the spirit of these agricultural communities, where support and collaboration are at the heart of progress. As a whole, her group applied for a total loan of Rs.325.000 for education and family functions among others, which were sanctioned to them the very same day of application.
“As a group, we've gained a wealth of knowledge. For example - there are different types of loans like Internal Lending, AVAG loan, Udhayam loan, AVVAI loan and loan from the bank," Manjula emphasizes. She goes on to underscore the multifaceted impact of these loans, saying, "I secured a loan for my children's education too. Like this, the loans have been beneficial in so many ways. AVAG has not only taught us about finance but also the importance of safety and care for women and children."
"Our women's group operates with a set of rules and regulations, but there's a sense of flexibility too," Manjula adds. "Loan decisions are made considering the repayment schedule and the track record of timely repayments of previous outstanding loans."
She proceeds to share a touching testament to the solidarity within her group, recounting a heartwarming incident where AVAG extended a helping hand to a fellow member facing a daunting challenge. This member was grappling with mounting medical expenses for her husband, all while struggling with mortgage payments. Manjula elaborates, "When one of our group members is in need, we come together, explain her situation to Ms. Sironmani, and work out a solution to assist her through the tough times."
Ms. Sironmani reflects on the early years of AVAG, recalling a challenging period when the very existence of their committee seemed uncertain. She recounts, "It was a time of discontent; expressed against the idea of these women striving for a better life—a life that every woman, irrespective of her background, rightfully deserves."
"AVAG sets specific criteria for every group member, promoting equal participation and ensuring that every voice is valued and heard," she explains.
In fact, Bakikya Lakshmi from Udhayam Vinmeengal Women’s Club and a resident of Perumbakkam village, reflects on the newfound confidence that AVAG has instilled in her. She candidly shares, "Before becoming a part of the women's group, I felt weighed down by a multitude of restrictions, both financial and societal." With AVAG's support, her club secured a remarkable Rs. 570000 from the bank and personal home loans. Others, like Baki Lakshmi, have two or more existing homes mortgaged to the bank and constantly live in fear of becoming homeless. But, they were pleased to learn that they could apply for the AVAG loan and actually be able to pay back all outstanding bank loans. "Today, my family places its complete trust in AVAG," she proudly asserts. Actively participating in meetings and seminars, her financial contributions have not only reshaped her family's dynamics but have also ushered in personal growth." Baki Lakshmi has not only flourished financially but has also matured about the world around her; with a newfound sense of control.
The longevity and depth of AVAG's impact is exemplified by the journey of yet another group member, the eclectic Parmeshwari Murugan from TC Kootraod. “My club, Udhayam Senthuram, was formed back in June 2007. Financially, my family faced significant hardships, struggling to make ends meet with earnings that barely covered the essentials like clothing and food." she explains. However, with AVAG's support, she witnessed her dream of a permanent home in her native village become a reality. AVAG's holistic approach, which encompasses regular meetings, financial planning and empowerment initiatives alongside swift loan approvals, served as the bedrock of her transformation. "I received the necessary investment every year, and now I am the proud owner of my own house. I couldn't be happier about it." she reflects with joy!
“8 members from my group applied for higher education or construction of homes, renovation of shops or parlors.” Parmeshwari, like countless other women, is now living a life unshackled by financial constraints and has even sent her daughter for higher studies.
To conclude, these stories are not just tales of financial support; they are narratives of knowledge, independence and resilience. AVAG's work is a testament to the transformative power of collective effort where, as these women continue to flourish, their communities thrive as well. This journey is an inspiration for all and reminds us that with determination and support, the human spirit can overcome any obstacle!
Written by Shevaughn Pimenta