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Social worker makes Indian rural women work miracles

Ramon Magsaysay awardee Kulandei Francis of India shares how he helped empower women to lead their families out of poverty during a lecture Wednesday. Photo by

Publication Date : 01-09-2012


In a country where men are considered superior and control households in an iron grip, Indian social worker Kulandei Francis has started a campaign that broke cultural norms and enabled rural women to work little miracles against abject poverty.

More than 30 years ago, Francis’ innate compassion for the poor took him to a destitute village in Krishnagiri district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the lands were parched, the women strangers to sanitary pads and the girls married off early.

But since Francis introduced his Integrated Village Development Project (IVDP) with rural women as members of self-help groups (SHGs), the backward Natrampalayam village gradually became a thriving community. Agriculture flourished, children finished school and women took charge of household finances.

“At first, we started working with men but it didn’t work out. So we worked with women … and they worked miracles,” said Francis, one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.

‘Visionary zeal’

Francis, along with five others, received their awards Friday night in ceremonies held at the Philippine International Convention centre in Pasay City. Each of the honourees received a certificate, a medallion bearing the image of the late President Magsaysay and a cash prize worth US$50,000.

The Ramon Magsaysay Foundation chose the 66-year-old priest-turned-social-worker for his “visionary zeal, his profound faith in community energies, and his sustained programmes in pursuing the holistic economic empowerment of thousands of women and their families in rural India.”

Francis was himself familiar with suffering and destitution. His father tilled the land and his mother sold milk and rice to make ends meet. But there was not enough money to send all six children to school.

‘Lost everything’

For Francis to be able to finish commerce at Annamalai University, his mother, who could not read nor write, took a loan from a moneylender in exchange for the family’s 3-acre land as collateral. But she eventually lost everything when it turned out that the moneylender made her sign a document stating that she would have to pay much more than the amount she borrowed.

So Francis vowed to himself that after college, he would devote himself to helping his family. “But I was not happy to come back and work only for my family. All the time, I was thinking of something I could do because my family suffered a lot like many other poor families,” he said.

Relief camps

Initially, he saw priesthood as the means to reach out to the poor. At 25, he joined the Fathers of the Holy Cross, which took him to relief camps for the Bangladesh War refugees and exposed him to all forms of hardship and poverty.

It was during this time that he set foot on Natrampalayam, which was then wracked by starvation, debt, migration problems, illiteracy, poor sanitation and insufficient water. There were no roads to the small village so people had to walk through some 20 kilometres of forest to reach it.

But while immersed in his social and ecclesiastical work, Francis slowly realised that as a priest, he would have to go back to the congregation instead of staying with the people.

“I realised that religion is not important,” he said, adding that he left the priesthood so he could remain in the village and continue his social work.

In 1979, Francis set up the IVDP and started with small projects. He gathered children, who helped their fathers tend farm animals during the day, for evening classes.

Collection of rainwater

He also set up a first-aid centre and built check dams for collecting rainwater for the water-starved village with the help of Oxfam, and later, a Belgian organisation. His programme has so far built over 330 small check dams, which improved agriculture in 60 villages in rural India.

The water reservoirs also allowed the villagers to bathe and wash their clothes more often, he said.

To sustain agricultural activities, Francis thought of adding a community-based loan component to his programme to provide the poor with assets so that “they can hold their family together and live better.”

“Charity is not a solution for development. It is not a solution [to] poverty. It works against it, in fact,” he said.

Men not disciplined

Francis started extending credit to the men in the village, but the programme eventually failed and lost over a million rupees. “[The men] were not well disciplined in a sense,” he said. “Usually, the money went to other purposes.”

So in 1989, Francis tapped the women in the village— mostly housewives and the landless—to form savings-and-credit groups. At first, the programme met with resistance, especially from the men, he said.

“Our culture is strong and male-dominated. Power is not given to women; there’s no chance for them to gain that power,” said Francis.

But he persevered. Under the programme, the women underwent training on various courses, from bookkeeping to agricultural training. Francis’ Singaporean wife, Kosalai Mary, and only daughter, F. Sunitha Nanthini Esther, helped in the programme.

Armed with new skills, the women were then linked to banks that provided them loans. “The [women’s] savings are rotated by them and they give loans from their own savings,” Francis explained.

The groups have become an all-women movement of more than 8,230 SHGs, with 153,990 members in Krishnagiri and other districts in Tamil Nadu, total savings of about $40 million, a cumulative loan portfolio of $435 million and a reserve fund of $8.9 million.

With the women in charge of the household kitty, development quickly became apparent. The women were able to redeem lands forfeited to unscrupulous moneylenders and used their money for productive purposes like agriculture, education and personal hygiene.

Mother so happy

“Since the women took over [the household money], children have started going to school, while child labour and child marriages have been abolished,” said Francis. Uterus cancer and similar diseases prevalent among the SHGs also went down.

Francis said that prior to the programme, the women didn’t use sanitary napkins for their monthly period. But napkin-use jumped by 70 to 80 per cent when the IVDP promoted its importance to a healthy menstrual hygiene.

“If you don’t empower the women, the family cannot develop,” he said. “The total impact is amazing. [Women] do miracles,” he said.

As for the award Francis received, no one could be happier than his 94-year-old mother. “She lost everything in the past … [but] when she saw the news, she was so happy she couldn’t eat,” he added.


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