A coalition with women in the informal sector

Working Women's Forum was born out of an activist's commitment that the poor are entitled to their rights, in terms of organised social platform, access to credit, education, health care and all the other basic services. The suffering of the poor especially women in extreme poverty and squalor led to the initiation of WWF in the year 1978, taking responsibility to relieve them from hunger, indebtedness and invisibility. Forum's several initiatives not only strive to address the economic/social problems that confront poor women but soon manifested into an alternate development model. As an initial step it began organising women around their households, markets and communities. Emphasising on a strong field base, the Forum encourages group structures, group forum (1-10 women in a neighbouring group) transcending barriers of (a) caste (b) gender and (c) religion thus, crystallising the social integration process among the poorest of several divergent groups on a social platform towards a common cause. This Forum has been able to achieve a bottom up approach in its organisational efforts through its innovative structure.

Innovatively, the Forum entrusts key responsibilities of the organisation and its administration to poor women, by selecting and training internal cadres from neighbourhood communities (All women board, CEOs, Officers). Besides this, a major chunk of organisational business takes place in the slums, markets, village courtyards and places of worship. Such a strong field base has encouraged the women in WWF to manifest themselves into a mass movement of over 5,91,000 women from 800 since inception.

The Forum's greatest success lies in its innovative approach to integrate the poor at all levels in its institutional framework along with better delivery systems to reach out to a large number of poor. Be it an informal banking system of a Cooperative or the United Nations partnership project framework of Reproductive Health Care or the Trade Union initiative to organise the unorganised. The Forum demonstrated a conscious attempt to integrate the concerns of the poor at all levels.

As a credit network WWF branches off into Indian Co-operative Network for Women (ICNW)(www.icnw.in) promoting social and financial independence of women through micro/small enterprise development for women providing them low interest loans, generating employment and strengthening all forms of economic roles for poor women. Around 440 crores INR has been dispersed with 99.88% repayment rate. The fund in revolving starting from 25 lakhs in 1981. The staff salary is over-head are paid by Indian Cooperative Network for Women. The Working Women's Forum provides its buildings on low rent to Indian Cooperative Network for Women at all its 13 locations in South India. ICNW supports WWF in the running of its girls orphanages in Chennai. Working Women's Forum organizers for Indian Cooperative Network for Women mobilization of members, provides training and counselling for the ICNW members.

In its special projects of Reproductive Health Care for women in partnership with United Nations Population Fund, it has echoed the voices of poor women that such a health care effort is nothing but a reflection of their choices as holistic approach and not imposition of crude methods of family planning, female surgeries etc. The health project selects and trains women cadres from the poorer neighbourhood communities to perform marketable skills in the field of health care to the poor at the grassroots. WWF's health care programme conceptualises the dimension of a human-centred approach, covering a wide spectrum of women from birth to adolescence, reproductive age groups and even beyond reproductive stage among the older age group of women. The health care system of WWF has impacted a population of about 1 million covering 16,00,000 families in 720 slums and 340 villages through 960 health cadres at the grassroots.

Considering women's reproductive role as a social role, WWF's projects focus on human rights issues. Apart from child survival and safe motherhood we fight the complicated issues of heinous practices of female infanticide, child labour and child prostitution. Above all a firm emphasis on the welfare and development of female children, the most neglected resource in most developing countries. The Forum's health care effort is a visible demonstration that the enhancement of quality of life ultimately results in the reduction of fertility rates.

WWF branches into the National Union of Working Women (NUWW) when it lays emphasis on the concept that the poor themselves have a major role in their self development process by taking up conscious leadership roles within their neighbourhoods and communities. A conscious attempt towards a decentralised process gradually leads to a promotional role, moves to the ideal concept of promoting leaders within every neighbourhood. Remaining in the community this network of advocates continuously strives to educate the members of the community in the matters of entitlement of the poor and health consciousness. The problem of unfair trade practices, better occupational safety measures, better wages according to stipulated legislative provisions and legal norms, child labour, child bondage or exploitative working conditions is addressed. The Forum helps women fight and access for their entitlements and rights. Women unite in solidarity on a common platform through NUWW, on various other issues that affects the larger interests of the poor, by organising rallies and demand marches in order to achieve better visibility and better deals for themselves. The micro insurance scheme offering social security to women workers has referred over 2,80,000 policyholders to the insurance company giving them access to the much needed social safety net.

Challenges of the millennium like persistent poverty, environmental degradation and high population growth continue to threaten human survival world over, more significantly in India and other developing countries. It becomes imminent that besides governmental efforts, voluntary initiatives have to step-in to defuse the crisis. The multi pronged initiatives of the Working Women's Forum (India) are future-oriented. In fact in its consolidation phase WWF proposes to establish a training orientation module to benefit the most backward districts of India - Jharkhand (Independent Commission for People's Rights and Development (ICPRD) working in indigenous districts of Santhal Pargana for over 20 years), Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the African and South Asian countries. Currently a large number of training teams from these countries visit WWF on orientation for a short term. Therefore, the future would be devoted to more effective sharing of experiences both within and outside the country reaching the growing network of civil society initiatives. In fact, the training teams from governments of Nepal and Madhya Pradesh have already visited WWF for short term orientation of their functionaries. Surprisingly groups from political parties are also visiting WWF to learn from about the social mobilisation process. Thus, a concept of transferring this 'Pro-Poor Strategy' and ‘Pro-Gender Strategy' will be a continuous process in WWF locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

The current process of liberalisation and economic restructuring demonstrates tangible benefit to the people of India where, 32% poverty line need to be effective. The economic restructuring needs to be brought into an environment of building up growth with equity. The reform policies need alternative alliances which can be sought into the growing network of private and non-governmental institutions both at the national and international level as against the current option of centralised government partnerships. WWF has built up one such coalition in partnership with the poor, expanding their leadership roles in helping them to build up their capacity for self- development and towards generating income, entrepreneurship, asset creation and establishing right type of awareness. Unless such new coalitions are formulated between the actors of various sectors nationally and globally, it will not be possible to achieve a sustainable livelihood for poor women around the globe within a set time frame. WWF believes in moving on a transitional path between market responses and social demands towards a sound Pro-Poor Strategy and Pro-Gender Strategy with an imperative gender focus.