Poverty reduction and strengthening of economic, social and cultural status of poor working women, through micro-credit, training, social mobilisation and other interventions to poor women.

Poverty eradication can justifiably be called the biggest challenge facing countries like India. Here out of about a 294 million working class population, only around 10% are organised and remaining 90% is the unorganised sector. Women form 89% of this unorganised workforce. World over, while development experts are still fumbling to identify workable solutions that can speed up the poverty alleviation process, a few experiments such as the Working Women's Forum (India) (WWF) standout as pioneering and successful ventures. WWF functions in tandem with two other institutions, namely Indian Co-operative Network for Women (ICNW) and National Union of Working Women (NUWW).

Indian Co-operative Network for Women,(please visit the following link for the ICNW's vastly expended activities (www.icnw.in) as an effective wing of WWF enhances the social as well as financial independence of poor women, provides loan at low interest rates encouraging their entrepreneurship. The credit programme of ICNW reached over 6,00,000 poor entrepreneurs effecting nearly Rs. 4132.86 million accomplishing about 99.88% recovery rate in the urban slums and rural areas.

National Union of Working Women, WWF's trade union wing facilitates the poor women in their struggles to fight for labour, land and housing rights of poor working women and their children. Equally union's concern is to fight for other human rights issues like female foeticide, female infanticides, child trafficking and child labour that affect the poor on a daily basis.

Working Women's Forum (India) has for around 41 years been mobilising the poorest and the marginalised working women. Poor women workers face constraints and oppression in their occupation, barriers of caste, class, gender which further marginalise their position both at home and workplace. Caste affiliation restricts their mobility, formulates cultural norms for their social behaviour; class membership limits their access to productive resources and makes them invisible in the economic sphere. The gender roles compel the poor woman to a low-productive occupation near the household, minimising her economic role as only an extension of her domestic chores.

Women workers thus are undermined as workers, defined as housewives and forced to a status of invisibility even living in subsistence and marginal survival conditions. Their vital contribution to the productive process and to the nation's economy remains unnoticed. The nation's planning process is yet to make higher and requisite allocation for the growth and development of the poor working women. It is this segment of the workforce that has been organised by WWF through credit co-operatives. The collective spirit of unionism has brought about a sea change in the lives of the poorest women. Today, lakhs of poor women have been relieved from the clutches of perpetual indebtedness and dependency on moneylenders and other middlemen. Women have been able to save, create assets and improve the quality of living, thus, ensuring growth with equity.

WWF grew out of an activist's commitment to ensure that a diverse republic like India, must create space for bottom-up, participatory development models that could offset the dependency, welfare, charity and patronage approaches to poverty alleviation.

Dr. Jaya Arunachalam and her team of political grassroot activists from the Congress party, frustrated by the limited extent to which grassroots programs 'trickled down' to poor women, moved away from the women's front of the Party, and formed a responsive women's organisation based on self-participation and promotion of natural leadership at the grassroots among the poor 'themselves' (UNDP, 1995). In 1978, they established the Working Women's Forum (WWF) at Madras (now Chennai) based on the results of a participatory needs assessment process that prioritised the specific problems and needs of poor women, with whom they came in contact, through their extensive political network in the Chennai slum communities.

Working Women's Forum, within a decade, emerged as a multi-state union/co-operatives of poor women, characterised by a grassroot orientation, with a feminist approach and based on promotion of leadership among the working class women through a cost-effective large-scale outreach. As a movement of grassroots women, WWF's purpose and objective moved far beyond material assistance - i.e., to raise awareness and promote collective action for social change and sustainable development. This segment of the workforce has finally become visible in the eyes of the policy makers, planners and implementers.