Cynthia Stephen bought a plot of land and started building her own house in Bengaluru in 1987. She was 27 then. Stephen, a Dalit, is the daughter of a school teacher from Bellary, Karnataka. She pooled her savings with her mother’s—a few thousand rupees—to build the 500-square-foot house located in Lingarajapuram. Using that property as collateral, Stephen later bought a house a few floors above, where today, we are sipping on sweet gooseberry juice she’s picked up at a women’s collective fair. Stephen’s many dogs and cats drop in occasionally to check on us. “I’m a good example of the role that economic development has in empowering women,” Stephen says. “Ownership of property is a huge asset. I want that for every woman, especially those who don’t have the access but have the greatest need.”
Today, Stephen is one of the country’s clearest voices in Dalit and women empowerment with three decades of research and advocacy work behind her. She’s worked in one of the country’s earliest microfinance agencies—The Bridge Foundation—as a researcher, and a policy advocate for Dalit women. About five years ago, she began setting up a bank for marginalised Dalit women in Karnataka. In 2016, demonetisation brought her efforts to a screeching halt, but now, Stephen is picking up the reins again. At her home in Bengaluru, she talks to VICE about the need for micro-financing among oppressed communities and a non-traditional approach to break the traditional moulds of financing in India:
VICE: How did your work in gender and Dalit issues lead towards the idea of starting a bank?
Cynthia Stephen: It’s been a big dream to have a programme for women’s empowerment where it can be demonstrated that women in governance and economic activities can make a huge difference to an area. In The Bridge Foundation, we’d loan out ₹3,000 and ₹5,000 to vegetable vendors. I learnt that microfinance is not a panacea but an important causative factor.
When I was the programme director of Mahila Samakhya Karnataka, a rural women’s empowerment organisation, I saw how women’s sanghas (groups) operated. Savings was just one component, but the women were also involved in collective decision-making, mobilising governance, and political participation. Each sangha had a fund—the old ones had lakhs of rupees and the newer ones had around ₹25,000. I began exploring the possibility of sanghas being agglomerated at a state level, but my contract ended and I had to move on. I was sorry to miss that opportunity to set up a bank of women run by their own money. Because women have such skill in mobilising and utilising resources, there’s no need to look anywhere else. That’s when I started thinking of doing something similar.
What did you envision building?
I wanted to build a cooperative bank for economic and personal development. Its mission was to demonstrate how the leadership and enterprise of marginalised women can transform a collective space. Apart from empowering the women with money, I wanted to teach them how to upgrade their own skills, how to utilise mobile phones, and teach them how to come out of assigned roles in gender. I wanted them to become active at community levels. One major criticism that cooperatives receive is the indebtedness of women. Women become personally liable, and when funds don’t come through, it leads to public humiliation, heavy debt, migration, and even suicide. This is because of this lopsided idea of giving only economic development without personal development. I wanted to work on both together.
Can you talk about the need and ways to empower marginalised women?
Rural Dalit and minority Muslim women are generally outside the purview of government schemes, though the schemes are made for them. One of the biggest constraints for marginalised women is the expectation that certain things are their responsibility. This comes from society, family, or from within themselves. The other is how structurally they are excluded from resources. I grew up in a backward area of Bellary, in a mining area. There, one square meal is made by women who physically grind grain to make rotis with water, and firewood that they have to fetch themselves. That’s basic labour needed for survival. They have no asset, livestock or housing. So how do you get any credit if you have nothing to show for it? With no assets, you become vulnerable to exploitation. That is why, it is so important for marginalised women to have access to credit so that they can regain control of their time and energy. We want to see asset-less women becoming owners of assets and becoming assertive.
What is the structure of your cooperative, and why was it tabled for this long?
I want to call this cooperative bank ‘Sindhu’. The name has a civilisational identity, and it is a river. Also, Sindhu means ‘ocean’. Many drops of water make up the ocean, and we see shared savings in the same way. About two years ago, we went far with this project. Karnataka has a certain legislation that needs the board members to be a diverse representation of women from different classes, castes, and professions. I put together a retired banker, a software engineer, an HR professional, a housewife, myself, and others. We got organised, drafted bylaws. It was to be one of the only women-run organisations, so the cooperative department was also excited for us to file.
But then, demonetisation was announced. In villages, people deal with small cash. During demonetisation, the cooperative banks stopped collecting funds after a week. The public began to look at co-ops suspiciously. Once you file for your cooperative, you get a fixed time within which you have to collect a minimum capital of say, ₹10 lakh and a minimum of ₹1,000 people to sign up. Where was the money? As the policy climate was not helpful to ‘Sindhu’ at the time, we decided not to file.
Now the demonetisation scare is fading, and money is back to rotating in the system, so I’m bringing the project back. By December, I’m putting together a new board and we will roll out by the middle of next year in the neighbouring districts of Bengaluru. It’s a priority now.
How would ‘Sindhu’ function to relieve some criticism that other cooperatives face?
After working in microfinancing for 10 years, I’ve learnt to base the terms of the loan on the need. Let’s say, our customer is a lady who runs a provisional store and makes sales of ₹10,000 per day. But in the residential areas, people often pay once a month, and towards the end of the month, our lady’s working capital starts diminishing. We grant her a working capital loan and inject just enough cash to keep her liquid. Also, two major drains in houses are education and health. For both these reasons, women borrow money again, and then the problems get compounded. We want to teach financial literacy and management. We’ll also provide health and loan insurance. I have a bigger dream within this as well. I want to ask the government to allot housing schemes to women. I want entire areas where women will have their own houses. This won’t work serendipitously. We want women to think and dream, and tell us how we can help them.
Follow Amruta Lakhe on Twitter .