A brief report on
The Mahalir Association for Literacy Awareness and Rights


In 1994 when the literacy movement at Kanyakumari district was coming to the close with the end of the Post Literacy Campaign the organisers who spearheaded the campaign thought of sustaining the movement without government funding. The organisers were Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF), a peoples science movement (PSM) which is Popularising Science from 1980, its development wing Centre for Integrated Rural development. (Now renamed Centre for Ecology and Rural Development- CERD) After few brainstorming sessions it was decided to mobilise poor and neo-literate Women into Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and continue the learning and empowering process. After studying different experiences in the country and abroad guidelines were framed, circulated among literacy volunteers and learners and rules were framed. After seeing the response for few months if was decided to form a separate organisation entirely for Women under societies Act. Tamil Nadu Science Forum and CERD decided to be promoters and advisors.

Women were organised into groups of 20. They were informed of the purpose-

  • To have a place to sit and discuss problems of women
  • To save a little by reducing wasteful expenditure.
  • To learn more and more about the world.
  • To avail small credits when in need.
  • To understand the causes of their deprivation and
  • To mobilise themselves into a powerful organisation of women.

They paid an annual membership fee. In a meeting they elect a President and Secretary- The first opportunity to exercise their democratic rights without influence. The organiser ie . the erstwhile Literacy Co-ordinator normally became the Treasurer cum Organiser for five groups - [The old Literacy Circles?]

The group opens a savings bank account at the nearest Bank and starts depositing the savings. Monthly each member should save atleast Rs.20/- Savings can be Rs.5/- a week.


  • Weekly once at a convenient day and time group meets for an hour or more. Sing a song -explain the song. Read the Resource Paper cum Newsletter from the central office or Read a neo-literate broadsheet, discuss local problems and collect the savings. Decision for giving small loans is taken collectively at the 4th weekly meeting of the month.

  • Every second Saturday the treasurer organisers of the block meet at the block level - Discuss problems, debate booklets, newsletter and plan. The best treasurer becomes the Block - Co-ordinator.

  • Every third Saturday the District Executive Committee comprising all Block -Co-ordinators and District office bearers meet at the District office. TNSF EC members attend the meeting as advisors. Problems are discussed and future plans drawn.

  • On every fourth Saturday the treasurers, Block Co-ordinators and advisors meet for a Review cum Training session. All carry their food. EC minutes are reported. A general lecture on Health, Education, Human Rights, Small Business, Politics etc takes place. The Monthly Resource Paper is read, explained and debated. Problems which could not be tackled at Block level are discussed also.

  • Once in 3 months at the Block Level President, Secretary and Treasurer meet for a sharing and training session.

Thus a planned effort takes place for empowering women.

MALAR’s Ten Commandments

  1. Weekly meeting is compulsory
  2. Attendance in weekly meetings must be at least 75%
  3. Minutes must be properly recorded by the Secretary and read in the next meeting.
  4. The monthly Resource paper, Neo-literate broad sheet, and booklets must be subscribed by the group and discussed in the meetings.
  5. The Treasurer should keep the group informed about all details of its current financial situation, and the group members be trained to read (&maintain) the accounts books.
  6. The monthly report of the group’s Accounts, the Reserve Fund of Rs.50 per group and the entire Interest income should be submitted to the district each month. The receipt for the Reserve Fund and Interest remitted to the office and the group’s bank passbook must be submitted to the group’s scrutiny by the Treasurer.
  7. There should be no loan defaulter in the group
  8. Lending and collecting the repayment should be based on collective decision of all members.
  9. Children’s Science Club should be started in the neighbourhood where the MALAR groups are functioning.
  10. Training in enterprise skills should be held in the group periodically.

This ensures that the empowerment process is not diluted and transparency of accounts maintained.

MALAR has become a self reliant organisation following the share of income as detailed below.

A brief overview of sources of income:

Membership fee and annual membership renewal. 30% of the interest income from group loans. 30% of the interest income from District loans. Total interest income from Personal loans.

Other Women’ Organisation of TNSF/ SAMAM.

  • Virudunagar - Thuligal.
  • Ramanadapuram - Magaram
  • Pondicherry - Samam
  • Thanjavur - Samam
  • Pudukottai - Samam
  • Madurai - Arivoli Magalir Iyakkam
  • Sivagangai - Surabi
  • Cuddalore - Mullai
  • Vellore - Muthucharam
  • Nellai - Barani

Notable Achievements

  • In Kollanchi a MALAR treasurer who is also the Ward Councillor mobilised and led the community in destroying all arrack production centres in her village.

  • In Vadivilai the MALAR members staged a protest and retrieved the public path from a company that had usurped it after the men had given up the task as impossible.

  • MALAR women ensured that legal action was taken in a case where the murder of a woman by her husband was dismissed as a natural death.

  • Action taken by MALAR members ensured that an unfaithful husband who abandoned his family was forced to transfer his property to his wife and children.

  • The initiative and active intervention of a MALAR group ensured the peaceful conduct of an inter-caste marriage in the community.

  • On several occasions, over-pricing of essential items sold in the ration shops has been promptly reported by MALAR functionaries to the District Collector’s office.

  • In Kutriparavilai village, MALAR women exposed the sexual assault of a seven year old girl and insisted that an F.I.R be lodged, despite political patronage enjoyed by the culprit.

  • In certain cases where excessive wife-beating by the husband has proved life-threatening, MALAR women have intervened to save the wife and have subsequently taken the husband to task for his behaviour.

  • The initiative of a MALAR group in Thiruvarambu village which had remained untouched by electricity led to the installation of the first Street light.

  • The intervention of MALAR members ensured the withdrawal of an unreasonable suspension of a student by school authorities.

  • 51 MALAR members and coordinators have contested in the Panchayat elections, successfully or otherwise. In most cases, their group members have vigorously campaigned for them.

  • Every year hundreds of MALAR women participate in the March 8, International Women’s day celebrations together with AIDWA and other women’s organisations.

  • The third annual conference of MALAR held at Nagercoil ( the district administrative headquarters )was attended by 1687 women from all over the district who came at their own expense.
The question is often raised - ‘will not women be so absorbed in loan and interest issues, that there will be no energy or enthusiasm left over for other dimensions of women’s movement?’ The above examples testify that it is not so. The process involved in sustaining over 350 groups is so intense that it draws the organisation into all aspects of women’s lives. Necessarily the entire leadership gets involved in many women’s issues - going for beyond the credit issue.

Economic Advancement

  • MALAR has been able to stop the pledging of essential survival items such as ration cards and has also enabled the redemption of personal possessions such as family jewellery which has enhanced the status of the woman in the family.

  • Starting from an initial loan of Rs. 500 there are members who borrow up to Rs.10,000 today with a high repayment rate

  • MALAR has succeeded in driving out usurious money lenders or the ‘chitta’ lenders from certain areas.

  • Over 3 years, there has been a perceptible shift in the borrowing purpose from emergency or social purposes such as a wedding, medical or education expenses to purchase of assets, establishment and expansion of petty enterprises, purchase and maintenance of livestock etc.

  • The State Bank of India has come forward to lend to a tune of Rs. 4 lakhs to MALAR.

  • SIDBI has sanctioned a loan of Rs 20 lakhs to MALAR for a Microenterprise promotion project, through CERD, Pondicherry.

  • 20 MALAR women from 6 adjacent groups are running a Readymade garment unit.

  • MALAR- Nutrition mix is a big success as a micro enterprise. This nutrition mix is made of 17 items powdered and sold as equivalent to HORLICKS at less than half the price.

  • Many micro enterprises have come up in different fields.

Other campaigns for Empowerment of Women

  • At Ramanathapuram and Vellore savings groups are linked with a Health Campaign for monitoring health and nutrition status of pregnant women and children. 15 Health Booklets are discussed in groups

  • Enterprise promotion
    Training and financial assistance are given for individual as well as group enterprises. Success is seen already.

  • Literacy and Culture Movement
    Through Street plays, Slide shows, Video shows, Village festivals, Library movement, Neo-literate broad sheets and through participation in discussions we can build a cultural movement.

  • Children Education
    By organising children’s Science clubs around the women’s groups we can enhance the learning skills of children and incorporate rational thinking in their mind.

  • Panchayat Development
    By making women aware of the panchayat laws and procedures Participatory Development can be improved. PSMs can organise Panchayat Development Committees where our groups are strong.

  • Watershed Development
    Model Projects for watershed development can be implemented easily where the spread of women group is strong.

  • Legal Aid and Counselling Centre
    Women face numerous problems. Legal aid and Counselling Centre with Lawyer, Psychiatrist (if possible) and representatives of Women’s Organisations like AIDWA can help the women to a large extent.

  • Computer Education and Village Information Network
    With Information Technology spreading so fast the women should not be left behind. For this we can organise Computer Education in local languages at cheaper rates with the help of AISECT. CERD is experimenting a Village Information Centre(VIC) which will give access to various information. This can be adopted by women’s organisations.

  • Right to Information
    A campaign for Right to information is the need of the hour for PSMs because development is hampered by lack of information and corruption spreads due to secrecy.

  • Consumer Awareness
    Training on consumer awareness will go a long way in empowering women.

  • Human Rights Awareness
    Women face so much of atrocities. A right kind of awareness on human rights will empower them and help them to get protection and encourage them to fight for their rights

  • Kitchen Garden.
    Through Kitchen Garden we can impart the knowledge of organic farming and enhance the nutrition status of the family.


No movement can be trouble free. The women’s savings movement can have the following problems which we should handle carefully and march ahead.

  • Incompetent and self centred organisers can bring many problems.

  • Organisers who give false promises can spoil the movement.

  • Members who do not attend meetings regularly will not cope up.

  • Private Money lenders in the area will give threat in many ways.

  • Other Voluntary Agencies - especially those with foreign funds will try to curtail our progress.

  • Govt officials who promise the sky to a few will spoil the movement in the long run.

  • Govt initiated Co-operatives with funds and Govt authority can be a threat to democratic movements.

  • Political adversaries will cry foul saying this is political mobilisation.

These can be tackled if the planning and monitoring is properly done.

One has to watch out to see that the comparatively better off do not take over the leadership. Also one has to see that the poorest are not left out.

Empowerment can come only if we plan for it. Resource papers and training play an important role. For example MALAR resource paper has world news. National news, State news etc. There are questions for debate. Essays for discussion. [The September’97 issue had the Essay of Dr. Amartya Sen on India’s Development translated from Front-line]


There is great demand from the poor women for this type of mobilisation. The political and economic climate in the country gives the compelling need for us to take the plunge. Assam has already started group formation after the Dhanbad camp. We are not seeing Micro Credit as a Panacea like the World Bank but we are seeing it as a tool for mobilising women for empowerment and improve the capability of them. We will also act as a catalyst for Social change in this process. COME ON. LET US TAKE THE PLUNGE. THERE IS NOTHING EQUAL TO HARD WORK.

Presented at ALL INDIA PEOPLES SCIENCE CONGRESS at Nalanda on12.11.98 by D. Thomas Franco, State Secretary, Tamil Nadu Science Forum. Email: malar_99@hotmail.com.