Working Women's Forum
The Working Women's Forum, Madras, India

The Working Women's Forum (WWF) was created in Madras, a city of 2.3 million in south India in response to a need to organize women living in slums and working as small-scale traders and vendors.

More than 13,000 women have been brought together within WWF around the issue of credit. Other support services such as child care, education, health and family planning have also been included.

The idea started in mid-70s with a small group of 30 women petty traders organizing themselves as a group with the help of Jaya Arunachalam, a political/social worker in Madras. They met a bank manager and received a loan of Rs.300 (US$33) each. The group elected a group leader and every day, she collected money from the members to repay the bank. The idea worked: repayment was 95%. By April 1978, 800 women had been organized into 40 groups and had received loans. The Working Womens Forum was born.

To keep a broad socio-economic and political perspective, the WWF was set up with the following objectives:

  • To create an association of women employed in the unorganized or informal sector;
  • To identify and address the critical needs of working needs of working women;
  • To mobilize working women for joint economic and social action by exerting froup pressure to demand their social and political rights;
  • To improve the enterpreneurial skills of working women through training, material inputs, credit and extension services; and
  • To organize support for social services necessary for working women and their families (eg. child care, education, health, family planning) etc.
Certain strong ideological positions were adopted by WWF:
  • Pro Women: Exclusive mobilization of women who provide the backbone of family income and welfare
  • Anti-caste and pro-secularism: Support of cross-caste and cross-religious groupings of women, inter-caste weddings and religious tolerance.
  • Anti-politics: Strict avoidance of involvement in party politics yet mobilization of women around issues affecting women and the poor.
  • Anti-dowry: Oraganization of mass demonstrations against dowry, rape and divorce.

Some of the businesses of WWF members, as recordedon loan applications:
Vegetable vending             Lungi trader                Rice Trader
Sari/cut cloth trader         Waste paper shop owner      Meat shop owner
Fruit seller                  Beedi roller                Junk shop owner
Junksmith                     Biscuit maker               Scrap iron shop owner
Greens seller                 Carpenter                   Bead stringer
Ready-made garment seller     Sari block printer          Wood box maker
Fish vendor                   Goldsmith                   Bangles seller
Firewood seller               Stationary shop owner       Mat weaver
Aluminium Utensil sales       Brush maker                 Chili powder seller
Incense maker                 Groceries seller            Leaves stitcher
Silk trader                   "Idly" (snack food) shop    Gold thread grland maker
Pandal (ornament) maker       Flower seller               Sweet stall owner
Plastic flower maker          Wire bag maker              Egg seller
Tea stall owner               Tailoress                   Wood utensil maker
Pottery stall owner           Cart loader                 Toy maker
Hay seller                    Peanut vendor               Gunny bag seller
Snack shop owner              Sweet shop owner            Foot wear shop owner
Toothpowder maker             Mobile ironer               Coffee powder seller
Lime seller                   Snack food maker            Cardboard maker
Salt vendor                   Cycle shop owner

The main reason women join WWF is to gain access to credit. The amounts obtained are generally larger than those they would have got from money lenders, and also at a reasonabke interest rate. Most of the women have their own, independent sources of income. The executive and administrative staff of WWF are all from the members: poor, often illeterate women from slum neighbourhoods. they learn on-the-job, through experience. There is at least one local organizer for 1000 people, keeping the Forum's direction always at the grassroots.

Loopsided thinking of banks and their formal impersonal atmospheres prevented the women from getting loans. So the members set up "neighbourhood loan groups", made up of 10-20 members. They come from the same neighbourhood and elect a group leader. This group is registered with the forum. A member then files a loan application and pays a membership fee of Rs.12 ($1.33). The membership requiremetns are simple: a member should attend all group meetings regularly, repay loans consistently and act as a mutual garantor for loans of all group members. All members apply for loans at one time. The following steps are involved:

1.Review of credit worthiness

  • The group leader assesses the need, capacity and productivity of individual members before recommending them to the WWF organizer for loans.
  • Group members review each others' ability to earn before offering their mutual guarantee or security.
2.Loan application
  • The group leader refers the mmber-applications to the area organizers
  • The group leader, member-applicants, and WWF area organizer go to the forum's office to file the application
  • The member-applicants fill out a loan application (a simple, one-page form) at the forum's office with the assistance of the group leader, area organizer, general secretary and loan officer.
  • The general secretary and loan officer sort the applications and submit them to the representative local bank branches (currently Bank of India).
  • The general secretary and loan officer inform the area organizer as to which local branch has receivd individual applications.
3.Loan disbursement
  • The area organizers contact the respective local branch to determine on which date individual loans will be disbursed.
  • The area organizer takes the members to the bank on the stipulated date.
  • The members fill out two forms at the bank under the supervision of a bank official, who in turn fills out additional forms.
4.Loan repayment
  • Loans are taken at 4% interest rate.
  • Loans are taken on a ten-month repayment schedule.
  • The group leader is responsible for collecting and depositing the monthly repayments. She collects on a daily or weekly basis, depending on the preferences of individual members.
  • The group leader must deposit the repayments before a stipulated date each month.
  • The area organizer is called in to help collect repayments only in case of default.
As an intermediary between working women and the banks, the forum has been able to develop a flexible repayment system that takes into account the realities of the poor women's lives. The system wirks on peer pressure, from the members to each other, from the leader to the members, from the Forum to the leaders and members and from the banks to the Forum and leaders. Thus the combination of group membership, group activities, peer pressure etc. ensure that loans are repaid promptly.

Lessons Learned

  1. Very small loans (as low as $10) can be made to large numbers of women borrowers by commercial banks at a repayment rate of over 90%. To do so does not necessarily require high levels of verhead, supervision or technical assistance.
  2. A loan programme can be built and expanded quickly if built around small groups of women (10-25) who share neighbourhood, occupational or other ties. When a loan programme is linked to formal financial institutions, loan procedures need to be worked so that the review pf credit worthiness is undertaken y peers and the women's micro-enterprises can serve as collateral. Repayment also should eb structured around peer pressure.
  3. It is preferable to begin a programme by supporting women's existing economic enterprises rather than attempting to train them and create new jobs. Technical assistance, skills training and enterprise development can be addd later.
  4. A project to help poor women should begin with activities that produce quick tangible results. It is best to address their most mmediate and concrete problems first. Additional activities then can be sequenced, moving from basic economic needs to more complex social and political constraints. Only those issues most often discussed and most adequately analyzed by the women themselves should be addressed.
  5. Programme planning should not follow any definate blueprint. Requirements for staffing and financing should develop out of an evolving programme.
  6. A program for women is more likely to succeed if it adopts at least two elements: (a) a strong pro-women ideology to instill a spirit of solidarity and self-confidence in the women and (b) a committment to grassroots leadership as a means of strengthening and nourishing the dormant power of poor women.
  7. It is preferable to make use of existing governemtn programmes whenever possibl. Whether they exist in actual fact or only in paper, they can be activated to serve the needs fo the poor women. The forum proved this by implementing the "small borrowers" scheme and thus institutionalizing its benefits for a broader audience. In principle, existing programmes should not be duplicated. However, there are times when it may be necessary to create parallel delivery systems to guarantee that established programmes reach poor women.
  8. An organization wanting to reach and benefit large numbers of poor women need not have a lot of money., educated staff or technical expertise. The success of the forum is due primarily to four factors: (a) selection of one critical issue - credit; (b) utilization od local leadership; (c) organization of women around existing neighbourhood ties, and (d) decentralized, participatory management. With this structure, the WWF has not had problems in communicating messagesor receiving feedback from its members.

    Organizational Chart

    General members - General Council. The general members, either full or associate, constitute the general Council of the Forum. They meet regularly (at least once a month) in their neighbourhoods as individual groups; periodically in their locality with members of other groups; and annually in large public meetings or other functions. At individual and local meetings, the group leaders and area organizers try to instill the discipline and spread the ideology of the Forum. At the same time, the general members are able to voice the problems and issues they face and would like to have addresses.

    Group Leaders - Governing Body. The group leaders (currently 329) constitute the Governing Board of the Forum. They attend monthly coordination meetings at the Forum's office in which problems of individual groups and members are discussed and processed. They are expected to convey the gist of the discussion and the content of any decisions back to the general members. They also perform several key functions of the Forum: scrutiny of the loan applications of individual members and monthly collection and deposit of individual repayments. The group leaders work on a voluntary basis but are entitled to larger loans than general members.