Success Requires the Participation of Women
Chetna Sinha was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
Chetna Sinha founded the Woman’s bank, Mann Deshi Mahila Sahkari, a micro finance institution that makes loans to women in rural areas. To date, the bank has served more than 27,000 women and enabled more than 40,000 families to buy homes.
When you started Mann Deshi bank, what strategies did you use to build its success?
When I first went to Bombay to submit applications for loans to women, the license was denied on the grounds that they were illiterate. I was so shocked and nervous, but the women had so much energy and passion.
They just said, “So what? We will learn to read and write.” Their courage captured me. So we came together for classes to read and write for more than three months.
Then, when I was setting up the bank, one of our many ideas for different products was a small savings box. Without asking any of the women, we ordered 5,000 boxes.
The women told us, “It’s my hard earned money that I save by not buying another biscuit for my child. If I keep it in this, my husband will come and break it, and just take it!”
So I learned many times that I have to involve the women in the process. It was also clear that it’s not just about finance or savings, but about giving women control over their assets.
Would you have done anything differently?
Oh yes, I would have done many things differently. It took us six years to understand that it’s not just about providing finance and services, but that you also have to start a business school for women.
For example, after eight years of banking with us, a woman who had been selling milk from buffalos came to us to request grant money for her own paper cup business. Her business became so successful that she was given an award by the Prime Minister. She became a role model for other women who then started asking us what type of businesses they could also start.
Yes, I feel strongly that what we do is very different. We’re providing regular banking services, but the services our women wanted were very different from what’s usual.
For example, we had to design a savings and loan product that dealt with the fact that many women could not afford to come to the bank. So, with the use of technology, we started providing doorstep banking. And through our business school, we used technology to design a special classroom on wheels. It goes from village to village, so women can get training on many topics including computer skills. I’m very proud that many of them didn’t just go to any job after graduating – they actually started their own business.
A lighthearted question: what advice would you give to your 15 year old self?
(Laughs) – very interesting. I would say: always question the status quo. Mann Deshi started by focusing on girls who are between 13 and 15 years old, but we saw that the institutions like schools were already setting their behavior pattern. We found that they had already become very shy – they would not look in to your eyes – they would get scared – and as a result we found that we cannot be as effective at that age.
So we started a new program called Mann Deshi Champions that targets girls ages 8 and 9. We wanted girls to play basketball, football, and volleyball. So, if I had to give advice to myself at 15, it would be that these are the sports through which you get confidence.
Mann Deshi is the first institution that provided girls bicycles so they could go to school. This gave them the right to have the freedom to get higher education. I believe this is an important life freedom for them. So, I would say, don’t miss any opportunity to pursue your freedom.
Do you have any final parting reflections?
I would like to share the experience of how we started our bicycle project. A young girl came to us who had just ended the 7th grade and was beginning her 8th grade. She said, “I want to work during my summer break for two months.”
Everyone was surprised and asked, “why?”
She said, “because the school in my town ends at 7th grade, and because of the distance, I can’t continue unless I get a bike.”
Since that young girl first came to us, helping us understand the need for bikes. Maneshi has now been able to provide more that 5,200 bicycles to schools. If we listen to girls, I do believe we’ll be able to create the changes this world needs.
An economist, farmer and activist, Chetna Gala Sinha was born in Mumbai. In the 1970s she was active in the Jayprakash Narayan student movement through which she worked intensively with rural and marginalized communities. After her marriage to a farmer and rights activist in the Mahaswad area, in Maharashtra (India), she decided to pursue a career in farming. This was when Chetna experienced, firsthand, the challenges faced by rural women—lack of access to financial services leading to debt. The design and development of the Mann Deshi Mahila bank idea has emerged organically from her personal life trajectories. Chetna was awarded the 2005 Janakidevi Bajaj Puruskar for rural entrepreneurs and was selected for the first class of Yale University’s World Fellows Program in 2002–03.