May 31, 2024

Society for Public Education Cultural Training and Rural Action (SPECTRA): Increasing Awareness of Rights and Social Welfare Systems

SPECTRA improves the quality of life for rural women and girls in India through self-help groups, federations, livelihoods and rights training, and education. It uses these levers to help marginalised groups come together to build social, economic, and political power.
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“I am uneducated, and my husband is a manual labourer. I am educating both my daughters. Educating a woman means educating families and society. The government has also launched many schemes to facilitate women’s education.”
Women’s Self-Help Group Member, Ratakhurd Village

Ten years ago, female infanticides, dowries (a practice wherein a bride’s family pays the groom’s family in cash or gifts), and gender-based violence were occurring in many households in Ratakhurd, a rural village in Alwar, Rajasthan, India. Women there were largely unaware of their constitutional rights, and they suffered in silence under the belief that this was what life as a woman entailed.

Today, with the help of the Society for Public Education Cultural Training and Rural Action (SPECTRA), the women of Ratakhurd have increased awareness of their rights and of the social welfare systems designed to benefit them. They participate in improving their quality of life and hope to build upon their accomplishments for the next generation.

SPECTRA’s role in community-driven change

The nonprofit SPECTRA was established in 1996-1997 to improve the quality of life for rural women and girls through self-help groups, federations, livelihoods and rights training, and education. SPECTRA uses these levers to help marginalised groups come together to build social, economic, and political power. Its success in empowering communities to take charge of their own change is evident in its work across three Indian states: Rajasthan, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh.

Small community store shelves

SPECTRA works with communities to help women understand their rights and establish sustainable livelihoods, such as running 
small businesses.

In Alwar, Rajasthan, SPECTRA started an Integrated Livelihood Development Program that was inspired by BRAC’s “graduation approach” in communities experiencing severe poverty. SPECTRA’s approach involved establishing various community-led committees at the level of the gram panchayat (governing village council) in Alwar villages. Each committee, largely composed of women, oversees work done in the community across areas such as health, watershed management, and education. While this case study focuses primarily on the SPECTRA programme in Alwar, which aims to build the community’s power and assets, SPECTRA has also started working through government systems to facilitate improved implementation of the State Rural Livelihoods Mission at scale in the states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

Why SPECTRA adopted a community-driven change approach

Early on, SPECTRA recognised the need to provide a structured approach to help the women of Ratakhurd come together and act as their own agents of change, rather than solely as recipients of support. The first step was to facilitate the formation of women’s self-help groups dedicated to financial independence. Through these groups, SPECTRA facilitated training in agriculture, dairy animals, and goat-rearing to ensure sustainable livelihoods. With SPECTRA’s help, women in Ratakhurd also formed two farmer-producer organisations.

The women leveraged their training to build lucrative businesses that bolstered their confidence, gave them financial independence, and showed other women how they, too, could gain dignity and access new opportunities in a patriarchal society.

When the enterprises launched by the women’s self-help groups established bank accounts, they were able to extend loans to other women in need. This encouraged more women to get involved. “We started a self-help group of 10 to 15 women,” says a group member. “Each woman contributed a small amount towards savings which others could leverage as personal loans instead of relying on moneylenders. This encouraged more women to start their own groups.”

Facilitating a shared vision and collective ownership

The self-help groups support women to develop business ideas and solutions, using local resources to reduce their dependence on external agencies. One example is the decision to replace chemical insecticides and fertilisers with organic insecticides and manure, reducing costs and increasing the quality of produce. “Our concept is using locally available resources,” says a SPECTRA staff member. “In farming, urea and fertilisers are expensive. Instead, we encourage the use of local and organic solutions. We help [women] identify solutions, such as amritjal [an organic insecticide], intercropping, and vermicomposting, which are time- and cost-efficient.”

Similarly, the Ratakhurd community chose to grow organic fodder to improve the fat content of cow’s milk and increase its market value. To market their products, the women-led farmer-producer organisations supply agricultural produce to nearby cities. The organisation has also invested in a milk grading machine to assess fat content and ensure every farmer gets a fair price.

The village-level committees SPECTRA helps to establish provide platforms for community members to discuss matters pertaining to the functioning of the self-help groups.

Strengthening the community’s leadership and asset base

With SPECTRA’s support, women’s self-help groups conduct visioning exercises and develop problem-solving skills to understand the causes of injustice in their community. This enables them to take targeted action for social change.

In one case, women realised that the burden of dowry can lead to female infanticide. To address this, they educated parents about opportunities and government schemes that support girls’ schooling while discouraging the practice of dowry. “The burden of dowry makes parents wish they didn’t have a girl child, and makes girls wish they weren’t born. We encourage parents to enrol their girls in college to reduce the practice of dowry,” says a SPECTRA staff member.

The women also identified alcohol abuse as a cause of gender-based violence and came together to raise the issue with local government. Through collective action, they shut down an alcohol distillery that was a large contributor to alcohol consumption, resulting in a decrease in violence against women.

Focusing on equity

SPECTRA’s efforts aim to motivate women to drive change beyond their own incomes. Efforts to help women gain confidence can further inspire them to broaden their aspirations and promote other initiatives, including education, health care, and rights for women and girls. With their increased awareness of rights and government schemes, the women can advocate against injustices in their community.

“Before SPECTRA, women feared going to the panchayats,” says a former sarpanch (leader of the gram panchayat). “The [SPECTRA] staff accompanied women and encouraged them to talk about their issues. That is a massive change for women who previously feared speaking in front of men.”

Outcomes in communities

When SPECTRA’s work began, the issues women faced often felt insurmountable. Today, the self-help groups have vastly improved the lives of girls and women in more than 2,000 villages in Alwar, Rajasthan. In these villages, the average household income from different sources has increased by 90 percent over a period of three years.

The self-help groups have leveraged nine times the capital invested in them by SPECTRA in the form of credit from private banks to support their growing economic activity.

The self-help groups have also made a difference in the overall well-being of the community by disseminating information related to health and nutrition. For instance, they distribute sanitary napkins and promote cleanliness to avoid disease. They have improved the quality of education by ensuring that teachers come to school.

Additionally, the self-help groups have unlocked public funding for construction of key infrastructure including roads, a school for girls, a veterinary hospital, and rainwater harvesting structures that support agricultural activity.

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