The smell of incense burns our noses as we enter the Self-Help Group site. In the open room, light streams down on the two women sitting on the floor bundling incense and on the woman at the metal machine churning out thin brown stick after thin brown stick. We’re met by a woman by the name of Jangyeoseni who tells us about the incense-making process and how women from many surrounding villages come to this place both in their leisure time to help out, or to garner materials to continue the craft at their homes.
The purpose of these SHG’s is not only to provide another avenue to gain income for these women, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to empower women. We learn later that Jangyeoseni is the woman who founded this model of Self-Help Groups. After being married for one month, her husband, without telling her, sold all of her belongings. Since then, she vowed to become economically independent from him so that she could garner autonomy in her own household, and now advocates for other women to become self-sufficient in the name of empowerment.
These groups are composed of 10 women from the same community who meet twice a month. They are supported and given confidence boosts by talking to each other. Along with having a supportive social outlet, these women are loaned the materials and machinery necessary to create several products that they themselves will sell at locally at festivals and in general shops. Though their families initially disapproved of this surplus activity, since it was considered an added burden to the other housework they had to do, soon enough their earnings were seen as a benefit, and their families accepted the program. Most of this extra money, Jangyeoseni says, goes to enabling their children to reach higher education in better schools. She says that it has led to less quarrels and decreased rates of domestic violence in the surrounding communities in Dhenkanal.
We are, simply put, in awe of this respected woman who took the initiative to not only change her own life, but to change the lives of so many other women in her community. As she and other members of the SHG dress us in traditional Odian attire, draping bell-adorned anklets and flowers into our hair, we are so honored to immerse ourselves in Odian culture, and stand and dance side by side with the strong, intelligent women of Dhenkanal.