These images capture three years of qualitative research in rural Bihar, conducted by a team within the World Bank. We are called the Social Observatory and are housed in the World Bank's Research Group. Led by Vijayendra Rao, we are a global network of scholars and practitioners from multiple disciplines, working together to improve the 'adaptive capacity' of poverty alleviation projects in South Asia.
In Bihar, we observed up close and evaluated the workings of a poverty alleviation project called JEEViKA, literally meaning livelihood. The aim of this project is to improve the socio-economic well-being of the poorest of poor women. This is achieved by way of mobilizing them into self-reliant networks of Self-Help Groups or SHGs of 10-12 women.
The SHGs start small - each woman saves 10 rupees a week, takes out small loans from their savings and repays regularly. Over time however these groups become a foundation for a wide range of things like generating incomes, reducing malnutrition, alleviating domestic violence or developing vocational skills.
The aim of our qualitative research or ethnography is to evaluate JEEViKA in its unfolding and in effect, understand the nuts and bolts of how participatory development projects work on the ground. After 2000 interviews, 200 focus group discussions, and 3 years of participatory observation of village life in 10 Panchayats, we have begun to unpack the various meanings, pathways and mechanisms of empowerment.
The backdrop is one of India's poorest states - Bihar. Caste and gender hierarchies have been oppressive in Bihar, and until very recently, economic and political power was exclusively in the hands of upper caste men. However, Bihar has also had a longstanding history of social and political movements that have constantly challenged upper caste hegemony. This ongoing movement culminated in what is referred to as the 'silent revolution', an upsurge of identity politics that succeeded in giving dignity and political power to lower caste groups.
However, these political movements have had limited success at equalizing gender - an area in which Bihar has seen more silence than revolution.
JEEViKA, since its inception in 2006 has brought over 1.6 million households into its fold. These include some of the most marginalized women of Bihar, who are engaging with the project in multiple capacities - some as entrepreneurs via JEEViKA loans, some as local leaders in their village, some as bank staff, and some as insurance agents.
In order to unpack the multiple pathways of women's empowerment through the project. We started by tracking five villages where the project was introduced (treatment), and five where it was not (control) and intensively tracked three kinds of empowerment - social, political and economic. We collected data twelve times over three years, each time conducting 20-25 interviews per village. As the data collection proceeded we uncovered several other unintended and otherwise invisible impacts as well.
For instance, one of the aspects of the project we were interested in unpacking was - how does community level facilitation work? How do trainers and facilitators do their work in the front lines of the project? When the project goes from pilot mode to expansion, what kind of impact does it have on their work? In a project with so many discretionary components, strong facilitation on the ground and through the project's life cycle is key, but perhaps least well understood.
Another objective of the project was to cut out women's informal debt. As the project unfolds and women begin to take loans from JEEViKA, we begin to see impacts not only on informal debt reduction, but also in the social experience of incurring and paying debts.What does it mean to be 'indebted' we ask. What does it mean to borrow money from a neighbor or friend or employer or moneylender? Does a shift to JEEViKA fundamentally transform the social meaning and experience of debt? We interviewed men and women from borrower and non-borrower households, as well as with moneylenders and local "loan-sharks" to get a holistic view of how JEEViKA impacts informal moneylending practices and debt relations.
Another question we were interested in is whether this project has had any spillover effects on the next generation. Very often in the absence of the bookkeeper or leaders of the group, young boys and girls fill in and are frequently involved in the day-to-day functioning of the group. Also as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers transition from being confined to the domestic sphere to actively participating in the public sphere in a very short time, they react to these changes in different ways. We asked young adults how they interpreted this change and whether it had an aspirational effect on them.
We were also interested in learning more about women's participation in the public sphere. As the project proceeded we found many women engaged in debates and action in the public sphere and articulating a new discourse of political change - an unintended consequence of the project. Some make noise at Panchayat meetings, some campaigned for candidates who they felt represented women's interests and some fought elections themselves. We asked how this transition from private to public spheres manifests itself and what it means to women themselves.
In this past decade, JEEViKA has fundamentally transformed the landscape in rural Bihar. All the changes, we argue, signifies an 'unmaking of gender', an accelerated unraveling of the norms and discourses around what it means to be a woman - both within and beyond the space of the project.
Related to the paper: "Recasting culture to undo gender: A sociological analysis of Jeevika in rural Bihar, India" by Paromita Sanyal, Vijayendra Rao and Shruti Majumdar.