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
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:
Certain strong ideological positions were adopted by WWF:
- To create an association of women employed in the unorganized or informal
- 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.
- 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
of women around issues affecting women and the poor.
- Anti-dowry: Oraganization of mass demonstrations against dowry, rape and
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
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.
- 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
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
branch has receivd individual applications.
- 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
who in turn fills out additional forms.
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.
- 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
- The area organizer is called in to help collect repayments only in case of
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Programme planning should not follow any definate blueprint. Requirements for
staffing and financing should develop out of an evolving programme.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.