Today in the Jabrouli Village in Lucknow, India, 80 women joined us for a conversation about the progress they’ve seen in their lives, their communities and the challenges they still face. It was our fifth No Ceilings conversation – an event series aimed at hearing directly from women and girls about their experiences – and the second one we’ve held outside of the United States. And it was the first No Ceilings conversation hosted by President Clinton, part of his eight-day, five-country tour of the Clinton Foundation’s work in Southeast Asia.
Lucknow is in Uttar Pradesh – the most populous state in India, with over 200 million inhabitants. The women who joined us in Lucknow are part of something called self-help groups (SHG), which are formed voluntarily in both rural and urban communities, often to pool financial resources that they can leverage for small loans and other economic opportunities. The SHG’s exist throughout India and have been enormously important in expanding women’s power and influence, both locally and within the government.
The financial independence and economic empowerment these women achieve as a result of their participation in SHGs help them gain influence and become leaders in their communities. Many of the groups have moved beyond an economic focus to provide health education, literacy courses, and skills training. And, as we learned today, they provide an incredible social value too: helping women to get out of the house, develop deep and supportive friendships, and gradually build households and communities where women’s lives, opinions, and values matter.
One woman told me how she had lived in poverty for years, but upon joining a SHG, she was able to talk through her challenges and learn ways to better support her family. Another woman who was left destitute when her husband unexpectedly died, shared that her local SHG loaned her money to start a small business, and now she is thriving. Yet another told the story of how she learned through her SHG that she could fight a land dispute in court, and with the group’s help, she won.
Collectively, the women spoke of increased confidence, self-respect, and the feeling of having an identity within their community. They shared how exciting it was to learn new things together, share that knowledge with others, and help more women gain the opportunities they’ve had. And already they’ve seen incredible change in their families and communities as a result of the SHGs. Many said that even older generations of women have shifted their views on women’s roles, and their sons and daughters are now growing up learning that women’s voices and values matter. One woman noted proudly that her son and husband now serve her tea, signaling how the roles of women are changing at home.
These stories, and the stories of other women around the world, are crucial to the work that Secretary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and all of us are trying to do at No Ceilings. We know we can’t build a 21st century agenda for full participation if we don’t have a comprehensive picture of women’s lives. Today’s event reminded me why we are working so hard to build that agenda, and of all the challenges that remain on that path to equality – but it also showed me that, all over the world, there is progress towards full participation happening every day.