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Chetna Sinha

Chetna Sinha, Founder, Mann Deshi.

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5 Reasons Why I Think It’s Important to Build Peer Networks for Women

We’ve supported close to half a million rural women so far and what I’ve learned is that while our business schools provide business development and training, they play a far more important role.

Mann Deshi Bank was set up twenty years ago because poor women had no place to save their hard earned money. We were the first bank for and by rural women. But access to finance is not enough. To become economically empowered women need to control their finances, to grow their finances. And so we set Business Schools and Chambers of Commerce for rural women. We’ve supported close to half a million rural women so far and what I’ve learned is that while our business schools provide business development and training, they play a far more important role. And that is building peer-to-peer networks that really give women the wings and support they need to set up and run their own businesses successfully.

Another example would be that of ASCENT Foundation, a not-for-profit venture that aims to encourage like-minded entrepreneurs based on the “power of collective”. Simply put, entrepreneurs when united can encourage each other to scale newer, greater heights.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the women I’ve worked with about how important these networks are.

  • Because women need to told that it’s okay to dream for themselves and to see examples of this in their peer networks

“We don’t have the luxury to dream for ourselves,” I was once told at a community meeting of women who were about to begin a financial literacy training. I had just been asked them to close their eyes and imagine what they would buy for themselves if they had some money.  “We have to take care of our families, our children, our homes.”

So peer networks serve as a gentle guide in the critical first step is to help women develop the confidence to have dreams for themselves and pursue them. 

  • Because being connected to the larger group gives them strengthen when things are tough

Often once women assume some economic power, they face a backlash within the home. It’s important at this time to have a strong support network. I often ask the women we work with what’s the most important thing they get from Mann Deshi. Maya, who runs a bangle business and is a goat farmer told me recently - “My life has changed a great deal. I've become ‘daring.’ But most importantly I am not alone. There are so many women with me.

  • Because peer networks support their members to build their confidence.

I must share Sugrabi Mulani’s story. Born into an extremely poor family, her emotional strength and presence of mind is impressive. She’s a serial entrepreneur and even ran a mutton shop – traditionally a male occupation – for some time. When I asked her how she had managed to overcome so many obstacles, she proudly said – “My courage is my capital.” And that courage – what our women called ‘daring’ is something that is reserve that needs to be built. And peer networks encourage exactly that.

  • Because nothing is more inspiring than the success stories of your peers – especially when they are in large enough numbers.

Every year, we give special awards for women who have run particularly successful businesses. It’s called the Ideal Businesswoman award. And thousands of men and women attend. After this ceremony, hundreds of women sign up for our programmes. They feel – if she can do it, so can I. In fact, we also run a community radio exactly for this reason. We share stories of ordinary women who overcame incredible obstacles. And when these stories air, we are inundated by women who are keen to also set up their businesses and empower themselves and their families.

  • Because access to a mentor is deeply transformative

Our Chambers of Commerce is run by 40 entrepreneurs who serve as mentors. It’s not just that they inspired women to become successful businesswomen, but our peers are our best teachers.  One enterprising young woman talked about how she had started teaching the women in her self-help group to use the government’s app to directly transfer money. She had, in no time at all, trained hundreds of women in her village. I also spoke to a young lady – who had barely finished her seventh grade – who was now a para-vet. She was an expert in artificial insemination for goats, was using digital technologies to create and track her database, and was successfully challenging all sorts of caste and gender based hierarchies in her village. And these women are mentoring and training others.

And that’s our role at Mann Deshi: to bring women together, to nurture and support them to believe in themselves, to help them be inspired and learn from each other. As I said, when women are empowered, communities are transformed.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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