25 years of Kudumbashree: Pandemic to floods, how a women’s movement stepped in to steer social change – Henry Club

Every week, small groups of women assemble in homes across Kerala, discussing everything from micro-credit schemes to organic farming and food processing. On May 17, Kudumbashree, Kerala’s flagship program for women’s empowerment and poverty eradication, turned 25.

Launched in 1998 by the then CPI(M)-led government in Kerala as a sequel to the People’s Plan Program, an experiment in decentralization of powers to local governments with a focus on local-level planning, Kudumbashree, with a current strength of 45 lakh women in 3 lakh neighborhood groups (NHGs), has flourished irrespective of the government in power – no mean feat for a state whose politics is known to be deeply partisan.

Besides serving as a permanent link between people and local self-government in the state, Kudumbashree has helped hundreds of women step out of their homes and transition into politics and social life.

After the state introduced 33 per cent reservation for women in three-tier local bodies, it was to Kudumbashree members – usually outspoken, confident women with close links to the neighborhood – that political parties turned to for potential candidates. By the time the reservation was hiked to 50 per cent in 2010, Kudumbashree had helped hundreds of women take the electoral plunge.

Most women panchayat members in the state have risen from the Kudumbashree network, having been office-bearers of the Area Development Societies (ADS) or Community Development Societies (CDS) of the program – the two levels of the mission after the NHG that’s the basic unit. It is no surprise then that when elections to Kudumbashree’s ADS and CDS were held across Kerala earlier this year, political parties enthusiastically lobbied to ensure that their nominees got elected as chairpersons.

According to senior CPI(M) leader and state minister of Local Self-Government MV Govindan, “Kudumbashree has played the biggest role in bringing women in Kerala to the forefront. Apart from contributing to economic growth and enterprise, women members of the mission have stepped up whenever needed – be it during the floods of 2018 or the pandemic. Kudumbashree is the biggest social capital in Kerala,” said the minister.

Congress leader and former Rural Development Minister KC Joseph, while agreeing that Kudumbashree has empowered women “in a big way”, said the 25th anniversary of the mission can be an occasion to subject it to an independent review so that the drawbacks can be identified.

Accusing the CPI(M) of converting the Kudumbashree network into its feeder outfit, Joseph said, “Women members are forced to take part in CPI(M) events. Those who do not take part in party events are neglected in the network. The elections to ADS and CDS have been politicized by the CPI(M) and there have been attempts to usurp the control of the mission at the grassroots level,” he said.

Over the years, the Kudumbashree mission underwent small changes to its structure.

Until last year, only one woman per family was made a member of the neighborhood group. That changed last year when the CPI(M) government removed the cap and formed ‘auxiliary units’ under Kudumbashree, encouraging educated homemakers between 18 and 40 to join the neighborhood groups. So far, 19,000 auxiliary groups with 3 lakh members have come up in Kerala.

Said the minister, “In the 25th year of the programme, we want to bring a new generation of women to the front. Hence, we formed auxiliary groups for educated homemakers and will find jobs to match their qualifications,” he said.

Over the years, one of the major initiatives of the mission has been the micro-credit scheme that has freed thousands of families from the clutches of local money lenders. During the pandemic, banks in Kerala provided Rs 1,917 crore as interest-free credit to 25 lakh Kudumbashree members. Kudumbashree NHGs in the state have a deposit of Rs 5,500 crore in Kerala banks.

The mission has also led to women members venturing into organic farming, tourism, agri-business, poultry, food processing and several micro-enterprises. The state mission has an e-commerce platform for marketing of Kudumbashree products.

Earlier this year, Amrutham Nutrimix, a branded nutritional food mix produced and distributed by Kudumbashree for children at anganwadis, had bagged the Glenmark Nutrition Award for 2022 that was organized in partnership with the UN’s World Food Program. As many as 241 units under Kudumbashree produce 18,000 metric tonnes of this nutritional food every year.

As part of Kerala’s ‘hunger-free’ project, since 2020, Kudumbashree members have been running over a thousand ‘janakeya hotels’ or canteens in all local bodies that provide food at Rs 20 a plate.