Kudumbashree is fundamentally a women's organisation. It took birth in the specific developmental and political context of Kerala State. Born in the midst of the massive decetralisation of powers to the local government institutions that the State government implemented, Kudumbashree was conceived as an institutional system working closely with local governments. With its own history and rationale, Kudumbashree differed from the Self Help Group movement seen across the world during the 1980s and 1990s.
Kudumbashree was launched as a poverty eradication programme with a target year. It had its own strategies for bringing families out of poverty. Its activities were focused on poverty eradication, which was considered the basic requirement for advancement of women. Kudumbashree community network evolved over the years into serious development players closely working with local governments. This itself, not doubt, led to empowerment of women members of Kudumbashree. The process brought up several leaders from its ranks who subsequently made it to political and civil society leadership.
As years passed, questions were naturally raised about the extent of empowerment that Kudumbashree has been able to create among its women members.
The issue of transforming the women NHGs into genuine instruments of women empowerment must be addressed. Neither micro credit nor micro enterprise by themselves will necessarily lead to the empowerment of women. Empowerment requires a conscious intervention for which the economic activities play a facilitating role. The challenge is to design and implement a gender awareness programme for women and men that is linked to their daily life experiences.
Isaac et al. 2002:15
One of the leading strands of criticism on Kudumbashree had been by placing it against feminist interventionist programmes as well as against civil society initiatives. Kudumbashree had a development agenda of poverty eradication, and building up and strengthening women’s community organisations was the strategic direction that it took for implementing the agenda.
However, there had been a growing realisation within and outside Kudumbashree that there was a case for addressing certain larger issues, even while advancing its core agenda of poverty eradication.
A study conducted among CDS office bearers had revealed that only 38% of the NHGs were able to take their discussions beyond the routine of thrift and credit. In spite of their attendance in gram sabha meetings, women were often passive listeners; even developmental concerns of women were hardly ever raised in gram sabha meetings.
A question raised by a critic of Kudumbashree sounded relevant here: With all these NHG and participation in politics and development, did any woman ever question the concept of dowry in any NHG? Why is it that an anti-woman practice of dowry continue and even expand, in spite of such wide network of NHGs being in place?
The origins of the criticism of Kudumbashree’s inability to address gender issues and concerns date back to the pre-Kudumbashree phase. Studies that examined the CDS experiment in Alappuzha and Malappuram had noted that gender awareness was poor among the members.
“Even within the State Mission’s perception of their agency, these women are not politicised subjects but consumers who are engaged in self-help through micro-credit and micro-enterprise. No wonder then, that the memorandum (of association) of Kudumbashree lists discrimination by gender and caste not as issues of power, but as ‘social evil’”.
(Gendering Governance or Governing Women? Politics, Patriarchy, and Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala State, Kerala, 2008, Centre of Development Studies)
Not that women’s empowerment was not a concern for Kudumbashree; in fact it had been a prime concern all throughout. Only that the mission viewed empowerment from a different perspective. The idea was to address poverty in its multi-dimensional manifestations. Empowerment, placed in the context, was not possible unless the basic tenets of poverty were addressed.