Achieving economic empowerment for women, a key objective within the fifth Sustainable Development Goal focusing on gender equality hinges on promoting financial inclusion. In India, 1 out of every 5 women still lacks access to a bank account. While national initiatives have successfully elevated the proportion of women with bank accounts, substantial disparities persist in terms of account utilization, as well as access to savings and credit facilities. Various barriers impede women’s access to financial services, including lack of proof of identity or a mobile phone, lack of proximity to a bank branch, and requirement for assistance to initiate and efficiently manage a bank account. Despite progress, challenges persist, emphasizing the ongoing need for targeted efforts to bridge these gaps and ensure comprehensive financial inclusion for women in India.
In her deeply patriarchal village, Madhulika took the pioneering step of founding women’s self-help groups. These groups took on vital issues that had long been ignored, including education, vasectomy, sanitation, drug awareness, and water conservation.
In 2001, Madhulika and her dedicated group members embarked on a bold venture by establishing the ‘Maa Bamleshwari Bank.’ This bank, entirely managed by women, provided financial independence and a lifeline for local projects through microfinance. The bank’s outreach extended to assist 2 lakh+ women organized into small self-help groups, each empowered to make lending decisions. In 2008, she also formed an NGO ‘Maa Bamleshwari Janhit Karya Samiti’ under the presidency of Padma Shri Phoolbasan Bai Yadav to empower economically and socially backward women of Chhattisgarh.
Born into a lower-caste, illiterate family in Chhattisgarh, Madhulika confronted strong discrimination throughout her early years. Growing up in a deeply divided community, she experienced the stark caste-based divide, a divide that barred her from playing with other children. In the face of these adversities, her unwavering spirit coupled with strong support from her father became the catalyst for her resolute to seek education and personal growth.
Madhulika’s profound admiration for Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s principles served as the guiding force for her academic journey. Her journey took an extraordinary turn as she embarked on a mission to uplift and empower others.
The impact of Maa Bamleshwari Bank, founded by Ramteke and her groupmates in 2001, has been transformative for the communities it serves. Comprising small self-help groups involving over 2 lakh women, the bank operates as a decentralized entity, with each self-help group acting as a branch making independent lending decisions. Within a year of its inception, the bank raised INR 1.20 crore and disbursed INR 70 lakh in loans, providing vital financial support for various community needs including pregnancy, vaccination, and medical care to facilitating purchases as diverse as second-hand cycles and agricultural inputs. Notably, loan sizes vary from INR 200 to INR 10,000, catering to the specific financial requirements of individuals. The expansive growth of the bank, with ~14,000 branches/groups benefiting over 2 lakh women reflects its success and scalability, and its complete management and control by women underscore the empowerment of female leadership.
Madhulika and her self-help group established three societies in 2016. One society focused on cow milk farming for sale, another cultivated ayurvedic herbs, and the third specialized in Sitafal (sugar apple) cultivation for ice cream production. In 2015, she initiated the growth of yam, starting with 1.2 million plants, a number that has now surged to over 3.5 million plants.
To promote the rural economy, under the NABARD’s (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) scheme, Madhulika and 10 other women founded a company with a contribution of INR 10,000 each, naming it Bamleshwari Mahila Producer Company Ltd. It manufactures vermicompost and vermiwash, two biological organic manures that enhance soil fertility and increase crop yields.
Madhulika has also been instrumental in raising awareness about health and cleanliness in the local community, leading to the construction of toilets in ~65 villages in 2018 and encouraging active participation in Swachhata Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) and Jal Suraj Abhiyan (Water Conservation Mission). Through ‘Maa Bamleshwari Janhit Karya Samiti’, she also played a pivotal role in executing several initiatives for social reforming including campaigns against child marriages, campaigns against alcoholism (shut down over 250 alcohol shops in Chhattisgarh), and starting village councils for women in rural areas. Their efforts are also recognized by the Government of Rajasthan by recognizing them as brand ambassadors for fighting against female foeticide. The impact of Madhulika’s extraordinary work has been honoured with the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2021, a commendation bestowed by the Hon. President of India, Mr Ramnath Kovind.
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