Chetna Gala Sinha, the founder of MVSS and an economist by background, moved to Mhaswad district when she married her husband, Vijay (an activist himself), who was a farmer from Mhaswad. Here she was struck by the situation of women since the area saw a lot of migration of men (due to drought and lack of jobs) while the women were left to look after themselves and their children.
Chetna set-up the NGO MVSS and initially started Self Help Groups (SHG) and microcredit activity for the women. She learnt that the women''''''''s major concern was the lack of income-generating assets. In the agrarian and entirely rain-dependent economy of the district, most men and women worked as daily wage laborers in agricultural fields. During drought, when no farming takes place the workers were left with no employment avenues. Therefore SHG participants were encouraged to collect Rs 5 or Rs 10 on a weekly basis per person and the amount was then lent to a member woman to buy an asset (usually cattle). This asset helped the women earn a steady income and save up some money for emergencies.
The SHG movement spawned several small entrepreneurs including street vendors, weavers, sheep/goat rearers and dairy product sellers. There also was an explosion in the number of SHGs (more than 300 with close to 10,000 members ) that spread out. The self-help group experience gave the women confidence. If they could run a microcredit program efficiently, they thought, why couldn’t they start a bank?
Chetna, along with SHG leaders, approached the Reserve Bank of India for a license to start a women''''''''s bank. The RBI rejected the proposal outright because many of the women were illiterate. This rejection was a setback, and the women immediately called a meeting and all those who could not read or write, attended regular classes. After one month they met with the RBI deputy governor and convinced him with their determination and their demonstration of rapid calculation of interests on loans. Thus, they obtained a banking license in February 1997.
On August 9, 1997, Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, India’s first rural women’s bank, opened for business. The institution’s main objective was to empower women, but it also had to compete as a bank. The initial capital was raised by individual contributions from the women and they raised Rs. 600,000!
Prior to Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, women in this area had no financial options other than taking emergency loans from money lenders at exorbitant rates of interest. Now women take loans from the bank to start new businesses and to develop productive assets. If women control the finances, the entire family benefits as more money is spent on children, education, and household necessities: this has been the primary learning in the history of the NGO and the sister concern, MDMB.
The bank and MVSS work in partnership to stimulate the achievement of social goals through projects in the areas of economic well-being, education and health. The organizations work hand-in-hand with the villagers and products and training are given based on research and requests from their clients. The belief is that change should not be imposed but brought about from within the masses.
Listed below are some specific achievements:
1. In 2004, MVSS and its partner, the Mann Deshi Mahila bank convinced the Revenue Department of Maharashtra to include the woman''''''''s name on stamp papers for joint registration of immovable property. MVSS and the Bank have helped these women obtain stamped papers in their name, guaranteeing them property shares.
2. Instituted a project that enrolls young women in vocational training, including classes in marketing, accounting, and procurement. It also offers a combination of grants and loans for students in need of financial aid.
3. The Freedom Ride Program: In rural areas, the cost of transportation from village homes to schools can be significant. As a result, many children – in particular, young girls – drop out of school. Freedom Ride is an innovative program that seeks to keep girls in school by giving them bicycles. Freedom Ride provides girls with bicycles as a no-interest loan (MVSS and MDMB partners).