The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 not only destroyed thousands of lives and homes, it also had a serious effect upon the fishing industry in India’s coastal communities. When the fishermen and their families explained the crisis to Amma, she immediately understood that alternate forms of livelihood were necessary. She felt that at least one member of each family from the fishing community should become proficient in a trade not dependent on the sea.
In order to facilitate this, Amma launched the first community-based self-help group (SHG) program. It was named Amrita Self-Reliance, Education & Employment (AmritaSREE). What began as a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami soon spread throughout Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Today, there are more than 11,000 AmritaSREE SHGs with 200,000 plus people participating. In the Andaman Islands, an additional 1,000 self-help groups have been established.
The goal of AmritaSREE is to assist in empowering women so they can explore and engage in professions other than farming and fishery. This alleviates their families’ dependency on trades often at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. The groups form when 10 to 20 women come together as members, with each one giving a small fee to the SHG’s bank account every month. Through the gathered funds, they work together to start small businesses from which they can earn for their families. They also provide microloans to members for urgent personal needs.
Another focus of AmritaSREE is to help find a proactive solution for widows and their families to deal with the farmer suicide crisis in India. The country’s agriculture has been plagued by falling crop prices, a depleting water table and drought in the last few years. Farmers struggle with debt and crop failure, and this has led to a highly alarming suicide rate. At least 300,000 farmers across the country have killed themselves since 1995.
As a mentor to the SHGs, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math’s overall mission is to see the women become independent. Members are given vocational training and encouraged to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Empowerment through loans is also facilitated to individual members to promote community growth.
As Mr. Ranganathan, Director of AmritaSREE, says, “Empowerment of women in India itself is the change.”