Valsala Kumari defended her dissertation in 2011. After completion, she continued working as Secretary to the Government of Kerala, India, in the Labor and Employment Department. She served as the Director of the Social Welfare Department in charge of Women and Children in Kerala state for 3 years and was subsequently appointed as Secretary of the Statutory Women's Commission of Kerala for 2 years. In 1999 she was the recipient of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship awarded by the US Government for mid-career professionals with proven track record of leadership. Under the auspices of the Humphrey Fellowship, she completed a Masters in Planning and Urban Development at the Bloustein School of Rutgers University. She also completed an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers.
This dissertation is about how women are empowered when they gain access to small loans (microcredit) and how that alters or reinforces existing gender relations. My study shows that “the poor” is not a monolithic entity but is an aggregation of differentiated categories with the most vulnerable segments of society occupying the lowest rung of society. The state-civil society synergy that is so characteristic of the state of Kerala does not percolate down to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society and the tribes for a variety of reasons. If these segments of the population have to benefit, the structure of microcredit has to be redesigned to make it more appropriate and responsive to their special needs. Microcredit provides the entry point but it is the networking that empowers impoverished women who lack material resources. Networking itself is an umbrella term that entails different kinds of networking. My conclusion is that the women-centric microcredit program sponsored by the state marks a departure from the earlier paradigms of developments in which women were not placed at the center of developmental activities. The new paradigm is the state’s attempt at negotiating privatized strategies of development in the larger context of liberalization espoused by the Indian state. My study reveals that microcredit does help women tide over the emergency needs of the family without relying on others. But it is not a substitute for long term structural problems of poverty. The social solidarity generated by different kinds of networking helps women’s empowerment by way of expanding their consciousness through new knowledge including legal literacy and through exposure to other people with other ideals and ethics. I also find that the social capital generated by the networking of over 3.7 million women through self help groups has not transformed into organized demand cutting across party politics for radical changes like redistribution of resources especially arable land. Microcredit has functioned to depoliticize what could have been a progressive politics for gender equity.