In 1980, Ms. Kanthamani was 18 years old. She married to Mr. Sellamuthu in the village of Karuppampatti, in Tamil Nadu, India. Sadly, the marriage deteriorated because her husband developed a drinking habit. Fifteen years later, after many hard times, he died, leaving Kanthamaani with three children and very little money. For five years the family struggled in the village. But realizing that she must educate her two sons and one daughter, Kanthamani moved to her mother’s house in her native village.
She struggled to make a living and educate her children. She decided to sell a piece of land that belonged to her for Rs. /50000 ($1,112 USD). This money freed up enough funds for Kanthamani to put her eldest son into engineering college and also to pay her day-to-day living expenses. Over time, the money dried up and she was forced to find another source of income to educate her other two children. After much searching she finally turned to selling illegal alcohol in the village– the very thing that had killed her husband. To make matters worse, her business was illegal and funded by loans from local private moneylenders.
These moneylenders charged Kanthamani very high rates of interest because they knew that the illegal selling of alcohol is a lucrative business. They would call on her daily to demand repayment. For two years, Kanthamani continued in this way only because she was able to give her children an education. Even the police turned a blind eye, with nothing more but a small punishment here and there.
However, in time, the people in the village started to grumble. Eventually, a small group went to the higher police officials and demanded that action can be taken against Kanthamani. After this, Kanthamani was taken into custody and later went to jail for one year. Amidst all the commotion, Kanthamanis’ son completed his engineering degree, found a job, and took it upon himself to begin educating his younger brother.
After being released from jail, Kanthamani returned to her village with no money and very few prospects. It was then that she came into contact with Ms. Suseela, a woman from her village who was the leader of a women’s self-help group (SHG) organized by Gramalaya, Water.org’s local partner. These SHGs are designed to empower women like Kanthamani by giving them access to small, affordable loans and training them in the skills needed to run a business. The SHG also brings awareness about the central role water and sanitation plays in achieving a healthy life. These new skills and knowledge allow members to take measures to ensure the water they drink is not contaminated and the toilet they use is clean and safe.
After joining the SHG, Kanthamani was able to take out small loans at very low rates of interest, unlike those from the local moneylenders. She also found employment as an agricultural worker. This, in conjunction with the loans, allowed her to pay for the education of her remaining two children and one son for a MBA. Now, her sons have jobs and her daughter is married. Financial struggles no longer plague the family. She herself formed one SHG and became the leader of the group. She also constructed a terraced house with the income she received.
Furthermore, from the information she learned in her SHG, Kanthamani has become the treasurer of the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) committee in her village. This group was put in place by Water.org and Gramalaya to ensure that the whole community works for safe water and sanitation and practices good hygiene. In doing this, Kanthamani has moved away from a life overwhelmed by money problems and illegal activity, and now plays an important part in the health and happiness of the whole village.
Documented by Luke Whaley and Pictures by Darcey, London
This project made possible by the PepsiCo Foundation.