We, the authors of this examination paper, have a mutual interest in questions concerning Less Developed Countries (LDC’s) and how one can improve the conditions of life for the poor families living in these countries. Of special interest for us are women as they are excluded from many things in society because of their sex. Women are excluded not merely from political, social and economic power but knowledge power as well. About 2/3 rds of the illiterate in the world are women. While comprising half of humanity, contributing 2/3 rds of the world’s work-hours, she earns only 1/3 rd of the total income and owns less than 1/10 th of the world’s resources.

Map 1: The states of India.

The following statistics are taken from the book "Population Geography" written by Huw Jones (1990), and compares India with Sweden concerning population.

Population, (estimated 1992, in millions) 882,68,7
Birth rate, (per 1000 population) 3014
Death rate, (per 1000 population) 1011
Population, (doubling-time in years, in current rate) 34210
Infant mortality rate, (infants death per 1000 live births) 915
Total fertility rate, (average number of children born to
a woman during her lifetime)
Population under age 15 and over age 65 (in per cent) 36-418-18
Life expectancy at birth, males and females, (in years) m=58
Urban population, (in per cent) 2693
Per Capita GNP (Gross National Product, in US Dollars) 35023,850

The reasons for choosing Madras to be the place for our Field Study, are mainly two. The first reason for choosing Madras is that we, as human geographers, are interested in urban studies, we decided to study poor women living and working, in urban areas. The second reason was that our supervisor at the University of Örebro, Mrs Lena Molin, teatcher in Human Geography, had a contact at the University of Madras, Professor T. Vasantha Kumaran, at the Department of Geography. Professor Kumaran was our supervisor and assisted and advised us in our MFS-programme. Dr. Kumaran was also able to put us in contact with other persons involved with women issues or with knowledge on the topic. During our stay in India, we enrolled as part-time students at the University of Madras. In Madras we worked with a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) called Working Women’s Forum (WWF) who helped us to come out in the slum areas and talk to women living there.


Women and Development has been on the world agenda since 1975, the United Nations International Women’s Year. You could say that it all started with the Decade of Women (1976- 1985) and the Women-Conference in Mexico 1975 where the countries of the world came together for the first time and discussed the special problems and needs of women. The second conference on women was held in Copenhagen in 1980 and the third time women-issues were discussed by the members of the UN was at the Nairobi Conference in Kenya, in 1985. Before the 1970:s, development planning had failed to fully recognise women’s contribution and participation in the development process.

Early in the 1970’s, Ester Boserup in her seminal work articulated the state of neglect that women and women issue’s have been put into: "In the vast and ever-growing literature on economic development, reflections on particular problems of women are few and far between." The failure to incorporate women issue’s in the development planning has limited the efforts to reach goals like alleviating poverty in the developing countries. In the 1980’s many countries and international development agencies started to incorporate women issue’s into their development plans and became more gender- aware. Gender-awareness means the ability to identify problems arising from gender inequality and discrimination. Gender refers to classification by sex. The concern is about social roles that are assigned sex-wise, for example cooking and housework, as part of the female role and responsibility: and bread-winning for males; also termed sex stereotyping.

2.1. Cairo and Copenhagen

At the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo 1994, the leaders of the world had realised how important it is that all people, both men and women, get involved in a society’s development process to solve the problems many countries are facing today. During the Conference it was decided to strengthen women’s rights and status in society and to give women better opportunities to make choices by themselves. The Cairo meeting agreed upon the importance of women’s right to have an income of their own. That poverty is a women issue stood out very clearly during the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen 1995. At this Conference, the UN estimated the poorest of the world to be 1.3 billions and that 70 per cent of these people are women. At the Cairo Conference NGO’s gained clear recognition as making important contributions to both population and development activities at all levels; local, regional, national and international. NGO’s are recognised as important voices of the people and that their programmes and project services are vital in every area of socio-economic development, including the population sector.

2.2. Beijing

The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995, has come about for several reasons. One reason is to review and appraise the advancement of women since 1985 in terms of the objectives of the Nairobi Conference on women. Another reason is to mobilise women and men at both the policy-making and grassroots levels to achieve the goals of women’s advancement. Another motive is to adopt a "Platform for Action" concentrating on some of the biggest obstacles holding back women’s advancement in the world. It is also important to determine the priorities to be followed in 1996-2001 for implementation of the strategies within the United Nations system. Some of the keywords are awareness-raising, decision making, literacy, technology, health, violence, national machinery, refugees and poverty.


When you analyse the structure and causes of poverty in the developing countries, it is essential to study who gets what and why and who has access to resources and who does not. Poverty can have many dimensions, low earning and low level of skill or ability, lack of assets and access to training and education. Poor health, malnutrition, lack of shelter and food insecurity are also signs of poverty.

3.1. The Vicious Circle of Poverty

There are both internal and external factors which affect a country’s development. One internal factor affecting a country’s development is its economy. By economic factors one usually means factors that are essential for production, for example labour, land resources and capital. In the model "The vicious circle of poverty" the link between lack of capital and underdevelopment is emphasised. The theory of the vicious circle of poverty can be used both at the national and individual levels, but we will concentrate on the individual level in this report. We think that by studying poverty on the individual level one can more concretely see what causes poverty. On the individual level, the vicious circle of poverty starts with the statement that a poor person (A) cannot pay for an adequate supply of food, and (B) thus is physically weak (C) and cannot work efficiently (D), and unable to earn much money (E), and thus is poor (A). The circle starts all over again with a situation where the person does not have money to get nutritious food (B). This process goes on and on.

Figure 1: The vicious circle of poverty - Individual level.
(source; Barke & O´Hare, 1991, page 43.)

There have been some criticism raised against this model which state that the circle is inadequate as a total explanation of poverty and underdevelopment. The model does not explain why the person is poor or what is the cause of their poverty. Another thing is that the model does not consider the difference between LDC’s, it assumes that all countries are on the same level of poverty. Social conditions are not taken into account either, the model implies that these societies are static and unchanging. The vicious circle of poverty does not tell you anything about how an individual or a country can break out of the circle.

3.2. Gender Dimensions

It is important to recognise women’s ‘triple role’ in society because it reflects the gender division of labour. The term triple role is used because in most low-income households women perform:

    1. Reproductive work in the form of child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities,
    2. Productive work (often as secondary-income earner), and
    3. Community-management work which is related to the inadequate state of housing and basic services such as water, health care and education. This is voluntary, unpaid work.

Poverty has a gender dimension. Women seems to be more sensitive than men to the extremes of poverty and its consequences. The poorest families are the most dependent upon women’s productive work. Labour force participation of women and their proportional contribution to the total income of the family are the highest in households with the lowest economic status. For these households, the woman’s capacity to work, her health, her knowledge and her skill endowments are often the only resources to call upon for survival. Women are critical actors in the process of extricating their families out of poverty. When studying women and men separately you can more easily understand the causes of poverty. By revealing woman’s role in society, what her needs are and how much she works one can get a guidance on how to break out of poverty and how the resources to the poor people in the world should be distributed. The situation of poverty is different depending on if you are male or female. Women and men have different roles in society and their needs are also different as a consequence of this.


The objective of this report, has been divided into two parts:

    1. We would like to change the model of the Vicious Circle of Poverty because we believe that the situation of poverty is much more complex than the model states. When changing this model, we will give it a gender-aware approach and take into account the criticisms mentioned above. Instead of an anonymous poor person we will put a poor woman living in the urban slums in Madras into the circle and see what factors affect her vicious circle of poverty.

    2. The Working Women’s Forum (WWF) is a Non Govermental Organisation (NGO) working in the slums of Madras with poor women. The NGO’s have become critical actors in the struggle to break out of poverty. During our field study we wanted to know if a membership in an organisation like the WWF could be a way for these women to break out of the vicious circle of poverty.


The method we have used during the field study has had a qualitative character. A qualitative method gives the researcher the advantage of being flexible and open-minded, gives him or her the opportunity to take many different factors into account. The results from a qualitative method are comprehensive and holistic, and can be subject for further research. The results in this report have the characteristics of being holistic and taking many factors into account. A field study with a qualitative character usually has the aim to construct a new theory or to change an old theory. When you do qualitative research, the instruments of the researcher to get data are mainly interviews and observations out in the field. Interviews and observations are also the instruments we used to acquire information about our target group, poor women living and working in the slums of Madras. Through a qualitative method we could understand and learn more about our target group and their everyday life.

5.1. A Review of Literature

In the report we have used written material such as books, newspaper articles, leaflets, annual reports and other publications. Most of the written material was published in English and little in Swedish. Some of the English material has been purchased in India and can be difficult to get hold of outside India. The Working Women’s Forum had a library where we spent time searching for information about the lives of our target group. From the WWF we got brochures and books about the work the WWF have done in the slums and about poor women. The WWF also helped us to find other relevant literature that they did not have in their library. Other persons also helped us in our search for bookshops where we could find the literature we needed. The literature study was done because we needed to know more about the topics discussed in the report and about our target group. Chapters 6 to 8 are written to give the reader an introduction to the problems in the developing countries and to get a better understanding of the problems our target group are facing.

5.2. The Field Study

In our report we choose to focus on women because they are important actors in the process of moving a country/family out of poverty. To be able to pursue our objective we needed to interview poor women working and living in the slums. As we only had a short time at our disposal, to conduct this field study, we needed help from a grassroot organisation familiar with our topic and our target group. A grassroot organisation usually works directly in the field with the people they are helping. Before we went to India we had read about the Working Women’s Forum, a women’s organisation, working in the slums of Madras, and had hopes that they could help us with our field study. Mrs Rita Sarin, at the Swedish Embassy in New Delhi, responsible for women issues and women’s organisations in the Swedish Aid Programmes, put us in contact with the WWF in Madras.

WWF has a credit programme and lends small amounts of money to poor women at a low interest rate. There are 21 003 women in Madras who are borrowing money from WWF’s bank, "The Indian Co-operative Network for Women Limited". We interviewed women who borrowed money from that bank. The WWF have divided the slum areas they are working in into three parts: North Madras with 6 803 members, South Madras with 7 985 members and Central Madras with 6 215 members. We visited slum areas in all the three parts of Madras and did interviews with women. We did 15 interviews with the members of the WWF, both individual interviews and group interviews. Altogether the interviews included about 190 women.

The interviews lasted from one hour up to three hours depending on what issues we discussed and on the time the women could spare for us. The interviews are presented in chapter 9 and 10. We did not make the selection of women to be interviewed ourselves. It was in fact the staff of the WWF who made the selection. The criteria we told them for choosing a woman to interview was that she is poor, living in a slum area in Madras, has a business of her own and/or works somewhere and has a family. By family we mean that she has a husband/or is a widow/ but with children.

To know if there were any differences in life conditions between long-term members and short- term members of the WWF, we interviewed three different groups of women (see, List 1). The three groups which we interviewed had been with the Forum for a varying length of time. The first group was with women who had borrowed once, the second group had borrowed five times and the third group had borrowed ten times. The results of these interviews are incorporated into the text and we will clearly mark where this is being done. The women usually take one loan a year. They have 10 months to repay the loan and they cannot get a second loan until the first has been fully repaid. A member who has taken 10 loans has been with the Forum for approximately 10 years.

The first interview we did was with a small group of women who work in the WWF’s Health- and Nutrition programmes (see, List 1). This interview gave us information about the WWF’s other programmes than the credit programme. We interviewed 6 women individually (see, List 2), to get a deeper knowledge about certain issues such as: poor women’s working day, both inside and outside home, too large families, lack of education and problems with husbands. The last interview we did was with a big group of women who work as Area Organisers in the WWF (see, List 1). This was like a summing of all our interviews and we could fill in gaps if we had missed anything during our interviews or if there was something we did not understand, we could get it clarified here.

List 1: Group Interviews, with WWF-members:

Group no. 1: at the WWF Office, 4 women, Health and nutrition workers, 95 04 19
Group no. 2: in Kunnigapuram, 16 women First time borrowers, 95 04 24
Group no. 3: in Karunanithi Salai, 14 women Five time borrowers, 95 04 24
Group no. 4: in Bakthavatsalam, 10 women Ten time borrowers, 95 04 24
Group no. 5: in P.P Garden, 26 women, 95 04 26
Group no. 6: in Arumbakkam, 23 women, 95 04 26
Group no. 7: in Ashok Nagar, 25 women, 95 04 28
Group no. 8: in Pushpa Nagar, 20 women, 95 04 28
Group no. 9: at WWF Office, 40 women, 95 05 12, Area organisers

List 2 :Individual interviews, with WWF-members:

Woman no. 1, North Madras, 95 04 25
Woman no. 2, North Madras, 95 04 25
Woman no. 3, Central Madras, 95 05 02, at the WWF office.
Woman no. 4, Central Madras, 95 05 02, at the WWF office.
Woman no. 5, South Madras, 95 05 03 at the WWF office.
Woman no. 6, South Madras, 95 05 03 at the WWF office.

We spent about five weeks with the WWF and we got out so much more from them than just help to interview women in the slums. Being in the slum, during our interviews, have given us the opportunity to se how poor women live their lives in the slum. Through the president and other staff at the WWF Office we learned a lot about women’s issues and about women’s situation in India. At the office of WWF we saw the different programmes WWF are working with, like their bank and tutions for the members. We could watch the procedure when a member gets a loan from the WWF bank and when a senior member had information and introduction meeting for new members.

5.2.1. Questions
During group interviews we asked the following questions:
Have you always lived in Madras? Why did you join the WWF? Have your family/husband/mother-in-law had any objections to your involvement with the WWF? How do you make your living? How many days a week do you and your husband work? Are there any obstacles holding you back in your work? Have alcoholism and wife-beating been a problem in your life? In what way is lack of education a problem for women in your situation? What are the advantages of being a member of the WWF? Has there been any improvement in your own and your family’s life after getting the loan from the WWF? If this organisation did not exist, what opportunities would you have to get access to credit?

To women we interviewed individually we put questions like:
Have you always lived in Madras? How do you make your living? When do you get up? What is the first thing you do in the morning? How do you prepare your work? When do you start your business? How much time do you spend in the kitchen every day? Do you work close to your home? How are your children and your husband interacting in your working day? When do you go to bed? How many meals do you and your family eat per day? Have alcoholism and wife- beating been a problem in your life? In what way is lack of education a problem for women in your situation? Has there been any improvement in your own and your family’s life after getting the loan from the WWF? If this organisation did not exist, what opportunities would you have to get access to credit?

When we started to do our interviews, we had a questionnaire to be answered by the women. After asking these questions a couple of times, we realised that they were not enough to cover our objective. Therefore we rephrased our questions several times with the aim to get a deeper knowledge about these women’s lives.

5.2.2. Limitation
Being in a foreign country with a totally different culture which you are not familiar with can be a limitation because it is not easy to understand everything that happens around you. We have tried our best to be as open-minded as possible while visiting India. When writing this report we have tried to make a justifiable description of India and women’s situation in this country. As we come from another culture we know that we may have misunderstood some things.

The women we interviewed spoke Tamil and no English, so we needed an interpreter to be able to conduct the Field Study. This makes it possible for misunderstanding or misinterpretation during the interviews. Our female interpreter was working with the organisation whose members we interviewed. On one hand this could have a negative impact on answers because of the relationship between the interpreter and the person being interviewed. We do not think this has affected our results in a negative way. On the other hand, we thought that it was an advantage that the interpreter knew a lot about the topics we discussed and that the women and the interpreter were not total strangers to each other, as some of the questions we asked were sensitive and personal.

To get information/data through interviews always makes it possible to question the reability and validity of the results. The selection of people and how big the population is can have an impact on the validity and reability of the conclusions made from a field study. The answer you get from the person being interviewed: How true are they? Does the person answer what she thinks we want to hear or is it her own opinion? Did she understand our question? Did we ask the right question? Did the order in which we asked the questions, have an impact on her answers? Did the fact that we reconstructed some of our questions change the answers from the women in any way? These are all questions we considered before preparing and conducting the interviews.

The results from our field study can not be generalised to include all women in India but we believe that some of our results can also be applied on other women living in India. The validity of the results from this report, about our target groups life and their problems, can be questioned. One way to increase the reability of results from an emipirical study, like ours, is to verify the result with official statistics. In India we tried to find useful statistics about our target group but as these women work in the informal sector (for further information about the informal sector see chapter 8.4.) and live in the uncontrolled slum areas it was very difficult to find any about this group. To some extent verify our empirical results we have made a literature study, chapter 6 to 8, which include some statistics.

We have been working with a grassroot organisation for women and believe that the results we reached from our field study are the reality that our target group live in. A reason for the validity of our results is that we ourselves have seen how these poor women live and work in the slums. WWF have been working for a long time with poor women and today WWF have a membership of about 250 000 poor women. WWF is a recognised women’s organisation both in India and outside. For example the Prime minister of India, both the former, Rajiv Gandhi and the present Narashima Rao, have written letters of recognition about the WWF and, the president, Mrs Jaya Arunachalam have participated in governmental work about poor women.

The UN invited WWF to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, as observers of the Conference. The WWF is also mentioned in a lot of reports and books as a successful women’s organisation helping poor women; Sida have written about the success of the WWF’s work in their Gender report , in the Swedish book "Huvudbördan" WWF is mentioned as a successful grassroot organisation working in the developing countries.