Women-led self help groups were instrumental in ensuring Indians had food on their plates during the COVID-19 lockdown

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Women-led self help groups were instrumental in ensuring Indians had food on their plates during the COVID-19 lockdown
When India slammed the brakes with its 2020 lockdown, many food chains screeched to a halt. Millions faced hunger, and traditional markets lay silent. But in the chaos, a ray of hope emerged from an unexpected source: women's self-help groups (SHGs).
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To say that conditions were grim in the early phases of the pandemic is an understatement. Studies showed that 80-90% of Indians were cut off from their traditional food sources as lockdown measures came into place. Acute food insecurity spikes nearly tripled from 135 million in 53 countries to 345 million in 79 countries by 2023, research showed.

In such dark times, Indian women's SHGs became instrumental in bridging the gaping holes that lockdowns cut in food supply chains. These long-standing, women-only networks, deeply rooted in Indian communities, refused to let their neighbours go hungry. Stepping into the breach, they transformed into food security heroes, their "Veg on Wheels" program delivering fresh fruits and vegetables directly to doorsteps.

Beyond mere availability, the SHGs embraced a broader vision of food security. They weren't just filling stomachs; they were empowering communities. They bypassed disrupted channels, directly procuring produce from farmers, ensuring fair prices and building trust. The groups hired transport, navigated logistical hurdles, and even rode carts and motorbikes to reach remote areas.

But their strength lay not just in logistics. These women, often juggling household duties and existing SHG work, ran the program with dedication and resourcefulness. The groups knew their communities, their needs, and the intricate dance of the local food system. They weren't just delivering food; they were weaving a web of resilience, one vegetable at a time.

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"They were meeting every night," explains co-author Thea Ritter. "There were women who were vegetable and fruit producers themselves or had close links with others outside the group; this helped because they were familiar with the supply chain".

The SHGs' impact transcended the immediate crisis. They gave farmers a direct voice in the market, empowered women to influence food system policies, and built a robust network ready to face future shocks. This wasn't just a COVID-19 solution; it was a blueprint for a more resilient future.

The implications stretch far beyond India's borders. With over a billion people involved in similar networks worldwide, the SHG model offers a beacon of hope. In times of extreme weather events, conflicts, or any disruption that threatens food security, these pre-existing structures can be activated and incentivised by the government, their deep roots providing stability and their collective action ensuring no one goes hungry. The authors even suggest that similar mechanisms could be used to distribute medical supplies to the needy when medical infrastructure stretches thin.

The story of the SHGs is a testament to the power of community, resourcefulness, and women's leadership. By empowering local communities and embracing a broader vision of food security, we can build a world where no crisis leaves anyone behind.

The findings of this research have been published in World Development and can be accessed here.
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