From exclusion to empowerment – Women of the Siddi Community

Aga Khan Foundation

Marginalised communities, such as Siddis in Gujarat, often accept entrenched poverty, deprivation and exclusion as a way of life. Development under such circumstances is not just about reaching the unreached, it is about contending with low esteem, lack of confidence, limited livelihood options, low levels of literacy, and above all, remaining sensitive to distinct racial and cultural identities.

The Siddis are a tribal community, whose ancestors were brought from Africa by Arab merchants around 500 years ago to serve as soldiers or slaves under the Portuguese and British authorities, or as servants to the Nawabs. Rough estimates put their present population at around 20,000-30,000 spread over the states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The majority of Siddis reside in Gujarat, largely on the periphery of the Gir Forest.

In Gujarat, the Siddis reside for the most part in Junagadh district, particularly in the Talala block, around the Gir Forest and the Gir National Park. The Siddis are a scattered community. There are 1,089 Siddi households spread over 19 villages in the Talala and Veraval blocks. Except in Jambur and Sirvan villages, they are a minority in most areas.

Siddi household economies have few options or opportunities for livelihood. Their traditional source of livelihood was the Gir Forest, from where they collected dry wood and other raw materials. Many Siddi women still engage in ‘head loading’, collecting dry wood from the forest and selling it in nearby markets. While this is now technically ‘illegal’, the practice persists. Coupled with the lack of opportunities, skills and reduced or no access to the forest, even subsistence poses a major challenge.

Conflicts between the villagers and the forest department over the cutting of fuel wood, grazing and traversing the protected area for commuting to nearby villages are common. Several attempts have been made by various government departments and civil society organisations to support the Siddis and provide them with some employment opportunities. In the absence of a long-term sustainable empowerment strategy, these efforts have not been entirely successful.

Role of AKRSP

The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – India (AKRSP(I)) has been working in the area from the late 1980s, mostly on alternative energy projects. An integrated and targeted approach began to develop and gather momentum from 2002 under the European Commision co-financed Sustainable Community-based Approaches for Livelihoods Enhancement Project (SCALE Project3). From mid-2004, this momentum almost became a movement.

 Activities under this project include the formation of savings and credits groups with women, creating income-generating options, popularising non-conventional energy uses to reduce fuel wood consumption, land development activities, providing agricultural knowledge and inputs to increase productivity, protecting agricultural fields from wild animals and participatory forestry management.

The household and the community became the focus of all efforts to reduce the pressure on the Gir Forest. Sustainable alternative livelihood options for the Siddis had to be found.

Organising women into groups

In the mid-1990s, activities with the Siddis largely focused on natural resource management and mobilising the Siddi women for establishing Mahila Vikas Mandals (MVMs) or Women Development Groups. Since earlier experiences with forming multi-community MVMs had proved counter-productive, these MVMs comprised Siddi women alone. The first two MVMs were formed in 1994 in Jambur village. By 2002, there were 16 MVMs covering 10 villages which functioned as user-owned savings and credit groups. Initially, working with these groups was challenging.

For creating mass awareness, the first Siddi Sahiyar Yatra was conducted on 1 July 2004. Around 800 women and 160 men participated in it. The idea was to focus on livelihood issues for women. During the yatra, prominent Siddi leaders like Hirbaiben and Aminaben gave inspiring speeches. Messages on voluntary savings, afforestation and women’s empowerment were communicated through plays, slogans and songs. At the end of the event, the women took an oath to save collectively in groups. These efforts bore fruit when by August 2004, 12 new savings and credit groups were formed.

Growing as a federation

While the MVMs were proving to be effective at the village level, there was a need for women from across villages to come together to have a more forceful, effective and efficient presence. The Siddis are scattered over different villages—sometimes 10–15 households in a village, making a standard self-help group (SHG) approach difficult. This is when the idea of forming a federation gathered momentum and subsequently an Advasi Mahila Sangh (Siddi Women’s Federation) was formed in January 2004.

Two members from each MVM represented the federation. They are selected by the group, and are usually women who have played a leadership role. Often, women attend the meetings on a rotational basis so that they all get adequate exposure and representation in the federation. These representatives are responsible for attending federation meetings and liaising between their groups and the federation.

On 1 July 2005, the Siddi Women’s Federation opened a federation office in Talala with a 10 per cent contribution from the federation and a 90 per cent contribution by AKRSP(I). The second Siddi Sahiyar Yatra and Sammelan was organised by the women themselves. This again drew an overwhelming response. Due to the mass awareness drives, two Siddi villages from Veraval block showed interest in joining the federation. What had previously not been possible was now achieved. By July 2006, 42 MVMs comprising 525 members covering all the Siddi villages had been formed.

Para workers play a vital role in the functioning of MVMs and the federation. These are usually women who have displayed leadership qualities in their MVM and are selected from among the member groups through an informal process. Para workers are trained on issues that include communication, record keeping and accounts. While this training was initially provided by AKRSP(I), para workers themselves are increasingly taking on the responsibility of training. Many of the benefits of federation membership are availed through the involvement of para workers.

Enterprises for additional income

The federation has undertaken several activities over the past few years. It has reached out to all 19 Siddi villages and succeeded in forming MVMs in all of them. To reduce the pressure on the Gir Forest, alternative livelihood models were necessary, which would in turn improve the socio-economic status of the Siddis. While land treatment was an option for the landed households, various non-farm-based activities with the potential to generate income were initiated with landless households.

These activities were conducted largely through the federation because it could give them access to credit and provide a common platform to share and learn from each other’s experiences. Each income-generating activity was initiated only when the women showed an interest in the idea and contributed something of their own. Training programmes and exposure visits were also organised. Once the micro-enterprise is launched, financial records are prepared by the women and submitted to the federation office, which in turn submits it to AKRSP(I).

Several activities were piloted through a core group consisting of four women community leaders with support and some assets, which put them in a position of being able to take risks. Rather than simply support one type of activity, the organisation experimented with 16 different models of micro-enterprises, continuing those that proved to be prosperous and familiar to the Siddi community, sometimes covering up for losses. This list includes provision of handcarts, neem oil marketing, selling old cloth, dry and fresh fish, opening a grocery shop, selling fruits and a paan-bidi shop, among others.

Producing organic manure as an enterprise

The enterprise that has involved the most number of women and achieved considerable success has been the production and marketing of organic compost by the Jambur group, a collective of 24 women from five MVMs.

The idea for producing and selling organic compost originally came from AKRSP(I) projects in Sayla and Netrang. The activity started with the Nagarchi MVM in Jambur village under the leadership of Hirbaiben. In order to motivate and inspire confidence in the women, she promised to buy all 200 bags herself in case they didn’t sell. She offered her farm premises for making compost and offered occasional cups of tea and snacks to the women working at the site.

The manufacture of organic manure has turned out to be a viable activity for the Jambur group. Panchtatwa, the brand under which the compost is selling, iis made from five different materials—poultry manure, neem oil, castor oil, tobacco dust and farm yard manure—which are combined and kept in a composting pit for 90 days.

Starting modestly in 1999 with the production of 200 bags and a buy-back guarantee from Hirbaiben, one of the members of the MVM at Jambur, production had reached 749.65 tonnes by July 2006: 15,315 bags weighing about 48 kg each had been produced at a cost of Rs 1,912,560 (US$ 42,501) and sold at Rs 2,664,000 (US$ 59,200), making a clean profit of Rs 752,440 (US$ 16,721) or Rs 31,315 (US$ 696) per person.

One of the important new products is the addition of neem cake to a mix of dung and vermi-compost. Dry compost that requires no composting time has also been developed..

Diversification also allows more employment opportunities since the production of organic compost runs on an annual cycle lasting four months a year, providing 60–70 working days. Nagarchi MVM is manufacturing vermi-compost as a part of its overall organic compost activities. Before launching vermi-compost production, the group went on an exposure visit to a farm in Anand. This MVM is also using vermi-compost as an ingredient in certain types of organic compost that it produces. Vermi-compost costs Re 1/kg (US$ 0.02) to produce, inclusive of all costs. The market rate for the compost is Rs 3/kg (US$ 0.06).

While the production of organic compost involved the maximum number of Siddi women, there were other ventures that were experimented with as potential sustainable micro-enterprises like Neem oil marketing, marketing dry fish etc.

 Taking men along with the women

While women are the focus, efforts were made to involve the men too so that they support

their wives. In 2002, a land treatment programme was started with members of the community who owned agricultural land, which elicited a positive response from the men. Also, as the men saw the benefits of joining a Mandal and the federation, they were gradually convinced about the programme and supported their wives.


Today, the Siddi women are more confident, their self esteem has gone up. They are highly respected in their communities. They now want to improve themselves, their homes and the community. The women have begun to appreciate economic realities.  They believe now that they will have to improve their economic status, themselves. With the social support available through the MVM and the federation, the women now know that they are not alone.

There is heightened social awareness as well. They understand the need for education and family planning. The education of their children is often on the agenda of informal and formal meetings. They recognise the need of involving their entire community and also other villages. They not only have a vision for the future but also have an idea of how to achieve it.

Building on their strengths, the Siddi women today recognise that they have to continue to move ahead. They now dare to dream, optimistic that the chances of realization are high.

Aga Khan Foundation, Sarojini House, 6, Bhagwan Dass Road, New Delhi 110 001; Ph: 011 23782173; email:; website:

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