Few outside the Indian microfinance world know that Praseeda Kunam and her husband, Balachander Krishnamurthy, an IITian and University of Chicago alumnus, played a crucial role in the early years of SKS Microfinance, which went on to become a behemoth in micro-lending, and was the first Indian microfinance institution (MFI) to get listed in the stock market. Praseeda joined Vikram Akula's SKS Microfinance, an upcoming MFI then, as its Director of Operations in Hyderabad in 2003. This was after a four-year stint abroad, where she did an MBA and Masters in Information Management from Washington University in St. Louis. Thereafter, she worked in Central Asia on a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) trade and investment project, looking at facilitating growth for small and medium businesses.
After working with SKS for two and a half years, Kunam moved on to join ABN AMRO Bank to help MFI start-ups to build capacity in financially underserved areas such as north-east, UP and Bihar. She and Bala - as her husband is called, then rustled up `8 lakh to set up Samhita Community Development Services as a Section 25 company. Samhita is a group of community development institutions empowering women of poor households to lead a life with dignity and work opportunities. Operating across the rural heartland of Central and North India - like Baghelkhand and Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh - with an emphasis on remote regions, Samhita penetrates into disadvantaged communities for microfinance offerings and income building activities, and then follows up with social services such as financial literacy, legal literacy, and health education. Today, Samhita works with 150,000 households extending both financial and non-financial services.
Lately, there has been a huge focus on the issue of women's legal rights. "Economic empowerment of women is not complete if they are not in a position to make decisions on their own. For this, awareness of their legal rights and entitlements is fundamental," says Praseeda. Leveraging its microfinance network, Samhita has trained around 50,000 women so far on the issues of legal and other protection available under laws such as Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, Protection against Sexual Harassment at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act and Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. Praseeda is currently piloting a "Community Catalyst" programme wherein selected women from the community act as change agents for ensuring real access to entitlements intended for the poorest of the poor, something basic that often does not reach them.