Madurai's Iron Lady
“No one could digest the idea of women taking control of their finances”- Chinna Pillai.
Chinna Pillai, an illiterate 68-year-old woman, grew up with 4 siblings, in Pulliseri, a village near Madurai. At the age of 18, Chinna married a man named Perumal and settled in Madurai, where she questioned the unacceptable customs. Her husband Perumal was, unfortunately, incapable of financially supporting their large family despite his hard work, and was deeply into debt. Chinna has worked as a laborer all her life, however, in 1999, she applied her leadership qualities and began to empower women. This created their heroic worth as they improved their community’s banking system. In 2001, Chinna was awarded the Stree Shakti Puraskar Award for her genuine contribution. Moreover, Chinna is now an inspiration to every other woman as she progressively developed her powerful feminine reputation, which is what makes her an unsung hero of India.
Chinna personally observed melancholic situations such as alcoholic problems leading to family disputes. Various other flaws about the lifestyle were child marriages, an inadequate value of money, and an absence of discipline due to insufficient education. Chinna’s priority was to counsel the villagers in inheriting ethical and moral behavior and preventing any unlawful practices. Being an illiterate who can simply sign their name, Chinna was successful in accomplishing her objective: to reduce poverty and debt grievances by empowering the women.
of her village. Thus, she started a banking system in Madurai, helped her people improve their lifestyle, gained her tremendous title as Madurai’s Iron Lady, and eventually won her well-deserved Padma Shri Award in 2019.
“In 1989, along with 15 women from my village, I started a group in which we contributed ₹20 each.” Chinna collaborated with DHAN, a Madurai-based NGO, and started the first microcredit banking movement, 'Kalanjiyam Iyakkam'. Eventually, it took just one pure soul to persuade over a hundred women to willingly contribute to their society. Her desire to improve lifestyle and correctly develop people’s mindsets about the value of money and humanity has successfully been accomplished, despite the lack of support Chinna received from her family. Living in a society with no concept of equality, or an appreciation for women, Chinna created her own reputation, her personal stance, that motivated women to define themselves by leading their village into an improved social and economic status.
Chinna and her team of women's’ motive were to empower women and simultaneously increase the socio-economic status of their community in Tamil Nadu. However, their aim to avoid inconvenience was affected by several obstacles throughout their commitment. “Banks turned us down saying we were rural women with no source of income and hence we were not eligible for loans”, said Pillai. In addition, Pillai and her team faced caste discrimination. However, the women had managed to save a tremendous amount of money in order to receive support from the DHAN Foundation. Chinna Pillai’s genuine dedication to her society led her group to form the first saving unit, known as the PullukKalanjiam. From contributing simply Rs.10-20 per month, their team of women began lending over Rs.1000 a month. Chinna Pillai has successfully proved her feminine power and inspired several women to participate in this heroic activity. This initiation has ameliorated Madurai’s social status as the money was eventually contributed to education and providing healthy and sufficient nourishment to protect the villager's health. Through the funds Chinna and her group have contributed, there is a program known as the de-addiction program, that educates people about immoral practices. Furthermore, Chinna Pillai simultaneously enhanced the concept of women empowerment, which resulted in her title as Madurai’s Iron Lady. Today, around Rs.100 crores are contributed to DHAN’s Foundation due to Chinna Pillai’s commendable efforts throughout the years.
Chinna created this banking movement in Madurai to socially and economically benefit the disadvantaged families of Tamil Nadu. However, she has also created several job opportunities for women, who have constantly stood by her and have personally developed as stronger individuals. Chinna has not only managed to impact an entire community but also profoundly impacted the individual lives of several women. Pillai’s excellent commitment to positively impact society has privileged her to now use road facilities, bus services, and create 10 more houses for her village. Today, Chinna Pillai proudly says, “My work shall continue till my last breath.”