Women as Engines Out of Poverty

Robin Wright

Female focused development in the Third World is proving more cost-effective. In Asia, micro-loans have opened the way for a sweeping challenge to the patriarchal social order.

Fish Farming is Ideal
Aquaculture has proved an ideal vehicle. With four of the world's seventeen major fishing areas depleted and five others in serious decline, aquaculture now produces 22% of the world�s food fish, according to the World Bank.
For Vietnam's Hoang Thi Mai, a mother of four, aquaculture is producing new income after a lifetime of subsistence farming in rice paddy, where her husband still works. Her financial success is reflected in the electricity that, for the first time, illuminates her dirtfloor home and powers a new Samsung black and white television.

A millennium old lifestyle is changing as Hoang's remote village links up with the modern world.
Progress is also evident in her daughter Thanh, a chubby 3-year old with overgrown bangs. Like 52% of Vietnamese youth, Hoang's first two children had their growth stunted by early malnutrition. But Thanh, her youngest, now weighs 30 pounds the same as the child's oldest sibling weighed at age 6. Fish has added a source of protein to the rice-based family diet.

The most profound byproduct of aquaculture, however, may be its impact on Hoang's status. Like other female-focused projects, aquaculture has opened the way for a sweeping challenge to Asia's patriarchal social order.

I am now head of this household," Hoang pronounced as she perched on one of two family stools, her husband and father-in-law listening in deference as they squatted on the floor behind her.

"I took the three-day training. I have the knowledge. So I'm giving the directions," she said. Hoang was the one who decided last year to sell a family water buffalo, used instead of a tractor in the rice paddy. This year she decided to triple the family's investment in fish fingerlings to boost production.

The beginning of a social upheaval in Vietnam's remote mountains can be traced in part to an experiment launched two decades ago in Bangladesh amid widespread skepticism. Its stunning success has since changed the face of development worldwide to emphasize women. The idea was microcredit loans of as little as $10 for women to start small businesses based on skills most had or could easily develop. The brainchild of Bangladeshi economist Professor Muhammad, the concept spawned Grameen Bank, whose 1,079 branches have since provided 2.1 million loans, mainly to rural women.