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.

Women Are Different

Women have a different nature. A woman more often takes advantage of the opportunity to change and makes better use of the transfer of knowledge than a man does. With her, change is usually permanent because change always trickles down through the family," Yunus explained in his book-lined office at Grameen's headquarters in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. "Women are the real symbol of development today. Aid to women is making the world a very different place."
The transformation is tangible in Bangladesh, a country where most women are married between the ages of 12 and 14, to men selected by parents, where Islamic and local traditions restricted women's movements for centuries, and where more than 50 million people the majority female-live below the poverty line.
In the village of Boilor, a rough two-hour drive through grassy rice paddies from Dhaka, Jahanara Begum made $9 a month as a seamstress and rice husker for her brothers until 1994. The extended family provided shelter and food. Then she took a $250 loan and training from a USAID-backed aquaculture project.
Today, the 28-year-old divorcee, who was abandoned by her husband, makes $45 a month by growing grass carp in her pond, enough to pay for a tin roof on the family mud-brick home and a bit of land for two brothers to work.
Roles have reversed. "They now defer to me. They won't make any major decision now without listening to me," said Begum, wrapped in a saffron sari with red flowers.
Her previous dependent status once virtually guaranteed she would not remarry. Now she has assets and suitors. "But I'm in no hurry," she added. "Next time I will marry for love".
Up to 60% of women in nearby villages are now engaged in aquaculture, some crafting ponds from fallow rice paddies or ditches that fill up during rainy season. Keys to success are simplicity and sustainability, a catchword of aid in the 1990s.
Sustainability means that solutions endure beyond initial funding and training and use low-cost or no-cost local resources. Aquaculture passes the test because animal feces can be used to fertilize pond plant life, which in turn feeds the fish.
A US backed variation in Bangladesh incorporates a second industry: chicken droppings fertilize pond plant life, which feeds fish, some of which are ground into meal to feed the chicken. Chicken coops are actually perched above ponds.
Firoja Khatun, a 30-year-old grandmother who looks like a schoolgirl in her yellow cotton smock, giggles at how the aquaculture pond she has run with her daughter since 1994, is changing the balance of power in her home and village. In past elections, her husband, a mason, told her how to vote and she unquestioningly obeyed. But in 1996 national elections, during a year when she made more than half the family income, she decided how to cast her ballot. "And he knew better than to ask," she said.
Female-focused development is not without problems. Vast numbers of women are still reluctant to borrow for fear of consequences at home and in the community if they are unable to repay. Language differences among minorities can put training beyond reach. Model Programs such as aquaculiure are not applicable everywhere.
As a result, female-focused programs are being adapted and packaged in ways designed to broaden the impact and maximise the audience.
In Bangladesh, informal female chambers of commerce have taken shape among women borrowers from Women's Enterprise Development, who must meet every 15 days, both to pay back loans and to take follow-up classes as part of the loan agreement.
Shaheda Khatun and Peara, who like many Bangladeshi women has no surname, are members of a WED group in Dhaka. Khatun used her "micro-loan" to buy bicycle propelled rickshaws. Her husband drives one of them, and she rents out the other. With advice from the group, she has figured out a way to double the fleet with a second loan as soon as the first is repaid.
Peara used to ask permission of her husband, a truck driver, to leave home; her mother still does not go out in public. But four years ago, Peara took out a WED loan to start a sari business. Today, she takes a bus weekly to garment plants in small towns and brings back saris to sell door to door in Dhaka. "Cultural restrictions on female mobility are lifting," Peara said. "I no longer get looks from people questioning my morals because I'm out alone." Once afraid of handling $12, she now grosses $1200 a year. On the advice of Khatun, she also recently bought two rickshaws to launch her own fleet.
Male backlash is frequently the chief obstacle to such change. In Vietnam, invitations to women for the pilot UN Development Program aquaculture venture in Dien Bien Phu were often accepted instead by their husbands. In Bangladesh, men are angrily questioning why aid is gender-targeted.