By Moin Qazi*
The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them. – Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus
I have spent most of my entire professional career providing loans to poor women, and have constantly been amazed at their grit and tenacity in climbing their way out of poverty.
When I first initiated livelihood finance projects for women, more than three decades back, I encountered stiff resistance from the local elders who couldn’t believe that their women could meet me without a male chaperone. There were some who felt that since I was a male; I had no customary sanction to interact with women.
I convinced the village elders that if their women remained ignorant, their children would also have the same fate. I came up against many challenges, the first being: How do we convince a woman to take a loan and invest it in a business and then make financial choices to enhance her income? But we all know the great strength of the power of persuasion. I invoked it, and it paid off.
The first woman to whom I offered a choice was Godavari, in a remote tribal hamlet, who felt she must take it to avoid serving a lifetime of hell in the company of her cruel husband who used to smoke and gamble his way through their precious and bare savings She did not have much else to look forward to, and expected to go on in the same miserable way all her life.
Villagers would dissuade me, saying a woman would hand the money over to her husband who would fritter it away. Even our staff would say, “Let us forget about this project because we cannot compel them if their husbands have reservations. If they are not willing, why are you forcing them to avail these loans?”
I emphasized to my staff that when these women say no, it is not their own voice. It is the voice of their history, the way they were treated, that took away all their confidence. But once we purge the mind of all those fears we can nudge them to opt for it.
Godavari was certainly excited about what the loan might mean for her, but her husband tried to dispel what he considered her silly notions that any bank would actually help her. “I don’t want to have anything to do with the bank,” he said at first, with a dismissive toss of his hands at his wife, whom he felt was being taken for a ride by a charlatan banker.
There is an internal wrestling in the mind. She quakes, fumbles and sleeps poorly, fretting. She agrees with great hesitation. One nagging thought keeps arising: “What will become of my parents and family if I cannot repay the loan? My mother has toiled so hard to guard her reputation.”
The woman has created problems for the family already, just by being a girl, being a woman. She doesn’t want to create more by borrowing what she cannot repay. In the morning, her friends come over and encourage her because they have all decided to go through with it, and if she drops out, everything collapses. It is going to be a loan for the entire group with each member cross guaranteeing the individual loans. “Don’t worry, we all will support each other; we have to take a chance, otherwise our fate will never change,” counsels a fellow member.
Godavari Uikey was a fifty-two-year-old illiterate woman, who was a member of one of the oldest groups in a village called Charurkhati in Chandrapur district in India. Married at 18, she had three children, all daughters, and she was the sole breadwinner. She had an alcoholic husband whose habit she funded out of her wages and who beat her if she answered back.
Godavari’s life consisted of cooking meals, taking care of her children and staying quiet. Always required to ask her husband’s permission to leave the house, and these requests usually denied, she described herself back then, in a breathy, weak-lunged voice, as “sad and alone”, with a body work-hunched and wiry.
One day, Godavari’s neighbour, Vimal Dahule, told her about the programme that helped women pool their own savings—sometimes as little as Rs. 20 a month—and then provide loans to each other. Defying her husband and leaving the house without permission, Godavari and some women in her community went to learn more about the programme, and decided to start their own village group.
Godavari was excited about what the bank and its manager might mean for them, but her husband tried to dispel what he considered her silly notions that any bank would actually help them.“I don’t want to have anything to do with the bank,” he said at first, with a dismissive toss of his hands to his wife who he felt was being taken for a ride by a charlatan banker.
When I first proffered the loan, Godavari stuttered with fright and her honest face crumpled in despair. Feeling desperately sorry, I asked her to believe in me. I assured her that if she made a serious attempt at properly investing the loan but still failed to generate a surplus, we would not divest her of her belongings in the way of a crude moneylender.
We would walk with her through her climb out of her distress. Godavari scratched her head, did quick mental math and decided to give the loan a try.I could see the beatific hope the face acquired. That picture is one sliver of my memory that remains green and verdant till day .It refuses to fade. It is moments like these that keep renewing our trust in poor but honest and heroic women.
Godavari bought a cow which continued to produce daily dividends—more than three pints of milk that she would sell to the upper-caste landowners in the neighbouring village. The cow later gave birth to a calf. With increased income and enough confidence she approached me for a second loan which I readily sanctioned. She invested it in veterinary care and better crop seeds to increase her income and provide more food for her family. “I bought the cow multivitamins, high quality feeds, vaccines, and drugs”, she chuckles.
Stories like Godavari’s are what inspire and motivate us in our role as development agents.
Godavari is grateful for her first loan; it is the reason she looks back with satisfaction and has hope for the future. I am so happy when a poor woman comes back to me to say thank you for the loan we advanced. To see her having progressed from one dairy cow to two or three cows is extremely gratifying.
With her loan and valuable skills training, Godavari finally had the right knowledge and resources and could invest more time and energy in her dairy. Since becoming a full-time dairy farmer, Godavari’s income and quality of life dramatically increased, her children got better educations and she could comfortably provide for her family and pay for her husband’s medical bills. Finally, best of all – she had more time to spend with her family.
Godavari is now seen by her community as a ‘husband-tamer’ and a smart businesswoman. Since joining the programme, Godavari has not only become an inspiration for other women in her community, but she serves as a prime example of how economic security can provide the right kind of aid for women and their children and even have a positive effect on marriages.
Despite the structural problems and widespread despair, female entrepreneurs such as Godavari are finding creative ways to carve out a place for themselves in the marketplace, boosting the economy as well as their own confidence and independence. Their goals are much humbler: they want to improve their life and those of their children.
Today, Godavari has repaid the first few loans and gotten others, increased her cows, and gained a new sense of independence as the family breadwinner. Her family is now on the cusp of a new found prosperity. It is people like Godavari who took the first step and led the women to accomplish a journey of thousand miles.
Godavari’s humble story, at first, strikes little interest. However, played out over and over again in markets, slums, villages and finally in halls of academe, it shines as a compelling and inspiring story of resolute perseverance, of the power of the human spirit, and of the dignity of so many people struggling to escape the enduring grasp of poverty.
I am truly amazed at what Godavari has accomplished. Just imagine if every woman had the same opportunity! With access to the resources they need, these women can break through the shackles of poverty and experience the dignity of self-reliance. Women like Godavari are building a better world for their families, communities and the generations to come.
*Consultant, Niti Aayog, Government of India