Credit where credit is due

By Paul Jeffrey

Juliet Mary wants her children to get a better education than she received, so she joined a women's self-help group in her village of Agaramthem, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and began to save about one dollar a month. As her savings grew, she began to borrow money from the group's funds to buy more material for making stuffed animals. She gained buyers interested in her quality work, and took out more loans. Other members of the group joined with her, and they often sit in the shade of her yard in the afternoon, sewing orange bears and brown monkeys. She makes about $20 a month sewing the animals, and now saves $2 a month. She uses the time with her co-workers to discuss their personal lives and issues in the community.

"Before, as individuals, we knew nothing of the outside world. Since joining the group we've come to know about so many things, but the best benefit is that we have more confidence in ourselves and the money we earn gives us more respect within our families," she said.

The women's self-help group in Agaramthem is sponsored by the Society for the Upliftment of the Economically Backward (SUEB), a microfinance organization in Chennai supported by the Women's Division. It's one of many groups across India providing organizational assistance and technical training to women who want to remake the country's economic system, a few rupees at a time, thus offering a grassroots alternative to the ravages of economic globalization.

According to Marc D'Silva, the country representative in India for Catholic Relief Services, such seemingly small loans are a potent force for change. He said that microfinance schemes–where women collect their savings as a group and then loan it to each other at interest rates they set themselves–provide an opportunity to learn about credit and make mistakes in a safe environment. The loans may start small, but experience and confidence soon lend themselves to more ambitious undertakings. "Many women take a first loan of 50 rupees in order to buy one chick, but five years later they're borrowing 25,000 rupees to build a house," he said.

Mr. D'Silva reports that as women have gained experience, they've become an attractive client base for commercial banks, and about one-fifth of India's 150,000 commercial bank branches now are giving loans to groups of poor women. Mr. D'Dilva admits it took "some arm-twisting" of bank managers at first, but now many of them are convinced of the groups' creditworthiness and higher than average repayment rates and loan money without refinancing guarantees. Getting commercial banks involved is much more sustainable in the long run than having nongovernmental organizations front the money, he said.

According to SUEB Treasurer Rajan Isaac, similar convincing is often needed with husbands threatened by their wives' newfound financial independence. Mr. Isaac said appealing to the men's self-interest often does the trick. "As the savings concept came to be understood by women, they slowly got to point where they didn't have to depend on men for money. At that point, some of the men approached us and complained that we were teaching their women the wrong things, that their women were becoming a little independent. And they were not for it. But we persuaded them by telling them, ‘When she's saving a little money and earning a little money, she's able to give you better food. You're able to eat eggs once a week; before you couldn't do that. The money she's earning is for the family, so you should support her.' The men, who are mostly were illiterate day laborers, saw the point when it came to food. So they allowed their women to join the groups," Mr. Isaac said.

A similar logic pervades efforts by the women's self-help groups to dissuade abusive husbands from beating their wives.

"In India, the husband is always right, and most rural households have not tolerated outside interference. If a woman complained that husband was beating her, or that she was being starved by her husband, the surrounding women would tell her to just tolerate it and accept it. But that's changing. Now the women's group goes to him, as a group, and tells him not to do it. They often have to practice this ahead of time to get up the courage. But they finally go and counsel him and see if he listens. Sometimes they have to wait til he's sober. He will blame it on drink, but slowly the women's logic prevails. And he will change because of their constant pressure. He comes to see that it is good to be sober, that he can get more days of work in the week. With him sober, the woman can go to work as a domestic, because she's calmer and her face isn't swollen. So she can bring in some money to the household as well. The man sees that it's an advantage to have the woman working, and not suffering from his beatings," Mr. Isaac said.