It’s a common sight for those that visit developing countries. The city is crowded, hot, ripe with life and decay at the same time. Thousands of people walk around, barter, converse and live life on these streets. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the story is no different. Rickshaws and busses play an endless game of leapfrog through the crowded streets, while pedestrians perilously attempt to cross, hoping that they lock eyes with the operators of on-coming traffic for the mercy of the right-of-way. A game of “chicken” on endless repeat. This is a common scene in most cities Food for the Hungry works. But this time there was subtle difference.
The State of Women in Bangladesh
It’s what you don’t see that is alarming. In the streets of Dhaka, thousands upon thousands scurry about. But from the back seat of the van I had one question: “Where are all the women?” I would guess that 95 percent of the people we saw in public were men. That begins a process of contemplating what life must be like for the millions of women who are culturally and religiously restricted from much public interaction. Where does their life take place? And in what condition? It doesn’t take long to quickly determine that this must be one of the most difficult places to be a women in world. Studies have confirmed the same:
- “State of the World’s Mothers 2012” by Save the Children
- Attached UN Report on the Progress of Women
As we traveled beyond the musty metropolis of Dhaka, we visited communities where FH is working to empower these same women who were hidden from site in the city streets. Through community savings groups, and basic health and literacy trainings, women are slowly improving their lot, and the in mean time improving that of their communities as well. It seems simple. In a country that birthed the Micro Loan frenzy of the 1990’s via Grameen Bank, the idea of micro savings seems like simple progression of the same model. But the difference is quite significant. And again, it’s what you don’t see that makes a difference. Banks are powerful, and in Bangladesh, they can levy large interest rates on those least able to pay them. But Micro savings gives groups in rural, poor, vulnerable communities have the power to set their own terms. There is no outside investment of capital. Community members save what they can and intelligently pool their resources together.
An Innovative Response
In particular, FH helps community leaders determine the most vulnerable amongst their villages and qualifies them as candidates to participate in the Savings Group. These women then receive valuable training in how to save small amounts of money, and in time are given the opportunity to take out loans (with minimal or no interest) for things like efficient cook stoves, mechanical tillers, or start up capital to begin a small business. In addition, the group typically chooses to begin a “benevolence fund”, allowing them to give out loans and donations in the event one of their neighbors are in need. Essentially, this means the poorest of the community are providing localized relief assistance! And even more, it’s women who are taking control of their communities’ well being.
For those of us accustomed to relative gender equality, this notion is expected. But in Bangladesh, the idea of women having control of both money and influence is simply revolutionary. Again, it’s the things you don’t see that is most important. In Bangladesh, what is hidden is both alarming… and full of potential. The work FH is doing to build up women leaders is nothing short of inspiring. When I return, I look forward to seeing a more diversified multitude in the streets.