These women are pure, sacred and yajniya (as respected as yajna); they provide us with subjects, animals and food
-Atharva Ved 11.1.17
Money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million.
The first loan that I sanctioned to a poor village woman provided me a unique experience. When banks first began lending to poor entrepreneurs, the concept of microloans was truly revolutionary. Back then, it was considered too risky to lend money to the poor. But we took the chance because we believed that people living in poverty would not let us – or themselves – down. The results were astonishing. The repayment rate on those first loans – and on those ever since – silenced our critics and proved that even small loans can make a huge impact on the lives of poor. The women have the drive, ambition, and capability to create streams of income for themselves, but they often need a lump sum to get started.
Poor used to shy away from loans, having personally witnessed the shame women in their village suffered at the hands of moneylenders. Villagers would dissuade me, saying a woman would hand the money over to her husband who would fritter it away. Even our staff said, “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 al those fears we can nudge them to opt for it.
There is an internal wrestling in the mind. She quakes, fumbles and sleeps poorly, fretting. She agrees with great hesitation. She spends a sleepless night, tossing and turning, debating whether she should go through with it. 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 the village but since the group did not have a credit line with the bank and had a low cash base, her loan requirements could not be entertained at the group level. Because of drought, she had few remaining means of survival. 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. Fear of poverty and respect for society kept her locked in a bad marriage, as did the prospect of losing custody of their children. The glassy stare in her eyes revealed some of the despair.
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. I assured her that if she made a serious attempt at properly investing the loan and yet failed in generating surplus, we would not divest her of her bare belongings in the way of a moneylender. Godavari scratched her head, did quick mental math and decided to give the loan a try. There was nothing to lose. When I placed the envelope in her astonished hands, her eyes darted at the cheque book lying on the table and then back at me. She signed the receipt in a hurried, untidy scrawl.
Godavari bought a cow for around Rs. 4,000 which continues to produce daily dividends—more than three pints of milk that she sells to the upper-caste landowners in the neighbouring village. Recently, the cow gave birth to a calf. Godavari was already engaged in dairying as a wage labour and her dream of having her Godavari’s business took off quickly, and she began earning enough income to provide for her family, send her daughters to school, and pay for her husband’s medical bills. She gained some of the respect she deserved from her husband, who allowed her more freedom and even began to help her with her business ventures.
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. The momentum created by empowerment of women like Godavari was too vivid to wear off immediately. During one of my recent visits, I found that women had hollowed the male-dominated power-grid in villages. Like termites, they had mined the out the male bastions
Despite the structural problems and widespread despair, female entrepreneurs such as Godavari Uikey are finding creative ways to carve out a place for themselves in the marketplace, boosting the economy as well as their confidence and independence. Today, Godavari has repaid the first loan and gotten another, 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. But it is people like Godavari who took the first step and led the women to accomplish a journey of thousand miles.