Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Field Day in Manikganj

Field day in this context refers to the figure of speech "having a field day," which roots from the elementary school tradition of dedicating one day of the year to outdoor games and activities. Today, the BRAC interns had a field day in Manikganj. We focused the day on BRAC's Microfinance Programe, Human Rights and Legal Services Program (HRLS), Education Program, and the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF)

The Village Millionaire
BRAC's Microfinance Program is unique in a few ways. First, its loans average a 13.5% interest rate, which is quite low for many microfinance loans, especially for a developing country. Second, BRAC processes the loan requests quickly and can pay its borrowers within 15 days. There are two levels of loans: dabi and progiti. Dabi loans are smaller loans while progiti loans must exceed 75,000 taka (1 taka = $85). The village we visited had about 20 women making up a village organization (VO). A VO is divided into subgroups with five members each. The goal of these small groups is to motivate each member to pay back their loans and take out more loans to grow their small businesses. If a member of the group is unable to pay back a loan, the other members of the subgroup can help pay back the loan. Each month, the VOs meet and discuss any new members that have joined subgroups and any requests for new loans. Some of the business these women undertook included farming, creating handicrafts, maid services, and selling raw materials including bamboo, cotton, and rice. The woman pictured to the right was quite remarkable. Her husband died 30 years ago, and she vaguely told us how rough life was for her. Without her husband's income, she was not sure if she could physically survive. When BRAC first formed, she was one of the first microfinance borrowers. Today, she is a millionaire (by taka standards) and directs this VO. I was honored when she looked into my eyes and shook my hand. I hope one day I can be as successful and inspirational as this woman.

Next on the agenda, we interviewed two women who received HRLS from BRAC. This program has a tricky role in Bangladesh because it essentially fills in for the inadequate legal authority in the country. Both women we interviewed had married dishonest men. One of the women was married at 15 while the other was married at 25. After their marriages, their husbands asked for additional money on top of the dowries they had already paid. When the women could not pay this money, the husbands both mentally and physically abused their wives. BRAC has helped inform these women of their rights and represent them, free of charge, in court. The older woman's case has actually become quite complicated because the Chairman of her village will not recognize her case. In the mean time, she has received threats from her ex-husband that he will take their child and sell her in order to pay off the money she supposedly owes him. During her interview, the woman actually began crying because she greatly fears her ex-husband's vengeance. She also fears the village gossip that will ensue if she orders a general diary, which would protect her daughter, allowing this woman to go back to work. BRAC has scheduled a settlement meeting twice now, and her ex-husband has not shown. Two cultural traditions complicate this case. First, divorce in the rural areas of Bangladesh is still frowned upon. Second, when a wife returns to her family, unmarried, she is seen as a burden. The most ironic event of the day was seeing a wedding processional parade through the streets after the first interview. The music was so upbeat and the bride was dressed radiantly in red. All I could hope was that this wedding had a happy ending.

Villages find out about BRAC's HRLS because "barefoot lawyers" travel from village to village and teach these communities the seven basic law systems which include Bangladesh's Constitutional law, Hindu law, Muslim law, local laws, and more. The lawyers teach a 22-day course. This way, through word of mouth, villagers can learn more about their rights so that when the police do not do their jobs, they can rely on the unbiased, free legal services from BRAC.

To lighten the mood, we next visited a BRAC School, which was incredibly exhilarating. The classrooms are brightly decorated and the kids are extremely well-behaved, organized and sharp. A mix between a willing student body and a well-respected teacher make for a dynamic, high-quality learning atmosphere. When we first walked in and got situated, the five group leaders of the class stood
up, introduced themselves in English, then introduced each member of their group in English. At the end of each introduction, the leader would hand the floor to the group leader to their left. After this, the students all stood up and played a game where they clapped in rhythm, said a chant in unison, then one would name a country. Then they repeated the chant and the next student named a different country. All forty students in the classroom named a different country of the world. I think their geography skills surpassed those of eight to ten year olds in many other countries. Finally, we watched four girls perform a dance together while the class sang. I enjoyed watching how much fun the kids had learning and expressing themselves. One of the male students aspired to become a doctor while one of his female classmates hoped to become a pilot.

Finally, our last stop of the day was at the Manikganj Regional Office which also houses AAF, the creators of all the glorious fabrics in Aarong Handicrafts. AAF serves as a small-scale manufacturer with hundreds of workers that dye, stitch, and paint fabrics to make clothing, curtains, and accessories. Seeing people physically embroidering, painting over stencils, tie-dying intricate patterns, and stamping prints on the fabrics convinced me that the clothes I bought from Aarong last weekend are top notch quality. When I told one of the women I bought my top from Aarong, the woman responded (according to a Bangladeshi intern's translation) that she was working on re-creating that top in the upstairs tailoring rooms.

Although I completely sweat through all the clothes I wore today, I cannot believe how much I learned and how much fun I had. My favorite picture of the day, both for its comic relief and greater meaning, is shown below. A father drives his kids to school, letting his daughter take the steering wheel. With his help, he allows his daughter to control her future, navigate her life, and look awesome in the process. In every visit we made today, we saw the overwhelming empowerment of women, and it couldn't have made me happier. Men and women collaborating to reach divorce settlements, men and women double teaming the paint job for a yard of fabric, boys and girls singing songs together at school, and men supporting their wives in launching small businesses with microfinance loans. Of the development work BRAC has done, the empowerment of women is both noteworthy and essential.

I could not stop laughing when I saw this family. I found
this mode of transportation so endearing.
Secondly, the image screams "Girl Power!"

1 comment:

  1. [] offer private loans, commercial Business and Personal loan, with a minimum annual interest rate for the period from 1 year to 15 years of maturity anywhere in the world. Their loans are well insured for maximum security.
    you can take a look at this website please: development financing