Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

Out of the Shadows

16 Aug

Jagua Village, August 16: The village of Jagua lies off the main road, through a grove of bamboo cane, down a small brick path flanked by water on either side. The current is fast-moving on the right, and eddying on the left. The water leaves no space for anything else, from personal hygiene to small agriculture. Everything happens in this water. Here, people and animals bathe, wash, defecate and drink. It is picturesque and desperately unhealthy.

We are visiting the Kadampul microcredit group, which has been in existence for four years. All of its members have crammed under a large thatch roof to meet us, along with most of the rest of the village. We are introduced to the group leader Aslam, 26, who lost the use of his legs after a stoke and is confined to a wheelchair.

This group has 28 members, of whom 7 are disabled. Four are receiving loans. Several others have received loans in the past and are keen to apply for new loans. Amin Khan, a student, would like to join. He uses crutches and has come from the next village, at some effort. He wants to fish.

Danita and I go around the group while we try to get a feel for the issue and gage everyone’s energy and staying power. Some are here because they were told to attend, and one little boy, Khairul, sits slack-jawed and completely overwhelmed. For some reason, he is here without a parent. Someone barks a question at him, and he stands up in confusion. His parents used a loan to buy a sheep, but he’s too young to have benefited directly. I ask our translator to be gentle, and quickly move on to someone else.

Several young women, all visibly impaired, are sitting next to their mothers, and are happy to join in the discussion. Shanu received a loan, and her mother used it to purchase a rickshaw. Silpi, who is mute, and Salehar her mother, bought four 4 cows with 3 loans. They rent the cows out to cultivators, and make between 800 and 1,500 taka a month. Now they want to open a shop.

Mukul (a young blind woman in shocking pink) and her mother are the acknowledged micro-credit stars: they borrowed 13,000 taka and used their loan to buy clothes. They then went door to door selling them and made a profit of 10,000 taka.

In each of these cases, the loans were given to a daughter-mother team, and a strong mother would seem to be the key to economic success.

Saidul Huq’s other goal – confidence-building – is also being met, to judge from the way these girls speak up in public, and by the pride in their mother’s eyes. There’s no question about them being accepted by the others – their disability is simply not a factor. A cynic might say that’s because they are the group’s meal-ticket to loans, but none of this seems forced or artificial. Disability is no longer in the shadows in this village.

Still, not everything about this group is sweetness and light. Esmutara, a young women with a blue sari, stands up to complain that her husband demanded the loan (15,000 taka for poultry) and expected to run the business. She dug in her heels and agreed on a division of labor under which her husband would run the chickens and she would manage accounts. Later we interview her on camera, standing next to her husband. She comes across as the stronger partner.

But there are some issues among the other members, and these quickly dominate the conversation. Diluara is unable to repay her loan because her husband took the money and then went off to Dhaka where he married a new wife. She will not qualify for another loan and looks very glum. “I wish I’d known then what I know now,” she says through translation. Taslema received a 15,000 taka loan which her husband immediately took control of. She’s now doing nothing and wants some more training from BERDO.

This has been an unexpected encounter. It has shown that the “disability” loans are all working well and in some cases – such as Mukul – have produced a serious profit. It’s the other loans – to women – that appear to more controversial, because they challenge the status quo between husbands and wives. Aslam, the group leader, says that such issues are not really discussed at group meetings – how could they be? – but that they might intervene with Diluara’s husband if he returns from his jaunt in Dhaka.

One conclusion seems clear: these groups should do far more to grapple with gender training and work more directly with husbands before loans are given.

Filed under: Bangladesh | Tagged: Advocacy Project, Bangladesh, BERDO, blind, micro-credit | Leave a comment »

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Aug 16th, 2008

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