Credit programmes, women’s empowerment, and contraceptive use in Bangladesh
Presented by Dr Syed Hashemi, Grameen Trust, Bangladesh
Among the poor in rural Bangladesh, women have traditionally been isolated by systems of patrilineal descent and purdah, which put women in a subordinate position to men. This situation is compounded by social and economic dependence on men, further isolating women and constraining their potential to generate income or make decisions concerning its disposition (which in turn is linked to decisions concerning family planning and health). This may be slowly changing however - in part because of an intensification of rural poverty which has forced women out of the seclusion of their homes in search of employment. Some of this change may also be due to targeted credit programmes for women, such as those of the Grameen Bank (GB), and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).
These two NGOs are the largest organizations involved in lending to the poor in Bangladesh. Currently the Grameen Bank alone extends collateral-free loans at market rates of interest to over 2 million people in Bangladesh, 94% of whom are women. However, while they share the same aim of providing loans to the landless rural poor, the two NGO’s differ in their strategies and methods of operation. The Grameen Bank focuses exclusively on extending credit to poor women, whereas the BRAC is, and is perceived as, an organization concerned more broadly with community development, basing its multifaceted strategy on the assumption that “consciousness-raising” and functional education must precede any extension of economic assistance. In keeping with these differences, the Grameen Bank provides more loans, more rapidly (within two weeks of application) than BRAC, whose members must attend an awareness-raising training course before they receive a loan (although the length of the required course has gradually been reduced from one year to two months). Both men and women are actively involved in BRAC’s activities, which extend beyond providing credit to running schools, health services and food distribution programmes.
Finally, the Grameen Bank gives greater emphasis to discipline, rules and rituals. A group of five is the basic unit of Grameen Bank members and through group responsibility for repayment, provides a guarantee against loan defaults. Six to eight of these groups form a centre which meets once a week to conduct banking transactions. Up to an hour is set aside to then discuss issues pertaining to poverty and social welfare. At meetings, members must salute, sit on the floor in rows, and chant at weekly meetings, while the bank worker sits in front of them in a chair. In BRAC’s more informal weekly meetings, the field organizer sits with the women, who are free to come and go as they please.
A three-year study of six villages was undertaken to assess the impact of participation in rural credit programmes - do they empower women by strengthening their economic roles and does participation in credit programmes or residence in communities where such programmes exist increase the likelihood that a woman will use contraceptives?
A baseline survey of 1305 married women under the age of 50 was conducted in 1991, and a follow-up survey with the same respondents, 18 months later. Study participants belonged to one of four groups: Grameen Bank members, BRAC members, non-members in Grameen Bank villages and a comparison group in villages without any credit. Women’s empowerment indicators were defined as level of mobility, economic security, the ability to make small and/or large purchases, involvement in major decision-making, relative freedom from domination in the family, political and legal awareness and involvement in campaign and/or protest activities.
Analysis of the survey data showed that GB and BRAC membership had highly significant positive effects on indicators of women’s level of empowerment (Table 3) and to a lesser extent, so did being a non-member living in a GB village. Empowerment is also correlated with contraceptive use. However, findings show that 59% of Grameen Bank members use contraception (compared to 43% in the control group, and 47% of BRAC members). The level of contraceptive use is increasing at a much faster rate among GB members (9% increase over 18 months) than among BRAC members (1% increase) and the comparison group (3% increase). There are significant effects on contraceptive use by non-members in Grameen Bank villages as well, likely to be due, at least in part, to a diffusion effect - the result of changing fertility norms in GB villages. When the number of contraceptive users in a community increases, it becomes easier for all women to adopt family planning. Also of interest is the finding that Grameen Bank members’ contraceptive use rates were the same whether or not they had been visited by a family planning worker - not the case for non-members living in a Grameen Bank village or in the comparison group (Figure 9), with important cost implications for family planning programmes.
Statistically significant effects of credit programmes on empowerment indicators - Bangladesh*
* Reference category - comparison villages/non-bank members
Current contraceptive use by women in Bangladesh, by participation in a rural credit scheme and by visit from a family planning worker
The success of the Grameen Bank programme can be partly attributed to the fact that credit is at its core - every aspect of the programme is intended to facilitate the basic task of making loans available to poor women and to ensure high rates of repayment. In turn, there is a strong relationship between women using their loan money to make substantial contributions to the improved economic status of their family, and most of the empowerment indicators. Seventy-one percent of Grameen Bank members do so, compared to 33% of BRAC members (whose husbands often take the loan money from them), and 27% of the comparison group (Figure 10).
Percentage of women making a substantial contribution to family support in Bangladesh, according to membership in a rural credit scheme
1Cooperatives are a tested model of organized collaboration which provide avenues for both women and men to pool human resources, converting individual potential into a socioeconomic force. They are a form of organization which women can use to help themselves. The International Cooperative Alliance described an intervention that it is supporting in collaboration with GPA, that seeks to foster and strengthen cooperative activities, including economic activities, involving migrating female fish traders in Northern Zambia
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