A young mother I spoke with in rural Sindh this week recounted for me how she endured pushing, shoving and even biting by other women to collect her monthly cash handout through the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). She was thankful she escaped having her clothes torn or her young son trampled; incidents she witnessed during previous visits to the bank. The 28-year-old told me she now sacrifices a portion of what she receives through the scheme to pay an illegal agent who smoothly gets her to the front of the bank line, avoiding the long queues and the angry mobs. This, she says, is worth it to preserve her dignity.
I then met the local agent she hired, a policeman by profession, who told me he would earn as much as Rs40,000 a day by receiving a cut from the women and paying a portion of it to the bank officers behind the counter to expedite the payment out of turn. Earlier, before the BISP made finger-printing mandatory to receive funds, entire handouts would be squandered away by agents and bankers in collusion, he said. The simple village women would just be told their funds haven't arrived.
The BISP, which began in July 2008 to empower impoverished women, started by handing out Rs1,000 a month; the handout has now been raised to Rs1,500 a month. According to the BISP website, the programme, which claims to be the largest social safety net in Pakistan's history, has benefited 4.7 million women as of December 31, 2014, and in the fiscal year that ended June 2014, Rs65 billion were spent from the budget on the handouts. A rough cut anecdotal survey in rural Sindh reveals that women of all cadres receive the cash payments; those with reasonable employment and income, those desperately in need, and many completely unaffected by poverty. Much worse, the programme has created a new class of beggars in our already handout-drenched culture in Sindh. There are no signs of empowerment: the women need do nothing productive to receive the money, are stripped of any sense of dignity that comes with earning a living and even put their safety and that of their young children at risk when queuing up in dense crowds to get their funds.
In Khairo Dero village, District Larkana, our small team of community workers at the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust, tried a different approach toward the empowerment of women. We gathered women from the village and asked them what their needs were: the common ones were house repair or construction, water supply, gas connections or money to meet the expenses of daily food and education of their children. We asked them how they could achieve what they aspired for and their unanimous response was that if we gave them cash handouts, all their problems would be resolved. Initially, they didn't take well our humble suggestion that giving them money would weaken rather than strengthen them. So we waited, did nothing but talk to them. We showed them pictures of women in African communities using self-help methods to improve their lives, we cracked jokes with them about their husbands whiling away their time at tea stalls and in gambling dens and we urged them to at least taste self-reliance.
Soon enough, a few women agreed to our suggestion that a small loan to set up a trade wasn't such a bad idea. We received a few donations and started the programme. The loans are standard: Rs15,000 repayable in 12 monthly installments of Rs1,250 each, free of any interest or fees, and only for the purpose of starting a business. Unfamiliar with much else, these women used the money to buy supplies in bulk for traditional embroidery they were already accustomed to doing. They immediately saw the gain: being able to produce larger quantities of embroidered caps or bed linen meant they could earn more money more regularly. Some used the profit to buy school supplies like bags and water bottles for their kids, others paid gas bill dues and got their gas supply reopened. Other women were intrigued by this success they heard about and came to talk to us about getting a loan too. Our team made no attempts at suggesting what the best business was. We listened to their ideas which were far better than ours. Someone set up a vegetable stall in her neighbourhood, someone bought a freezer and made ice-cream to sell in the hot summer months, someone else bought sandals and cosmetics from the city and sold them in the village at a profit.
We, acting as facilitators, did two things after our initial motivational and awareness-raising sessions. Our community workers visited each borrower at home to monitor how they utilised the loan: whether they bought the sewing machine, fabric or goats they had planned to. Also, we held a monthly meeting of borrowers at our community centre, where everyone gathered and shared their experiences; how their business was going, what problems they faced, what wins they had and how much they earned. At this meeting, we also showed them the benefits of savings; if they saved a small slice of their profit, they could use it for any number of problems they identified at the start. This way, in three years, we helped 70 women achieve financial independence using a small amount of funds that we recycled every year to new borrowers. Due to our deep involvement with the community, we have a 100 per cent repayment rate on our loans and are continually passing the repaid funds onto new borrowers. The changes in these women are noteworthy: they no longer ask to be given water motors or pedestal fans. They spend their days in productive work and proudly buy what they need from their savings. Even better, they're becoming active members of their community; assessing what the village needs are, presenting their ideas and offering different ways to contribute. As they continue to expand their trade, we may extend business support loans so they can improve their earnings. And as their household finances improve, these women will become a formidable force of change in their communities.
We didn't need any big infrastructure or detailed paperwork or complex guarantees. We just got women together, talked to them, gave them some exposure and facilitated their ideas. They proved to be creative and dynamic entrepreneurs. Perhaps, the BISP could try a more community-driven approach to empowering village women that would not only help them financially but also give them the psychological strength to find their own solutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2015.
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