‘Microcredit’ empowers Afghan women

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In this environment, FINCA carefully screens clients before making a loan.

Borrowers must have a business, and a history of at least six months of running it. Some common businesses include food stalls, craftsman services and tailoring. Most borrowers are women.

The biggest problem facing microcredit in Afghanistan is that women are still treated as second-class citizens. They have to wear body-covering burkas when outdoors, and rarely meet with men without a male relative or husband present as chaperone.

“There are women in the marketplace, but they are all behind closed doors,” said Mr. Yanovitch. “We’ve had women come to our office looking for us — they approached us, not the other way around.”

Jonathan Griswold, director of FINCA in Afghanistan, has been there since August 2003, working from the northwestern province of Herat. The governor, Ismail Khan, has provided amenities in the urban centers mostly unavailable elsewhere, such as street lights, electricity and trash collection.

However, most of FINCA’s clients live in rural, mountainous areas, where amenities are unheard of and the roads are often bad.

Given the social restrictions on women’s travel, FINCA employs credit officers to meet the women in their villages. Finding suitable help is a challenge, according Mr. Griswold. The credit officers themselves must be Afghan women, to reduce tension when meeting clients, and must be taught math and literacy skills.

Although the pay of credit officers is high by local standards — between $100 to $400 per month — the work involves traveling long distances to meet clients, while wearing burkas in the summer heat.

Furthermore, the families of credit officers are sometimes unsupportive or hostile to their female relatives’ work.

“Two women who had signed contracts with us had to resign before starting work under family pressure not to work outside the office,” Mr. Griswold said.

“Unfortunately, it is considered far more prestigious to sit at a computer in an office than to manage six credit officers from the field and serve a thousand clients.” In countries where the commercial banking sector does not target the poor, or neglects them outright, microfinancing programs bring expertise and training to provide such people with financial help.

According to Ms. Berenbach, microcredit lending has created widespread changes in the perceptions of the poor in banking and social freedom. The target population is normally shunned by commercial banks as being unable to use bank services — a presumption that FINCA challenges.

“We’re making poor people bankable, and we’re doing it on a significant scale, in the tens of thousands,” she said. “In some cases, microfinance banks are outstripping commercial banks to become the predominant credit provider for poverty level entrepreneurs.” Moreover, one of the great social changes of microcredit is the empowerment of women in village economics. The first village bank program in Bangladesh saw a marked increase in women’s social and political participation.

Although some husbands are initially fearful of allowing their wives out of the house and into the workplace, over time they usually grow to appreciate their wives’ economic contributions. For the women themselves, the benefits are considerable.

“Our experience has shown that when women are given the opportunity, they prove to be responsible borrowers and competent managers,” said Ms. Jones.

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