Muhammad Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank, a microcredit system that provides banking services targeted at the rural poor. In 2006, Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been a constant advocate for the rights of rural women, and has worked tirelessly to advance women’s economic empowerment globally. Mayesha Alam sat down with him in 2013 to talk about women’s economic participation and access to capital.
Mayesha Alam: To begin with, I’d like to talk about the central role of women’s entrepreneurship in the entire Grameen story. All those years ago, what motivated you to begin lending to women, and since then, how has your strategy to elevate the status of women changed? Have you adopted or what have you changed?
Muhammad Yunus: We began in a small village next to the university campus, not because I wanted to start a micro-credit program. That word didn’t exist at the time in the whole English language. I was trying to see if I can make myself useful to another person in some way. The story that begin with the loan sharking started with a woman, Sophia. She was a bamboo stool maker and she was borrowing money from the trader because she didn’t have money to buy the bamboo, which goes into the bamboo stool. It’s a horrible story. The trader takes all the profit and she doesn’t get anything, but she does all the work. Just because the trader lent her 25 cents, for that she became slave labor for him. So that kind of enraged me, made me angry. So that led to observing other people in the village how they do it. So I made a list of people who borrowed from the loan sharks. And the total amount borrowed collectively by 42 people was $27. So I said “My God! For $27 people have to suffer so much! Such a tiny amount, why people can’t do something about it?” Then I realized that it can be done in a more systematic way, because more people are coming. I became a guarantor signing papers to take the money.
My first decision was, half of the borrowers should be women and half of the borrowers should be men. The reason was, I was critical of the conventional banks refusing loans to women of any kind, even the rich ones. That was the beginning. Initially women were very reluctant. They were always saying, “Give the money to our husbands.” I said “No, we want to give the money to you.” It took us six years to build up the half and half ratio. Then we saw that money going to the family to women brought so much more benefit to the family. Then we changed our whole policy; we said we concentrate on women, and as a result, we became 97% women and a large bank now – nearly eight and a half million borrowers.
When the Grameen idea spread all of the world, the idea of concentrating on women also found to be a real natural reaction. So, today, micro-credit has become synonymous with lending money to poor women. So it works so well with women, and it changes so dramatically the condition of the women, the status of women. That is how we became involved with them.
MA: Grameen has grown exponentially in new directions. Your work encompasses health, it encompasses education, it encompasses the energy sector. How have women participated in the design and implementation of these other programs, such as Grameen Shakti, Grameen Uddog, Grameen Healthcare, and the many others?
MY: In different ways at different levels. For example, at Grameen Shakti we have branches of Grameen Shakti all over the country and we sell solar home systems. We hire young girls to become what we call “solar engineers.” These are high school graduates, and even high school dropouts. We hired them, trained them on solar science and how it works, and helped them set up little workshops to produce the peripherals of these things, the converters and so on, and they do a good job. Then what we do is we let them install the solar home system, because for them, it’s the village next door to each other, so they go and install them. The women are not usually the one[s] who will be handling technology in the villages. Now it’s a local girl fixing these things, maintaining these things and installing these things. The people admire that they know something that we don’t know. So we employed these girls for maintenance, but also for production of converters and all sorts of thing. So this is one way we involved the women. And the benefit of the solar home system also primarily the woman because she spends time at home more than man. Man is always spending time outside of home.
MA: When you talk about women being exploited, and how to extract that out of the equation, I think it really hits on the nail one of the very important themes of the work of the Institute, which is: so often, whether in the economic sphere, in the security sphere, in the political sphere, women are seen only as victims and not as agents. It’s very clear just listening to you talk about these various initiatives, being able to recognize not only the limitations and the needs of women, but how those can be overcome by women themselves, so that women are not just recipients of whatever it is that is needed, but that they are providing for themselves and for others.
MY: You are trying to turn around the way it is, not slightly repositioning. Grameen Bank is a good example. It’s not only a bank for the poor women, it is owned by the poor women. We went all the way. And it is run by their own money.
Produced with support from Mara D’Amico and Laura Fairman.