MEWAT, HARYANA— India has a checkered history with microfinance. In 2010, a series of suicides among borrowers’ in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh sparked a nationwide backlash against the industry. One group is reviving microfinance’s tarnished image by focusing, not on profits, but on promoting gender equality among rural women in the north.
It all started eight years ago with a $1,000 loan to buy buffaloes. Shahnaz Begum, who had never earned a penny in her life, suddenly had a source of income, a way to educate her children and a newfound voice.
“I have confidence now that, being a woman, I can do something,” she said. Shahnaz’s story was unheard of in parts of Haryana state a decade ago.
In India, just 26 percent of women are employed. And, in the villages of Mewat district, women rarely step out of their homes, let alone start their own business.
Shyam Panchal is a mother of four who runs a dairy with the help of a microfinance loan from the non-governmental organization Deepalaya.
“Before, I couldn’t even go to the bank or talk to anyone, ever since I joined Deepalaya, I can talk to anyone,” she said.
T.K. Mathew co-founded Deepalaya in 1971, originally to educate underprivileged children in New Delhi slums. He says decades of work helped him realize that the community’s economic potential is strongly tied to the empowerment of women.
“We said, all right, if you empower the mother, the children will be safe. So, from that point of view, we started interacting with the mothers and we realize they are a great strength. They have faculties, but this is not being utilized,” Mathew said.
Deepalaya or “House of Light” only provides loans to groups of women who must first pool their savings to contribute to the loan. Unlike other lenders more focused on profits, Mathew says Deepalaya's borrowers are charged lower interest rates and given up to 20 months to repay. He says, so far, there have been no defaults among the 900 groups operating in three states.
In a decade, 13,000 women have started 7,000 enterprises that now contribute to a $2 million revolving fund.
Mobena Khan was able to provide her husband with steady employment after buying a horse cart with a microfinance loan. She now sees a difference in the way she is treated at home.
“He [my husband] used to fight with me, now he respects me. Now he talks nicely to me and keeps me happy,” said Khan.
And, for those who mistreat their wives, women like Shahnaz Begum use their earnings to fight domestic violence cases. Some two-thirds of married Indian women fall victim to such abuse.
“If someone tries to harm us, because people try to keep women down, we no longer put up with this injustice," said Begum. "We go wherever we have to go, raise our voices, even file court cases.”
These women also say they now see a different future for their daughters - one that involves an education and employment and not necessarily an early marriage.