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Micro-Credit Plan to be Made Available to Afghan Women - 2002-11-14

A program that has helped poor women around the world start their own businesses will soon be available to women in Afghanistan. The program that provides small loans was announced in New York.

Sherida Mkama, a mother of 10 in Tanzania, used a $50 loan to support her family with a business growing and selling tomatoes.

After the government bank in Azerbaijan lost Gulera Tagiyeva's life savings, the widow used an $80 loan to purchase a stall in her local village market where she now sells clothing and shoes.

Micro-credit advocates say these are just a few examples of how small loans can help eradicate poverty and give women added control over their own lives.

Now, an international assistance foundation called FINCA is launching a new micro-lending program to support women in Afghanistan.

Queen Rania of Jordan, who has worked with the group on projects in Mexico and Kosovo, helped launch the effort in New York, where delegates from 140 nations are meeting for what is called the fifth Microcredit Summit. She told reporters that the struggle to rebuild war-torn nations often begins after women and refugees return home. "For too many, homes are in ruins, jobs are gone, fathers are dead or missing," said Queen Rania. "Mothers are left alone to support the family. Conventional assistance may help in the short term, but the aid mentality does not provide the future that people need. Microfinance does."

Queen Rania says that loans of $50 to $100 may seem like small amounts of money to some, but they can have widespread impact.

The new Afghanistan program is part of an ambitious Microcredit Summit campaign. Founded in 1997, it aims to meet a goal of helping 100 million of the world's poor, especially women, by 2005.

FINCA's director Rupert Scofield says that 30 percent of the targetted women have been reached so-far.

Mr. Scofield says that FINCA's researchers found that women in Afghanistan, who suffer from decades of oppression, remain fearful about starting their own businesses. But he says that the so-called "village banking" system of small community-run lending and saving institutions, helps tackle that ambivalence by delivering financial services to groups of women. "Because the people are poor and because the loan sizes are so small, to do it in an economically feasible way, we group the women together in what we call a village bank of say 25 to 30 women," he said. "They jointly guarantee the loan and if one or more of the women do not pay for any reason, then we hold the other women responsible and they pay for them."

Mr. Scofield says that loans allocated through village banking enable aid organizations to assist a larger number of women than they would through grants. Loans also help recipients maintain their dignity.

Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United States Ishaq Shahryar agrees. "Afghan people are very proud people," said Ambassador Shahryar. "They do not like handouts. It saves their lives and saves their pride so I think giving them a loan gives them challenges and opportunities to make a success out of it."

An international law firm based in New York, Shearman and Sterling, has donated $50,000 to the project. Fund-raising continues and organizers say they expect the loan program to begin in Afghanistan within one year.