Women’s Empowerment in Grameen Community: What they need is not about money but community

Author: Tianlex Yang, Ying Cai, Jiayu Wu, Fuqi Cui

Translated by: Pinyi Feng, Zimo Zhu, Yifei Zhu

In June 2020, in a reality show called “Sisters Who Brave the Winds and Waves”, all 30 years old “sisters” worked together for one goal – to become a girl group. During one of the rehearsals, actress Hai Lu bust into tears because of the challenging dance, and Wan Xi comforted her, “We are all women, we are all standing together. We as women support each other, and it is the strength of women.”

Snapshot from the program “Sisters Who Brave the Winds and Waves”

Women play an important role in today’s society. In faraway villages, some women want to take out loans to start their own small businesses for the purpose of supporting their family expenses and reducing the financial burdens. However, due to the lack of guarantors and mortgage assets, it is difficult for them to obtain loans.

Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus, is committed to filling such a financial gap. In December 2014, Mr. Gao Zhan and Professor Yunus launched Grameen China in the village of Lukou, Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province.

Grameen Inclusive Financial Innovation Incubator Base in Lukou Village Cooperative, Yaowan Town, Xin City, Jiangsu Province

Most of the female members of Grameen Bank in Lukou Village have been going through a lot of hardship in their lives. Some of them joined Grameen Bank not only to borrow money, but also to make peace with their past. Auntie L is one of them.

The first time I met Auntie L was at the weekly central meeting of the Grameen Lukou Village branch. Unusually, she sat with her back straight, spoke slowly and quietly, and needed to get very close to hear her Mandarin with a Xuzhou dialect accent. Her up-and-down life story mirrors the older rural women in the village.

Ms. L introduced herself at the meeting

Five aspiring women taking out loans together to support each other

“Auntie, may I ask what type of business you are going to do with Grameen Bank loan?

She smiled and said, “It’s all used to buy sheep. I am a sheep farmer, and now I have more than seventy sheep at home.”

“And what is the amount of the  loan you take out each time?”

She hesitated, but seemed unable to recall the amount for a while, so she hastily checked her loan and deposit record book. Surprisingly, she had only one bank loan on the record, and it was only $1,000. The maximum amount of each loan from Grameen is 20,000 yuan, and even for a village woman, 1,000yuan is not a large sum.

Mr. Leung, the center manager in charge of her, recalled that Ms. L had an illness six years ago. Before she was ill, her hobby was to sing Liuqin opera, a traditional local drama popular in Shandong province. Ms. L used to be a village actress, and her master, Yi Xueyi, was the director of the Lukou village opera troupe. After the serious illness, she never sang in front of crowd again.

From Ms. L’s inconsistent memories, we come to understand that after dinner that day, she went to the village square dance with her neighbors as usual. When she returned home in the evening, she felt dizzy and thought it was just a mild cold, so she didn’t think much about it and went back to her bedroom to get ready for bed. But the dizziness started to get worse, and soon she fell on the sofa, unable to move, gradually lost her consciousness, and kept crying and calling her father’s name, who had passed away long time ago.

Ms. L’s husband, who is illiterate thought she was possessed by evil spirits and refused to send her to the hospital, saying instead, “Let the God to check on her!” After waiting at home for more than four hours, Ms. L was already delirious when she was taken to the hospital by her brother. When she woke up again, she realized she had been lying in the hospital for more than twenty days.

Ms. L said her family has refused to take medical treatment more than once because of feudal superstitions. “At that time, my grandson was not yet three years old and also cried all the time, I took 500 yuan to let my family to take the child to the hospital.  But no one wants to take him to the hospital  and prefer to let spiritual God take care of him. I was in charge of the family at that time, but I am not in the charge anymore, I don’t know how to cope with the situation .”

(Some villagers in Lukou Village have faith in Christianity, where God is not the Christian God, but the gods and goddesses from folk beliefs, and what Ms. L is saying is that she was always in charge, so her husband didn’t take the children to the hospital, and she was able to do so. (But that night when she fainted, she couldn’t make decisions for herself, and the time for the doctor to cure her illness got.  delayed as well.)

Ms. L’s voice gradually began to choke up as she spoke.

“Are you still singing nowadays?”

She smiled shyly, as if she recalled those scenic moments on and off the stage, but suddenly thought of something like, the smile in her eyes faded away.

She waved her hand and said, “No more singing, no more singing, I don’t think about it anymore after I get sick.”

“Sometimes I sing alone in the house, and just as soon as I open my mouth, I curse myself, what’s the point of singing opera now.”

In the previous interviews, when it came to the question whether she would like to resume singing, her answer has always been “I’ve forgotten about the opera”. “Now that everyone has a TV, no one watches the opera.” Only in the end did Ms. L confess that the reason she stopped singing is because after that incident, there was a sting in her heart that she couldn’t resolve. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t find her old self from singing opera.

When asked why she joined the Five-PersonsLending Group of Grameen Bank, Ms. Li told us that it wasn’t about the money, it was about the community and group that would listen to what she had to say. Talking to the group members at the center meetings each week helps her distract herself so she doesn’t think about sad things so often.

The group described above is a five-persons model of Grameen Bank, which consists of five non-family members who are located in the same community and know and trust each other. They attend a week-long training session and community culture orientation together prior to loan disbursement, after which they meet once a week at the center meeting. The purpose of the group of the five is to help poor and disadvantaged women build a sense of belonging and responsibility in the community. By establishing such community and interaction,  the seeds of strength, love and care gradually are sowed in the community.

Pouring out at the center meeting

In Sociology, the emotional bond between Ms. L and other group members is known as a strong connection, which only exists between close friends and family who are in close contact. The other relative concept is weak connection, mostly nodding acquaintances, a network of relationships across multiple levels that effectively transmits information and breaks down barriers of information disparity.

Mr. Li Gen, Grameen’s staff member who charges the external cooperation, said, “The relationships between our members are gradually developing from weak connections to strong connections.” At the beginning, members communicate with each other mostly about loan-related issues such as the purpose of loan and the amount of loan, but as time goes by, their conversation gradually expands to include parents and their shortcomings, from which the transition from weak to strong connections is complete. The strong connection between the members in the Grameen model can satisfy Ms. L’s desire to talk.

As Manager Liang said, “For most of the time, what they need is not money, they need a community which could provide them a comfortable place to talk. The amount of money they earn from feeding sheep is more about material and lucrative purpose. With the community, Ms. L’s spiritual life is finally nurtured.”

In fact, Ms. L has a considerable amount of savings in Grameen Bank, and she chose Grameen Bank only because she found a group of people whom she can talk to. This was something that she could not find in her old social circle before.

Women’s courage to express and define themselves

“Thirty years ago, villagers were reluctant to let other villagers know that their living conditions were not as good as others. That’s not so much the case now; if something happens to the members, other members are more willing to listen, to talk, and to help others to the solve problems.”

About thirty years ago, when rural women encountered family conflicts, including financial pressure or health problems, most of them would chose to swallow the pain down and suffer in silence on their own and would rarely communicated with their neighbors. Such long-term suppressed negativities impose a great deal of pressure and burdens on rural women’s mental health, leding to a large number of women commit to suicid. (In the late 1990s, the suicide rate in rural China was more than three times compared to urban areas, and the suicide rate among women was only half of men. Data from WHO Annual Report on Health Statistics, China Annual Report on Disease Surveillance, China Health Statistics Yearbook.) And as the Grameen model grows in Lukou Village, a increasing number of female villagers choose to join Grameen’s five-persons group  for credits. With the formation of strong connections among the women members of the group, they no longer consider it unreasonable to talk about their hardships and seek help, but are given the right to express their feelings. The community culture of the Grameen model has also influenced the community culture of the village to some extent.

In Lukou village, the social life of Auntie L. has been significantly transformed by the social model provided by Grameen Bank. This is how Grameen staff described Auntie L.: “When her husband was on a business trip, she talked to him on a video call and said less than ten words in twenty minutes. Usually, except for farm work, she doesn’t go out and communicate with others at all.” But after joining Grameen, Auntie L. went to Auntie W., a member of the group, to talk to her when she was struggling to keep her rabbits alive, instead of staying at home by herself. Auntie W, who is a major rabbit farmer, also enthusiastically taught Auntie L. about her  farming experience, which further motivated Auntie L.to talk about her own problems.

Aunt L attends the Grameen Center meetings

Women no longer play the role of “somebody’s  mom or somebody’s wife”; they are who they are.

In some rural areas, women are often confined to the status of somebody’s daughter, mother or wife due to patriarchal ideology. They build networks of relationships in the village under such roles  this capacity. However, the communication platform provided by Grameen Bank allows rural women to define themselves to some extent on their own in the process of communication. Ms. Z, a nursery farmer, said at the Pizhou Longchi village center meeting, “usually I am a parent, a wife, and a boss. But at the meeting, I am myself, and I can switch freely within these identities of group leader, mother, wife, and boss.” This shows that in the community offered by Grameen Bank, female members are more inclined to be an independent individual.

For most rural women, farm work and household chores take up too much of their time, so they don’t have enough energy to explore their social needs. The meeting platform provided by Grameen Bank gives rural women the opportunity to have a voice in the group as independent individuals. Empowerment is achieved through self-definition and mutual support among members to form a community culture of women unique to Grameen. This has also influenced the community culture to some extent, as people have become more connected to each other. “Loans bring rural women together, and the culture of community makes them stay,” Grameen staff said. The empowerment of rural women is bound to have a long way to go, and it is worthwhile for the public to continue exploring it in depth. In the meantime, I hope that more and more women’s community cultures like the one supported by Grameen will bloom.

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