Microcredit for women

May 22 2003 | by

ALTHOUGH seventy percent of the world’s poor and two thirds of the world’s illiterate are women, the so-called weaker sex may yet hold the key to changing the world for the better. Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen in a recent interview in India’s National Magazine said: “There is plenty of evidence that whenever social and economic arrangements depart from the standard practice of male ownership, women can seize business and economic initiative with much success. It is also clear that the result of women’s participation is not merely to generate income for women, but also to provide many other social benefits that come from women's enhanced status and independence.” Professor Sen refers to two very important realities: firstly, women are recognised as holding the key to development; secondly, microcredit initiatives, (i.e. small loans to help start up activities) have been particularly successful for women of the Third World.


Key to development


World-wide 828 million women carry out two thirds of labour and receive in exchange one percent of available goods. Domestic labour represents ten to thirty-five percent of the world’s gross domestic product, yet it is neither recognised nor paid. In the Third World, women take on seventy to eighty percent of health care responsibilities and produce three quarters of the world’s food. The life and future of their children and the care of the elderly and the disabled depends both on women’s income and women’s knowledge. UNICEF calculates that a ten percent increase in female entrance to elementary school would lower the child mortality rate by 4.1 per thousand and a similar increase at secondary school would lower it by another 5.6 per thousand. In concrete terms, in Pakistan, for example, an extra year at school for 1,000 girls would save 60 children. This means giving women a greater understanding of their role in society, and the cultural and economic instruments which can improve their lives and encourage development in the entire community.




The experience of microcredit was born in Bangladesh in 1976 through the work of a university professor of economics, Muhammad Yunus, who these days is known as the ‘banker to the poor’. The idea of mini-credit came about after Yunus met Sophia, who at 22 years of age had two children and made bamboo stools. Because she had no money to buy her own materials, Sophia had become a virtual slave to the trader who gave her bamboo and purchased her stools. Dr. Yunus was very shocked by the simplicity of the solution, which the situation required, and the fact that nobody bothered to pay any attention to the problem. So, Dr. Yunus loaned Sophia and 41 others a total of $30 of his own money. Although he did not know it, he had planted the seed which grew into the Grameen Bank, and a loan programme that is now helping to feed millions of people like Sophia all over the world.

Grameen Bank is the largest rural bank in Bangladesh. It has over two million borrowers in 35,000 villages; ninety-four percent of its borrowers are women and ninety-eight percent of its loans are honoured. This experience has pointed out two facts to the world, and even to such sceptical economic institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund: women are the best debtors and microcredit is the way towards their redemption and the creation of development.

These international experiences validate the work which Saint Anthony’s Charities, following its own path, has carried out on behalf of women and children over the last few years. This is why the charitable institution of the friars of the Basilica of Saint Anthony dedicate the 13 June 2003 Campaign in honour of Saint Anthony’s feast day, to promoting women.




Mapato (Microcredit Against Poverty and AIDS for Tanzanian Opportunities) means ‘income’ in the Kiswhaili language. In the Archdiocese of Dar es Salaam, Saint Anthony’s Charities will finance modest loans in order to create small businesses to assist 1,000 poor women and sixty families devastated by AIDS.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Dar es Salaam, which includes the administrative region of Dar es Salaam and several provinces on the coast of Tanzania, actively participates in projects designed to promote human and social development. Of the Archdiocese’s 4.5 million inhabitants, eighty percent live below the poverty line. The politics of economic restructuring over the last few years have consistently prevented more and more people from attending school and receiving medical care. To relieve poverty, women and children have attempted autonomous economic activities, but they need the support of adequate preparation and the help of loans.

The project supported by Saint Anthony’s Charities works through a series of steps. Firstly, the directors of the fund hold informative meetings that are open to everyone. Secondly, whoever shows an interest may attend a residential course on management techniques and accounting which lasts six weeks. Participation in the course also provides criteria for selecting the most motivated candidates. Thirdly, the directors of the fund form basic groups ranging from five to ten people. These groups include an elected person who maintains contact with the directors of the fund and who takes charge of the group. The groups meet weekly and base themselves on a strong link of solidarity: all members commit themselves to giving reciprocal guarantees and checking the plausibility of the economic initiatives proposed, putting money away and respecting the loan’s expiry dates.

At this point, a loan is distributed to each member: from small sums of $20-$175 to larger sums with a maximum of $1,200, all payable within twenty-six to fifty-two weeks.

“This method works,” Dr. Leopoldo Salmaso, director of this project explained to us, “because it reflects the African clan tradition, within which there is a strong component of solidarity. In Tanzania, if a person is unable to pay back a loan, the family is called to settle it.” This attitude guarantees the return of capital and the capacity to check the use made of the money. Moreover, “weekly group meetings become a time during which problems can be discussed and shared. In fact, the money managed and earned by the women benefit children and relatives.” There is also a spin off in terms of religious dialogue: “Muslim women (roughly fifty percent of the project’s participants), Christians and animists succeed in working in harmony and helping one another reciprocally.”

Saint Anthony’s Charities will donate $200,000 to allow at least 1,000 women access this money over the next three years and to start up a pilot microcredit experience for the families of AIDS victims.




Saint Anthony’s Charities’ microcredit project in Eritrea is more complicated for at least three reasons. Firstly, Eritrea, after concluding a devastating thirty-year war of independence with Ethiopia in 1991, experienced a renewal of hostilities in 1998. Consequently, the country is bereft of infrastructure and very poor. Secondly, severe drought currently places two million people at risk of death by famine. Lastly, in the area identified for the microcredit project, such experience is still at a rudimentary level.

There is however a strong point in favour of the project’s success, namely, the great experience of the project organiser, the Italian Asmara Missions Group (GMA) and its strong friendship with the Eritrean population. This non-governmental organisation which has branches in thirty-two Italian cities, has been active in Eritrea since 1972 and runs projects using only local people.

The GMA has singled out four rural villages: Adi Teclai, Afelba, Acrur and Laiten.

“We have selected these villages,” the President of GMA, Friar Vitale Vitali explained to us, “because we have collaborated with them for years. There are other factors as well: the population hasn’t had access to credit and the women of the villages have shown themselves to be interested in starting up small productive activities. The fact that last year, community centres for the promotion of women were built in the villages, helps us, as they will probably become the educational centres of the project.”

Why choose a long-term savings and loan project when the problem of starvation risks wiping out hundreds of thousands of victims here and now? “When the famine broke out,” replies Friar Vitali, “the idea of setting up development projects for women was already well-developed after years of preparation; to interrupt it meant removing all hope for the future.” Saint Anthony’s Charities confirms this: “The project which we are financing,” says Fr. Luciano Massarotto, “will perhaps not have repercussions during this emergency, but it will be fundamental in the prevention of further emergencies. Giving women and families an income which is not solely based on agriculture means releasing them forever from the risk of dying because of a failed harvest.”

The project is directed at women, not only because the men are all too often fighting at the battle front, but because women are the nerve centres of rural society.

The project’s organisation follows the already tried and tested microcredit scheme. The project will last three years and will benefit at least 360 women: after this adjustment period, it is foreseen that each village will look after its own fund, under GMA’s supervision, for at least another six to ten years. Saint Anthony’s Charities will provide $120,000 to start up the project, to provide for personnel training and to establish the first revolving-credit fund.




Many women in Burundi are homeless and unemployed widows, often HIV-positive or with war injuries, and with up to five children who are either their own or orphans of other family members. The bleak situation of so many women in Burundi derives from the recent history of genocide and tribal warfare which erupted in 1993 and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. Saint Anthony’s Charities thought of these mothers and children when it agreed to finance a project organised by the Diocese of Bubanza to improve the fate of 350 widows and children in the northwest of the country.

“In such a difficult context as Burundi,” agrees Fr. Luciano Massarotto, director of Saint Anthony’s Charities, “it is unthinkable to start up a microcredit project since the necessary conditions are lacking. Giving these widows and their children a home and the basic means to survive is the base on which to begin planning sustainable development.” Each widow will receive a brick house, two saris to dress themselves with and a milk goat for family use, but also to provide a small income. A simple project which will change the lives of the people involved, because the widows and their children are these days the most subject to poverty, violence and prejudice.

A woman without a husband has no rights; if she is also lacking a house, then she is left completely without protection for herself and her children. “Many widows live in huts made of mud and branches, at the mercy of bad weather and social violence,” explains Bucumi Conrad, General Secretary of the Diocese of Bubanza and project organiser. “Alienation and the loss of dignity remove their will to defend themselves, even if they own a patch of land: their neighbours feel entitled to take possession of it. Being a home-owner would give the women more contractual force, self-assurance and self-awareness, even with relatives.” In fact, cases in which widows are forced by the husband’s family to re-marry in order to seize their property are not rare. In other occasions, the woman, unable to build a shelter by herself, concedes what little she has in return for protection, becoming, along with her children, another family’s slaves.

A house, a goat and two saris will cost Saint Anthony’s Charities $598 per woman. The total cost for 350 women is about $210,000.

While it will take more than these simple acts of assistance, which we will undertake with your help this year, to defeat the underdevelopment and poverty which ensnares a huge proportion of the world’s women, we are reaching out to those who are worse off than ourselves. It is in any case a sign of our universal brotherhood: we are all children of the same Father, and we all have the right to live our lives with dignity.

Updated on October 06 2016