I recently visited India in my role as Ambassador for microfinance provider Opportunity International Australia, and like the characters in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, found myself overwhelmed by the colours and smells, by the vibrancy and density of people and by the country itself. India is so wonderfully, incredibly foreign and so alive.
At the time, I wrote that India ‘assaults the senses’, and that’s true, but it doesn’t just open your eyes and ears to the exotic, it also confronts you with the reality of abject poverty. Weaving their way through stopped traffic were mothers with babies on their hips and children, tapping on the windows of cars, asking for one rupee, explaining their hunger. The media has recently drawn attention to India with a number of highly publicised cases of violence against women, highlighting the dangers women there face.
Being poor in a country like India is hard enough – but being poor and a woman in India seems almost hopeless.
During my visit to India, I was lucky enough to see and experience initiatives that turn those feelings of hopelessness into feelings of anticipation. Microfinance providers, like Opportunity International Australia and its local partners, which focus on giving families a hand up rather than a hand out, have hit upon a measurable, consistent and sustainable way of transforming lives, particularly for women. Opportunity International Australia uses loans as small at $100 to help families living in poverty start and grow their own small business, giving them control over their lives in way they have never had in the past.
Of course, Opportunity International Australia helps people regardless of ethnicity or gender, and doesn’t target women in particular, but the fact of the matter is that women make up the bulk of the recipients. This is because the responsibility of caring for families, for raising and educating children and for putting food on the table so often falls to women. Small loans give them the tools they need to do so. It seemed incredibly timely then, on United Nations International Women’s Day (8 March), to highlight the impact of this wonderful organisation.
Before reputable microfinance organisations arrived in some slum areas of India, the only option open to families was to borrow money from the village money lender, who charged rates of interest of up to 800%, effectively guaranteeing that the principal would never be paid back and that the cycle of poverty and despair would never be broken.
Back in 2008, Opportunity International Australia entered India, working with a team of local experts to bring much-needed loans to families living in poverty in slums and isolated rural areas of the country. Today it is reaching more than 1.3 million families with small loans, helping them earn a regular income and provide for their families.
Before this work began, many families the organisation currently serves were struggling under crushing levels of debt. Children did not attend school and often went hungry. Many women literally had no official identity – having never even learned how to sign their names.
One woman I met told me she used a small loan to start a juice shop. Another put a roof on her tiny home and built a second room which she rents out to earn a steady income. A third, who sews woven plastic sheeting into bags, tells me she started with just one customer. She now employs seven other women.
From little things big things grow, and when it comes to microfinance, small beginnings are clearly all that is needed to get the ball rolling. Success breeds success. One woman tells us that her neighbours see her children with better clothes, better food and going to school and are starting to think about getting a loan to start a business themselves.
She tells me proudly that she is the ambassador for microfinance in the community, but I think she is more than that. I think she is an ambassador for hope and optimism and for the life-changing effects of being given the tools to take control of your destiny.
For more information, visit www.opportunity.org.au