What’s the Big Idea?
October is National Women in Small Business month in the U.S., and Women’s History Month in India and Canada. It is also the 222nd anniversary of the Women’s March on Versailles, when 6,000 women stormed the palace of Louis XVI, igniting an uprising against the feudal aristocracy. At Big Think, we’re celebrating this month of observances with a series that explores what women and girls can teach the world about change.
Recently Big Think sat down with Sir Fazle Abed, founder of the microfinance organization BRAC, to ask, what can we do to empower women and girls throughout the world?
What’s the Significance?
Influenced by anti-imperialist philosophers Fritz Fanon and Paulo Freire, Abed believes that the solutions to a community’s problems should be generated from within it, by those it most affects, not outside of it. BRAC began with the impetus to “look to people to solve the multiplicity of problems that they face.”
The first initiative the organization undertook in 1972 was aimed at reducing child deaths due to dehydration, the cause of eighteen percent of child deaths worldwide. BRAC went to nearly every home in the countryside to teach mothers to make oral-rehydration solutions at in their own kitchens. Over the course of ten years, child mortality was reduced from 258 deaths per 1,000 to 75 deaths per 1,000.
This early victory inspired Abed to see women above all as change agents. Women bring communities together, says Abed, investing 90% of their income back in to their families, as compared to 30% by men. “If we want to change our society, we need to focus our attention on our women, who are not going to abandon anybody,” he says. Since its inception, BRAC has dispersed over $1 billion dollars in loans to women to start small businesses, mainly in dairy and chicken-farming.
But the belief that people have the power to shape heir own destinies is not the same as an insistence that they go at it alone, says Abed. “I have always believed, not in minimalist micro finance, but in micro finance with a plus, plus. The first plus means providing support in terms of imports and services and training. And the other plus means providing [women] healthcare, education for their children, so that [they can] afford to send their children to school.”
Today, almost 5 million children have gone through BRAC’s network of 40,000 single-teacher primary schools – currently, about 10% of the school-age population attends a BRAC school. And 80% of the organization’s yearly budget is created right where it started – in the farms and fisheries of Bangladesh.