Give women economic power in Afghanistan

Sunday, November 25, 2001


When Laura Bush took over her husband's weekly radio address a couple of Saturdays ago, she hit the right notes about the ways women have been abused under the Taliban and how they should be treated in the new Afghanistan.

She just didn't go far enough.

The first lady should have recommended the place be turned over to women, so they could run it.

Ponder that for a minute. Could they possibly do worse than their menfolk, who have been warring and pillaging and torturing for eons?

After centuries of being in power, the men -- Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, whatever -- have little to show for it.

Granted, life was incredibly oppressive for everybody under the religiously perverted Taliban. But even before the mid '90s, back when common Afghan men were running the show, it was no picnic to live there.

The urgent solicitations for humanitarian aid have made Americans well versed with the facts of Afghan existence: One of every four children dies before turning 5 years old. Only 12 percent have access to adequate drinking water. The landscape is marred by millions of land mines. An intact irrigation canal qualifies as an industrial complex.

Women still may be subservient in the social pecking order but that's not true in the economic sense.

Many have made do without men for years because their husbands and sons were drafted or volunteered for the never-ending civil wars, and a lot of them ended up dead or limbless. Women have become used to operating on their own, to keeping what was left of their families together.

If for no other reason than default, these women are due some power.

And, while it's appropriate that the West is demanding that women play a role in creating the country's new provisional government, the form of power that would be most beneficial to them is economic.

Because more women would profit, power from the bottom up would be preferable to power from the top down.

In a country not far away, at least in terms of the landmass of Central Asia, there are women who have much to teach their Afghan sisters.

More than a quarter-century ago, when famine gripped the agrarian nation of Bangladesh, women there were introduced to a powerful means to escape the kind of abject poverty that riddles Afghanistan.

It was called microcredit by its creator, economics professor Muhammad Yunus, and peer lending was at its core.

Small loans were made to individual women who formed a five-member borrowing group. If one woman was delinquent, the others were not eligible to receive additional loans. So if one husband made off with his wife's money, the other women sent their husbands to collect.

The women used tiny loans to make bamboo stools, weave mats and purchase farm animals. Repayment of the initial loans meant successively larger ones. Soon cottage industries had grown up and with the proceeds, new roofs were being put on simple dwellings and children were being educated.

From the humblest of beginnings the Grameen Bank (meaning village in the Bangla language) has become the largest lending institution on Earth for those with the smallest incomes. In Bangladesh the bank has provided collateral-free loans to more than 2.3 million borrowers -- 94 percent are women -- and it has achieved a 95 percent repayment rate.

Early on Yunus decided to concentrate on women, believing that credit given to them brings about change faster. "Not only do women constitute the majority of the poor, the underemployed and the economically and socially disadvantaged, but they more readily and successfully improve the welfare of both children and men," he said.

Another reason to bypass men, which had to be done with finesse and subtlety, was that men were more apt to spend the loan proceeds on alcohol and gambling. Or, in the case of Afghan men, Kalashnikov assault rifles.

In Bangladesh, as in Afghanistan, the majority of the population adheres to Islam. At the onset of the experiment in the mid '70s, the religious leaders were suspicious that women, rather than men, were being approached.

At first the rules of purdah, a range of practices that upholds the Quran's tenet to guard the modesty and purity of women, were problematic. Eventually, though, microcredit and Islam came to coexist.

Not surprisingly the Grameen Bank's first experience in Afghanistan -- during the Taliban reign -- was brief and disastrous. Yunus' operation had been invited to work in Kandahar, the Taliban's base of operations, by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. But the lending practices soon proved to be too progressive for the Taliban, who complained that the newly enriched women had become "dissatisfied with their husbands." With that, the bank was ejected from the country.

It would be to the benefit of all Afghans, with the Taliban deposed from power, that the Grameen Bank be invited back.

While Afghan men continue fighting among themselves -- this time, it is hoped, with words, not weapons -- about the shape of the provisional government, the women could begin developing the real power to transform their nation into one that can sustain itself, not be forever dependent on international aid organizations.

Then, over time, the women are likely to win that other kind of power. Begum Khaleda Zia isn't a household word in the West but she is notorious in Bangladesh; last month her countrywomen and men elected her prime minister.

1998-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer