Friday, December 28, 2007

Connecting to a Bigger World

I was just reading some old Global Module material and came across a wonderful excerpt from the first GM we ever ran from the 2003 spring semester. My good friend, Dr. Tapti Roy from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, linked our classes together so that we could have our students discuss inequality. We had students in both classes read an article about the Grameen Bank. As many of you know, the Grameen Bank started in Bangladesh and specializes in making micro-loans to the poorest of the poor. One of the stipulations is that the loans are only made to women. During the online discussion between the students in Burlington and Dubai the logic behind this rule was questioned by a couple of the male students here in Burlington. At that point one of the female students in Dubai, who was originally from the subcontinent, wrote an extraordinary first-hand account of what it meant to be a woman in Bangladesh. Now, I could have told my students the same thing but it would have never resonated with them the way it did when the story was told by another student. The students were profoundly moved by her story, and it was at that point that we realized the tremendous potential of the Global Module approach for bringing students together. Here is a brief excerpt of that original posting:

"You had a few doubts about the
philosophy behind the Grameen bank in your first
posting- let me try and give a shot at them. Coming from
a nation that practices such a system, perhaps I may
help you look at things from another perspective. First
your initial question- why women? One thing you need to
understand is the status of women in general in the
rural society of the sub continent. Women are treated,
unfortunately, as second class citizens by the system
and only as ‘tools’ by the immediate society. Once she
is married off, given birth to a son (yes, this kind of
narrow thinking is still prevalent in many the corners
of the sub continent) , she becomes non-existent, at
society’s level known only as so and so’s wife or
mother. In Bangladesh, this is especially so because of
the lack of literacy at the village level and the
orthodox belief in caste hierarchy. In defiance of the
Bangladeshi banking system which treats women as second
class borrowers, the Grameen Bank (I read somewhere on
the net) wanted to establish a 50-50 ratio of women and
men borrowers. The Bank soon discovered I guess that
women are far more effective agents of change because at
least in this rural scenario they are accustomed to
handling many responsibilities at a time- managing the
house, the children, in this case acquiring food,
tending to cattle, managing the fields if any, etc. It
is a different issue that these jobs are considered as
‘a part of her duty’ by the men folk. Hence, economic
empowerment of women has a dramatic impact on
stabilizing the family unit. I know you said that the
men might ‘feel as if they aren’t needed and leave their
families, go out and spend more money, or get into
trouble much more easily.’ But a man’s perception of his
role in society, in these cases, is larger than life. It
is the men, on a customary basis that participate in the
village panchayats (grass-root level governments), it is
the men that traditionally do the labor for the house,
the village and their families. It is the men who make
all the decisions-including the work vs. school decision
regarding the children, mortgaging of property, etc.
. . . But I’m sure, that they too will
eventually realize that if they need the money and their
women can get it easily . . . then why not? So
I’ll beat her a little less today so that she doesn’t
complain tomorrow to those jibbery-jabbery friends of
hers and we can get that loan, and finally that landlord
will be off my back and we can keep that cow. . . The long term
benefit of any society, agreed as you said is for men and women
to stand up as equals. But the long term benefit of an under-developed
society is for the women to first realize and prove that
she is an equal."

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