Women at the center of our economic activity

A beneficiary of a microfinance project in Vietnam. Grameen Bank, a social business that makes microcredit available, proved that women are bankable. Photo by: Lorrie Graham / AusAID / CC BY

In the past 60 years or so, we have seen capitalism reach its peak. We have seen the socialist economies fall away and move rapidly toward capitalism. This has undoubtedly brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity in many parts of the world and to many people. At the same time, millions — if not billions — have been left behind.

We have seen the deep financial crises grip the world economy since 2008, and we have seen huge numbers of people becoming unemployed even in the so-called prosperous Western countries. These crises and the resulting social problems starkly show up the failings of the global capitalist system. I believe these crises give us an opportunity to design things better.

Profit-centered business has not been able to solve human problems, and in some cases has made them worse. I have been advocating for the creation of social business — a nondividend company to address human problems — as the way forward. One of the features of social business is that it puts women at the center of economic activity.

The Grameen Bank, which is the first social business that we embarked upon in 1976, today serves more than 8.4 million borrowers, 94 percent of whom are women, and is the only rural bank that is owned entirely by its borrowers. It proved for the first time that the poor, and especially the women among them, were not only bankable but usually more bankable than the rich. More than 200 million people, mostly women, now have access to microcredits around the world, and studies show they have brought a host of positive impact to their families and their communities.

It is almost 40 years now since we began. We kept looking at the children of our borrowers to see what has been the impact of our work on their lives. The women who are our borrowers always gave topmost priority to the children. One of the “16 Decisions” developed and followed by Grameen Bank borrowers was to send children to school. We encouraged them, and before long, all the children were going to school. Many of these children made it to the top of their class. We began providing scholarships to meritorious students and education loans to those who attained higher education. These strides took place because the borrowers of the bank were women.

Over the years, we created a series of social business companies to address different problems faced by the poor in Bangladesh. Whether it’s a company to provide renewable energy, health care or information technology to the poor, the main agent for change has been women.

When I look back, I would say that the silent revolution that we created through microcredit and social business in Bangladesh has been due in large part to the central role played by women in all these activities. This is attested by the fact that the impact of microcredit has resulted not only in increased household income and household savings, but has also increased women's empowerment, reduced maternal and child mortality, brought down family size, and ensured that millions of children have gone to school — creating a new generation very unlike the previous one. The experience of the Grameen Bank and social business is a microcosm of what can happen globally if we put women at the center of our economic and social activity.

This coming year is the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, an appropriate time for us to reaffirm our commitment to continue to empower women, both economically and socially, not only for their sake but for the sake of the future well-being of our children and their children after that.

Interested in women’s empowerment and gender equality? Learn about U.N. Women‘s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity:  Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20. Devex is a proud media partner.

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About the author

  • Muhammad Yunus

    Muhammad Yunus is the founder of the Grameen Bank and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his “efforts to create economic and social development from below.” He has won a number of prestigious awards and honorary doctorate degrees, and is considered a trailblazer in microfinance and social business. Yunus serves on the board of directors of the United Nations Foundation.

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