"Phone ladies" wire up village life
Villages across Bangladesh are crossing the digital divide through a program that turns local women into successful telecommunications entrepreneurs.
Through Grameen Telecom's innovative Village Phone program, a Bangladeshi woman can obtain a cell phone kit through a micro-credit 'in kind' loan, and then become the operator of a phone service for the rest of her village.
I started the business as there was no other phone nearby, said one woman, I saw it as a good business opportunity.
Access to a phone means that locals can talk to relatives abroad, farmers can keep up with market prices for their products, and help can be summoned quickly when needed. And village women get much-needed financial independence in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Bangladesh is not a country where technology is readily accessible to the population, particularly in rural areas. According to World Bank statistics, over 60% of rural Bangladeshi residents are poor, and almost half live in extreme poverty. There are 68 000 villages in rural Bangladesh, with 100 million inhabitants.
Women in rural Bangladesh are at an even greater disadvantage than men. According to the UN, women lag behind men in health, literacy and income. They live within a traditional patriarchal society in which early marriage is common, they do not own land, and their ability to move around the village or travel outside of it depends on their access to a male escort.
[With my cell phone] I have more respect from my husband and family. Jamirun Nesa, one of 50,000 Bangladeshi women making a living as Grameen "phone ladies".
Telecommunications as a weapon against poverty
It was in this context that the Grameen Bank developed its Village Phone program in 1997 in collaboration with companies in the US, Norway and Japan. The Bank has been one of the pioneers of the 'micro-credit' movement. (Grameen means "village" or "rural" in Bangla) Grameen Telecom was created as a non-profit affiliate of the Bank with the goal of extending the benefits of the information revolution to the rural people of Bangladesh.
Grameen was started by economist Muhammad Yunus, who believed that offering small loans to the rural poor could help them become financially independent. His theory was that if individuals who were not eligible for credit through regular banks were given the opportunity to purchase income-generating equipment, they would have the means to support themselves. Borrowers typically use their small loans, usually no more than $100 US, for purchases such as a cow or a sewing machine or pottery-making equipment.
The Grameen Bank became a phenomenal success. Today, there are over 1000 branches with 2.34 million members, over 90% of whom are women.
For more information about the company, check out Grameen Telecom. Their objective is to install 40 000 village phones by 2004, so that no one in rural Bangladesh is more than a ten-minute walk from a phone.