I believe in women as entrepreneurs, leaders and changemakers: Q&A with Humaira Islam

July 13, 2015

By: Shahida Pervin

An up close and personal interview with the founder of Shakti Foundation for Disadvantaged Women in Bangladesh.

Shakti Foundation for Disadvantaged WomenShahida: How was Shakti Foundation formed? What drove you to form Shakti?

Humaira: From my childhood, my dream was to do something for the underprivileged women in society. I have seen and heard of deprivation, stress, lack of respect for women in their family life. It gave me pain. I thought of doing something for them. My PhD topic was “Women Empowerment”. There, I also found that women have no right even in her family. She cannot make any decision regarding her children or any other family matter. This is happening as she doesn’t have money to financially support her family. Realizing this truth, I thought of doing something after completing my PhD. I found that the Grameen Bank model of microcredit was successful in the rural areas, and then I thought of using this model for women in the urban areas.

In 1992, a few young men and women who believed that financial independence could bring freedom and security for women in her home and society, got together to test this among women in low income household in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In the beginning there was no money for the project, so with a small personal contribution from myself, the first disbursement of taka 15,000 (US$ 187) was made among 5 women. All these women eventually graduated as successful role models for their peers in society as entrepreneurs, leaders and change makers.

Humaira Islam receives Women's World Banking's Excellence in Leadership Award, 2013
What had started more than 2 decades ago as an experiment has today turned into a mega program in Bangladesh. We have a huge coverage area over the country. Hundreds of thousands of women in low income families have improved the quality of their own lives and that of their children by having access to education, health, housing and opportunities for employment and income.

Yes, I remember a couple of matters after starting the project—I woke up in the middle of the night one day and stated to panic, thinking “What if I fail? Four other young men and women who worked with me at the beginning of the project had all given up their regular jobs because they believed in the same philosophy. This put a heavy moral responsibility on me about their future. I felt an anxiety about what will happen to their dreams if I fail them and the experiment does not succeed? But time showed that I did not fail but I became a role model for other women to create similar programs in the country. I had asked one of the donors at that time, “When would you consider the program a success?” She told me that if you can get a maximum 60% loan recovery rate, we will consider the program a success. One year later, we had collected 100% of the entire loans disbursed. This created confidence among other microcredit institutions and thus, the foundation of an urban credit program was laid in Bangladesh.

Shahida: What were the challenges in forming Shakti in the early years?

Humaira: During the start-up stage, there were many challenges. The biggest challenge was to prove that a credit program in the urban areas was possible. The belief during the period was that the urban poor were migrants and had no fixed or permanent address as opposed to the rural poor who had a fixed address. And therefore, any loan given to them would result in default.

The second challenge was about gender in a traditionally male-dominated society where all micro credit programs were run by men. I was not very welcome in their territory. Most had a paternal, tolerant attitude shown me—giving the impression “you are here but do not overstep your boundaries as on institutional leader.” These institutions tried to create psychological pressure in many ways. But I have prevailed.

Shahida: How has Shakti promoted women empowerment in Bangladesh?

Humaira Islam GroupHumaira: The idea of working for the urban poor instead of the rural poor originated from a 1989 research study “Situation Analysis of the Urban Poor”. In the study, it was observed that, the situation of urban poor is worse than that of rural poor in terms of: 1) living conditions, 2) employment, 3) literacy, 4) health and 5) sanitation. Majority of slum housing structures are very weak. Poverty and unemployment—these problems are particularly acute for women. Disadvantaged people in urban area are easily trapped in a cycle of poverty. Those without land and little, no education and low income face tougher obstacles in finding adequate employment, bringing up healthy families, and weathering economic downturns. Women, lacking in social position and legal rights and, traditionally earning less than half the wage rate of men, are particularly vulnerable. Shakti Foundation addresses its mission through an integrated approach. The core program is micro credit but 3 other programs are being implemented. These are health, solar energy and agriculture. In addition, the graduates of the microcredit program are given support for business expansion to medium enterprise.

The objective of SME is to provide opportunities and enable Shakti members to enter the small and medium markets. The experience clearly indicates that lack of capital is still the main problem with the absence of marketing facilities and a proper sales center as additional major problems. Another common barrier faced by women entrepreneurs is balancing time between the enterprise and the family. Other limiting factors are the availability of machinery, equipment, technology and power. Small and medium enterprises have a bright future for urban women. This sector can absorb a chunk of low skilled and less educated urban women. If the major barrier in marketing for women entrepreneurs are removed then a huge number of women will be able to lead the sector and contribute to the nation’s economy.

Shahida: What is the future of women empowerment in Bangladesh?

Humaira: As a young woman I had traveled to rural areas in Bangladesh for my doctoral thesis which was on “Empowerment of Women in Bangladesh”. What I had found in the country is the popular thinking that poor women were weak and subservient; but, these women were actually resilient, energetic and feisty. What these women lacked were opportunities that would enable them to live the life of their choice—marriage, child birth, recreation, etc.

There is resilience, productive energy and drive for quality of life in every woman especially among the low-income household. Financial services by MFIs over the last 4 decades have helped in creating an enabling environment so that women jointly with the men earn and contribute to the budget.

In the recent decade, microcredit has created a new level of entrepreneurs. The challenge for the new generation of leaders is to design a structural and operational framework so that micro entrepreneurs can sustain and grow in a highly competitive male market. We need to reformulate microcredit policies, create innovative strategies and use technologies to help the new generation of micro entrepreneurs move forward to greater growth.

Shahida: How do you feel about the “Excellence in Leadership Award” given by Women’s World Banking (WWB)?

Humaira: Shakti Foundation for Disadvantaged Women received an award for “Excellence in Leadership” from the Women’s World Banking, New York. The prestigious award was given for Shakti’s contribution in gender diversity, principled leadership and excellence in financial and social performance. These are areas in which Shakti has been working tirelessly over the last two decades.

It was really a wonderful thing to get the leadership award. It is the achievement of 500,000 members and 3,000 staffs. Shakti always believes that women can change their fate with their own effort.

Cross-posted on Ujjivan’s as part of their on-going series on women leaders in financial inclusion