The power trio of women leaders behind NWTF

April 6, 2015

Cross-posted on Ujjivan

Compassion for the vulnerable and marginalized of the Philippines brought three women together, determined to find innovative solutions for the impoverished. Christened the pillars of NWTF (Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, Inc.), Dr. Cecilia del Castillo, Ms. Corazon Henares and Ms. Suzzette Gaston, knew early on that the power to effect change in the community lay in the hearts and hands of Filipino women.

The founding leaders of NWTF, Suzzette Gaston, Corazon Henares and Dr. Cecilia del Castillo

The 60’s was a pivotal moment in the lives of these three women. Their active social work in the community brought them together for their first major project – the launching of an educational TV program for public elementary schools and other outfits in rural areas – through the invitation and inspiration of Fr. James Bertram Reuters, S.J., BLD. They spent a summer under the tutelage of Father Reuters and mass media professionals to learn and gain exposure to educational TV production. Father Reuters assigned retired Jesuit priest, Fr. Philip Bourret, S.J. to assist them in the organization of the TV station. The off-shoot of this project was VERTA (Visayan Educational Radio and Television Association), an ETV program-producing non-stock, non-profit corporation by Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich and Fr. Bourret, S.J., ‘financed by donations from the Negros Occidental Sugarcane Planters and the Negros Occidental provincial government’ (“Academia”, 21).

Corazon Henares, NWTF

The pursuit of higher education placed them on separate paths: Ms. Corazon Henares on an Educational Psychology Scholarship from the East-West Center in Hawaii and Study Tour in Ohio State University. Dr. del Castillo followed, taking her Doctorate in Counselling Psychology from Indiana University. It was during Business Management classes that Dr. del Castillo’s interest in banking for women was piqued. She returned home and proposed the initiative to Ms. Suzzette Gaston who held a Business Administration and Commerce degree from Miriam College. Confident in their skills as a team based on their work on the ETV program, Ms. Henares joined them and together gave life to NWTF.

In response to the sugar crisis that struck Negros Island and the near-famine that ensued, the three women launched a feeding program for mothers and children in the province. And in order to be sustainable, they transformed the feeding program into a livelihood project – The Mother Bakery Cooperative. Apart from her role in the cooperative with Ms. Henares and Ms. Gaston as well as her counselling clinic, Dr. del Castillo was made part of Negros Occidental’s post-Marcos government under Governor Daniel Lacson to spearhead their women-centered initiatives. Governor Lacson, after a speaking engagement at a conference where Professor Muhammad Yunus was also presenting, appointed Dr. del Castillo to the pioneer task force composed of representatives from several regions in the Philippines, created under the advisement of President Corazon Aquino, to study the Grameen Credit Methodology with Professor Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. NWTF was able to scale operations, impacting thousands of lives in its first year of implementation; opening its first branches in four municipalities and cities in Negros Occidental.

Dr. Cecilia del Castillo

In 1989, Dr. del Castillo was appointed President of PHILNET (Philippine Network of Grameen Bank Replicators) and Executive Trustee of CASHPOR Philippines (Charter of the Asia-Pacific for Helping the Hardcore Poor). Together with Professor David Gibbons, Executive Trustee of CASHPOR Malaysia, PHILNET was able to conduct capacity-building programs and disperse financial assistance to its network members through a grant received from the Finland Government. Both devised the training programs, searched for appropriate resource speakers and trainers in respective fields and made provisions for replicating training programs for existing and new members. Capacity-building training included Personal Effectiveness, Cost Effective Interest Rate, Measuring Impact (AIMS Impact Assessment Tool), Internal Control and Fraud Detection, and Cost-Effective Targeting, just to name a few. The training programs, workshops and meetings became the platform for MFIs in the region to come together and share best practices which in turn became the foundation for Philippine Microfinance Performance Standards and influenced industry standards as well. In 1999, PHILNET merged with MCPI (Microfinance Council of the Philippines, Inc.), donating its reserves as seed money for the newly registered non-stock corporation to takeover and support the network practitioners and institutions.

Dr. del Castillo turned her focus on developing NWTF and its product and service offerings, ensuring that client needs were really being met. In the early 2000’s, she lobbied for the Micro-Agriculture product and it’s unique provisions with the central bank of the Republic of the Philippines (BSP). Her efforts, along with others in the industry, drove the BSP to innovate and make changes in the banking industry’s policies regarding microfinance. These include:

  1. Criteria for provision of allowance:  Dr. del Castillo and her team proposed that the reason for non-payment should be considered in the provision of allowance especially if non-payment is caused by fortuitous events.  The grace period and moratorium policy came about.
  2. Creation of a separate set of guidelines for microfinance banking
    • Requirement of account opening for microfinance clients
    • Permitting non-payment during holidays (for microfinance clients)
  3. Additional product: Microfinance Housing
  4. Separate Microfinance department/branch under BSP

Suzzette Gaston, NWTF

Over the course of the next 30 years, this client-centric organization began expanding its outreach and addressing basic rights beyond the scope of financial inclusion, offering a holistic approach to poverty alleviation in the region. Project Kasanag, an individual lending program, was created to cater to clients whose specialized needs transcended the group-based dynamics of Project Dungganon. Five years later, in 2005, Dunggnaon Bank, Inc. – the first microfinance thrift bank in the Visayas, was established for more sophisticated client needs. A robust training program to enhance the livelihood and business skills of clients was developed, solidified by the formation of the Client Services Department whose sole function is to maximize the potentials of clients’ income generating and survival skills, in addition to managing client healthcare, legal and scholarship programs. In 2002, the organization offered micro insurance to its clients after witnessing the immense setbacks they experienced from emergencies related to healthcare. Backed by the firm belief in the role of education as a powerful tool against poverty and oppression, NWTF partnered with Vittana and through KIVA offers an education loan product for the clients’ children for vocational, 2-year and 4-year university courses. Environmental stewardship has been a part of NWTF’s foundation in the training and formation of client centers; and, in 2009 was taken a step further with the offering of micro energy loans for solar-powered lamps, cook stoves and water filters.

Since its inception, Dr. Cecilia del Castillo, with the unwavering support of Deputy Director of Operations, Ms. Corazon Henares, and Deputy Director of Administration and Finance, Ms. Suzzette Gaston, continues to play a leading role in the direction of the organization. As adamant as she was on sharing insight and best practices with other practitioners and institutions more than two decades ago, NWTF remains an open and transparent training ground for those interested in observing best practices that have benefited NWTF clients and the organization as a whole.

Looking back on this – NWTF’s 30th anniversary in 2013, the three women are proud of the organization’s achievements toward poverty alleviation. Their passion to help the Philippine community continues to drive them to find innovative ways in uplifting the lives of Filipino women over and above their economic lives. With their leadership, NWTF’s thrust is to develop and provide tools to improve clients’ total quality of life.

NWTF currently serves more than 180,000 women mircoentrepreneurs in 73 municipalities and cities across Central Philippines, from northern Panay, Negros, Cebu, Samar, Leyte to the southern tip of Palawan.

Postscript from the Author

I have known Dr. Cecilia del Castillo since I was a child. She was very close to my grandparents, Eduardo and Lourdes Filomena Ledesma, and I would see her most often during family lunches in our grandparents’ home. It was when I first joined the organization in 2011 that I truly grasped the scope of her work alongside Ms. Corazon Henares and Ms. Suzzette Gaston. The immense impact these three women have had on our country constantly inspires my work with the organization. The courage they possess to face the immensity of poverty and their constant drive to move forward to improve services for our clients instils in me a hope for change and strength to persevere. They are compassionate and approachable leaders of this organization, providing the NWTF Team with opportunities to learn and make an impact in our own rights and capacities.