Am on my way to one of the clients centre meetings to discuss health insurance. The streets of Lahore are very busy and all the cars are hooting; everybody is in a hurry and some cars have occupied the footpath and there is no space even for pedestrians to walk as the shop corridors are also lined up with food stalls and donkey carts displaying their wares.
As we approach the branch; it’s nothing close to what I had in mind; the dusty wall displays the signboard and we make our way through a narrow lane to get to the office. The offices and staff are very simple and also simple dressing is encouraged due to the nature of the clients they work with.I am introduced to Imran, a loan officer who will take us to his centre meeting; not far from the office. Each of the loan officers will normally attend 3 meetings in a day which translates to reaching 75 clients every day per loan officer. A typical branch will have serviced 375 clients for the day.
We arrive at the client’s house; a one roomed house; most of the clients live in one or two roomed house with an average family size of seven due to the kinship system. The furniture has been moved to the side and the women are seated on the mat on the floor and we join them. A typical centre comprises 25 women who are further broken down into groups of five which are led by group leaders and the lager group by a centre manager.
The loan officer will start by recording attendance and if quorum is achieved will have a discussion on a general topic and then will manually record their payments and wind up.
The clients are excited as there is a foreigner who has come to visit them and after a long fight which started because we have turned down a glass of juice which did not go down well with them and we ask about how the loans have empowered them.
This particular centre is from the second largest muslim sect and women are not allowed to work. One woman even emphasized that their men have sworn that the families would rather die of hunger than have their women working and fending for the family. So all the women here have accessed the loans and given the money to their husbands for business. Most of them would want to run a business but they would be viewed as almost next to prostitutes if they will go out of their homes and interact with men.
Back in my room in the evening and am wondering how do you help such women with such drive and zeal to move forward but are held back by their culture? The women are happy that even though they still have cultural restrictions and are still fighting for women’s rights; they have a social identity; they belong to a certain group. They are happy that they can now afford to by nice clothes and attend weddings and other social gatherings. They can finally become normal members of society; and it finally dawns on me that the social exclusion aspect plays major role in the definition of poverty.