ALONG the sandy banks of the Dhaleswari River, a tranquil tributary of the Ganges in waterlogged Bangladesh, there is perpetual movement. This country, the size of Wisconsin, has nearly 110 million people. Villages are strung in an endless chain of jute-stick huts on the higher ground above the riverbanks. Lines of men trudge along the shores, straining forward against ropes that haul huge, ancient, square-sailed ships up the middle of the river. The men will talk and laugh with a visitor as they walk. But the women washing clothes at the river's edge hide their faces in their saris and turn away as if trying to erase themselves when a stranger comes near.
Most Bangladeshi women behave this way with strangers, following the Muslim custom of purdah (which literally means ``curtain'') and centuries of tradition that have left most of them timid, uneducated, and insecure.
In some villages, the women stand tall when visitors approach. They hold up their heads and, with a beguiling mixture of pride and shyness, look strangers in the eye. Then they do something even more unexpected: give a crisp, energetic, military-style salute in greeting.
What has changed these women's behavior, their perception of themselves - indeed, their economic standing, and their very status in their communities?
The Grameen Bank (grameen means village in Bengali) provides business credit to women who previously were treated - and saw themselves - as nothing but burdens on their families. It was started as an ``antipoverty'' experiment in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus, a professor of economics at Chittagong University. It became a full-fledged bank in 1983. With about half a million borrowers today, the bank is growing at a rate of 10,000 to 15,000 new borrowers a month. To date, it has reached 9,500 villages - 14 percent of Bangladesh's 68,000 rural communities.
The sight of barefoot women in bright, multicolored saris saluting from the doorways of their palm-matted huts may surprise visitors, but it exemplifies the underlying objective of the bank: to uplift the poorest and most oppressed members of one of the world's poorest, most tradition-bound societies.
``We wanted to get rid of these women's habit of being nonentities,'' says Dr. Yunus, who earned his economics degree at Vanderbilt University in the United States.
``They normally hide their faces, and when they salaam [the traditional Muslim greeting], they touch their forehead with a limp hand. Somebody thought of the salute, which is like a salaam but with a very important difference. You can't hide your face and salute at the same time. You have to stand up tall.''
Grameen is a bank tailor-made for the poorest - for those who have no access to commercial banks but must resort to begging from local landowners or borrowing from moneylenders who charge 10 percent per month or more. At the Grameen Bank, one must be landless to qualify for a loan. (About 60 percent of Bangladeshis are considered landless, even though many of them do own tiny plots of about one-fifth of an acre.) About 82 percent of Grameen's borrowers are women - the poorest of the poor.
``Women see the worst kind of poverty, because women are the ones who must feed people,'' says Yunus. ``If you give a chance to the women, they become much better fighters against poverty than men. A woman sees much further into the future than a man does. She always wants to have a better life for her children. Given an opportunity, she works for the future.
``And it is usually the very desperate ones who come [for a loan]. Often it's women abandoned by their husbands. That is who the Grameen Bank was created for - those who have no means at all.''
The loans are small - the average amount for a first-time loan is $65. With the exception of housing loans, the credit provided is ``venture capital'' for enterprises like rice-husking, weaving, or the production and sale of vegetables, eggs, or milk. To ensure that the women receive advice and encouragement from their peers in formulating business plans, they must form groups of five to take out a loan. If a borrower has difficulty repaying her loan, the other members of her group help.
The bank's capital comes from government loans made at 2 percent interest, financed by aid from Canada, Norway, Sweden, West Germany, and other donors. All operating expenses, including opening branches and salaries of some 6,000 branch employees, are covered by the 16 percent interest per annum the bank charges borrowers.
The Grameen Bank model has gained such a following that virtually all of Bangladesh's development programs will soon adopt its credit-intensive approach, according to a leading government planner. And Grameen's system is being replicated in Malawi, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Tanzania, as well as the south side of Chicago, rural Arkansas, and other parts of the United States.
The idea of banks - of dealing with strangers and handling money - is so foreign to these women that taking the first step can be frightening. Hence, each group elects a leader who they feel will give them courage.
``Setara was braver than the rest of us,'' says one woman of her group leader. ``We were all hesitating, but she said, `Why worry? Either we will die or we will live like human beings.' So she mustered the courage for everyone.''
Several groups of borrowers form a ``center'' that meets once a week with a representative from the nearest of the bank's 464 branches. Over a 50-week period, members pay off the principal of their loans at 2 percent a week, and the 16 percent interest in two more weeks. At the end of the 52 weeks, borrowers who are paid up qualify for a larger loan. Grameen's repayment rate is 98 percent.
The material benefits of using the bank are obvious: Nutrition levels rise, living conditions improve, and drudgery is replaced with productive activity.
``Now we can spend more money on food,'' says borrower Alaka Parveen. Small and slight, she is dressed in a beautiful, vibrant combination of colors: a yellow and red sari over a red and white striped blouse. ``Before, we never could give milk or eggs to our children. Now they eat these and we do, too.''
Nurun Nahar, in the village of Boromonohordi, has taken two loans so far, the first for raising winter vegetables, the second for husking rice. She became eligible for a house loan, conditional on the willingness of her husband to transfer ownership of his tiny plot of land to his wife. He did, and she got the house loan.
Since women in Bangladesh cannot inherit property, Grameen has developed the transfer scheme to enhance the financial security of its female borrowers. Housing loans are available only when ownership of the land is in the wife's name.
``Housing for the poor means a place to work, to get proper rest, and a place for storage,'' says Muzammel Huq, Grameen's employee training director. ``A person working without a shelter is like a soldier without ammunition.''
Today, Mrs. Nahar has a relatively large, two-room house with a tin roof - an important asset that allows families to ``camp out'' during floods. Despite the tin roof, the house is quite cool, thanks to cross-ventilation. It is spotlessly clean, neat, and beautiful. The jute-stick interior wall is woven into graceful designs of fish. A folded mosquito net hangs from a rafter over the bed, and a loom sits in one corner.
This house has increased Nahar's productivity. ``In our old house we had no [electric] current,'' she says. ``I used to go to bed very early. Now I can work at my weaving until 12.'' Electricity is much cheaper than buying weekly supplies of kerosene.
Increased work efficiency has come to Nahar's neighbor Hasin Banu, too, thanks to the installation of a tube well that her group of borrowers paid for jointly - supplied at a special low price, subsidized by UNICEF.
``Before, I had to walk a mile, three or four times a day, to get my cooking and drinking water, which was not pure,'' says Mrs. Banu. ``This water is good to drink, and now I use the time I save for spinning thread.''
Grameen borrowers are required to save 1 taka per week (about 3 cents) plus 5 percent of each loan amount. In the bank branch in nearby Bramundhi, six women dressed in flowing black robes, with only their hands and faces showing, sit waiting to make deposits in, or withdrawals from, their savings accounts. This is standard attire for trips to the bank. (Women in purdah must be covered if they venture out of the vicinity of their homes.)
This branch has 1,800 borrowers; it has made 340 house loans and financed the installation of nine tube wells. Grameen savings accounts pay 8.5 percent, and bank branches provide other benefits, too, such as training workshops for group leaders.
Out of group discussions in these workshops evolved what the bank calls ``the 16 decisions.'' This list of guidelines starts with the four principles - discipline, unity, courage, and hard work. It includes the decision to educate one's children, keep one's family small, one's house in good repair, one's children eating plenty of vegetables, and the marriages of one's sons and daughters free from ``the curse of dowry'' - an entrenched custom that drains the finances of many families and may put them in debt for years.
``I estimate that 50 percent of our borrowers now use family planning,'' says branch manager Rafiqul Islam. ``Before joining the bank, only a few used it.''
Peyera Begum was married at age 9 and had her first child at 13. Now 27 with four children, she uses birth control. Though she had only two years of primary school, she is confident she will be able to send her children through high school and dreams of sending them to a university.
Bank officers say that when borrowers start earning, they usually want to have fewer children so they can devote more time to their businesses. And they realize they can care for a small family better than a large one. Mrs. Begum has a grocery shop and has come to withdraw savings to buy additional stock.
Improved nutrition, housing, water supply, health care, family planning, and education are the benefits most designers of third-world development projects strive for. But when you ask Grameen bank clients what the bank has meant to them, they talk as much of intangibles as of improvements in their living conditions. Often their achievements as entrepreneurs result in better relations with their families.
``Our husbands recognize that we are helpful members of the family and not a liability,'' says Mrs. Parveen in Haran Nagar. ``They show us more affection than they did before.''
Shahar Banu, who lives in the neighboring Hindu village of Krishna Nagar, agrees. ``Now my husband and son consult me when they do anything. Before, they didn't know I existed.''
And Mrs. Banu sees a marked improvement in her relations with the local landowners. ``Before, the greeting was only one way: We always greeted them. Now they greet us.''
``Our husbands never used to listen to us before,'' echoes Shob Mehir in Haran Nagar. ``Now they listen because we have capital. Also, we have saved them the humiliation inflicted by well-to-do people. They don't feel ashamed any more. They have been freed from subjugation and they feel grateful.''
Criticism of the bank flares up now and then, on the part of landowners who find it more difficult to hire cheap labor, and on the part of religious leaders. The latter group claims that the teachings of Islam are being eroded when women start to go out of their homes to work. But according to Mr. Huq, the women have a ready answer to such charges.
``When I was begging in the streets,'' they say, ``how come Islam was not in danger then?''
Last of a five-part series. Earlier articles ran on Feb. 15, Feb. 22, March 1, and March 8.
SNAPSHOT OF BANGLADESH
An estimated 50 percent of the food crops in Bangladesh are produced by rural women. Yet little more than 12 percent of the official labor force is female and is concentrated in domestic service. In 1984 the World Bank listed Bangladesh as the world's second-poorest country, after Ethiopia. Its economy is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters (cyclones). Most of the labor force is engaged in agriculture (rice, jute).
Area in square miles: 55,600 (size of Wisconsin). Total population: 109.5 million (US: 240 million). Population/square mile: 1,969 (US: 68). Per capita GNP: $160 (US: $17,500). Mortality rate for children under 5 years: 120/1,000 (US: 13/1,000). Fertility rate: 5.8 children/woman (US: 1.8). Percentage of infants with low birth weight: 31 (US: 7). Percentage of children under 5 with malnutrition: 50. Percentage of literate adults male/female: 43/22. Life expectancy at birth: 52 years (US: 76). Percentage of population in urban areas: 13 (US: 74).
Sources: The Population Reference Bureau; UNICEF; Political Handbook of the World (1987).