Feminists Must Stand with Bangladeshi Women and Preserve Grameen Bank

The fight to eradicate poverty is one of the hardest fights a country can face. As a member of Congress, it is part of my duty to encourage methods that work best.

In April, Congress honored one such method when we awarded Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus the Congressional Gold Medal.  Now, the pioneering institution that he founded, Grameen Bank, is in danger of disappearing for good.

Grameen Bank has long been an independent, borrower-run company, and one of the world’s first microfinance organizations. It gives small loans to the poorest people in Bangladesh, offering them the chance to start their own businesses, escape the grip of predatory loan sharks and build better lives for themselves and their families.

Grameen Bank has led the way for millions of their borrowers to lift themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty. Of those borrowers, 96 percent are Bangladeshi women. As new entrepreneurs, these women have gained access to worlds of opportunity, empowerment and economic growth.

But in May 2012, the Bangladeshi government created a “commission of inquiry” to investigate Grameen Bank. That commission gave the government a set of preliminary recommendations which would disenfranchise nearly 5 million borrower-shareholders in the bank and replace the nine women borrowers on the board with government officials. More recently, the commission contemplated either giving the government ownership of the bank, or breaking it into 19 separate entities.

I am deeply concerned by these recommendations, which would jeopardize the role that Grameen Bank plays in helping women improve their communities and, by extension, the entire country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a strong record of working to improve the well-being of her people. She has the ability to reject these recommendations, and I recently joined 31 of my colleagues in the House and Senate in an open letter urging her to do so. Anything else would send a chilling message to social businesses and charitable organizations the world over.

The nine women borrowers on the bank’s board share our concern. As they recently urged the commission: “Do not push our backs against the wall. If you do so, we will have no other door open.”

Grameen Bank has helped these, and millions of other women, reap the rewards of their own hard work, determination and initiative. That must continue.

Photo of Bangladeshi women from Flickr user IRRI Images under license from Creative Commons 2.0