Women warriors loom large in Vietnam’s history. The Trung Sisters, with a district in Hanoi bearing their name and statues appearing in temples throughout the country, are among the most famous of these women warriors. They are said to have raised an army that defeated Chinese occupiers around 43 A.D.
To me, the women borrowers whom I’ve interviewed during the past three months are women warriors – hard working, smart and humble. These women truly earn their living. Along the way, I’ve met:
Widows who bear the weight of caring for an entire family. Ms. Tuyen Nguyen Thi, the group leader of 42-Quang Hung group, lost her husband during the Vietnam War. She has raised three children on her own, putting them through school and paying for their weddings. Ms. Tuyen sells fish at the local market and with her profits and savings, she was recently able to build four rooms in her home to rent out to students from the local university.
Spirited entrepreneurs whose successful businesses provide jobs for others in the community, adding value to their local economies. Ms. Do Thi Thanh is a perfect example of this. She started her business 12 years ago with 5 people on staff (her family members). Nowadays, she employs 35 people (all women) in her neighborhood. Ms. Thanh sells Nem Chua, a pickled sour pork sausage that is usually paired with hot chili sauce. She takes pride in her Nem Chua recipe, which has been passed down through several generations. Ms. Thanh is also someone who has a sincere desire to help others, and her business decisions are not only based on her needs, but also her employees’ needs. She offers zero interest loans to staff members who are encountering financial hardships. She says it’s her way of giving back to the community because she has the cash flow to cover the interest.
Younger borrowers, in their early twenties, who dream of more. Ms. Ngô Thanh Thuỷ is one of the youngest members of 31 – Nam Ngan Group. She uses her loan to purchase clothing for resale in the market. Money from the sales has helped her fund classes in accounting and she is pursuing her dream of finding a stable job at a company.
Grandmothers who have yet to retire, still working for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. For instance, there’s Ms. Pham, a widowed grandmother who tells me she hopes her children can break the family’s cycle of poverty. Ms. Mai has borrowed two loans from Kiva. Her chicken business is booming, but she has even bigger dreams…
Credit is a tool that plays an important role in poverty alleviation and the loans that FPW extends to their borrowers certainly does make a difference. However, the level of success varies depending on the entrepreneur, their skills and circumstances. To most of the women, the results are incremental– two more pigs for the farm, more food on the table, a school uniform, a new sewing machine, a television. Change takes time and borrowers who have utilized increasing credit over multiple loan cycles have seen greater successes. In a few cases, access to credit has led to enormous change – opening up a new shop, purchasing a motorbike, paying for a child’s education.
In the end, it’s not the power of microfinance that has struck me the most during this fellowship. Rather, it is the resilience, grace and beauty in these women warriors – rising, dancing, laughing, somehow always moving forward – patiently.