Laily Begum felt lucky to receive a $75 microloan for a sewing machine to launch her tailoring business. With the machine, she could produce a salwar kameez (tunic and pants) in just 2.5 hours. She found a corner in her one-room brick house in a village near Kolkata, India, that she shared with her husband and five children, and set to work, earning almost $1 for each outfit. Her husband, initially skeptical about Laily's loan, watched her business grow to include four more machines, five employees -- including her sons -- and a second room added to their house.
They almost lost it all, however, when Laily's husband fell ill twice. His medicine, tests and surgery cost $200, and later, Laily broke her leg -- another $100. Selling her sewing machines and her jewelry at a loss, would have been her only option to pay for these unexpected medical expenses if not for a new health protection program launched by Bandhan, one of India's leading microfinance institutions (MFIs).
A few years prior, Bandhan was one of five MFIs around the world that partnered with Freedom from Hunger, a U.S. nonprofit known for its worldwide integrated microfinance programs for the poor. This partnership demonstrated that MFIs like Bandhan could provide simple, but essential health services to help their clients, primarily very poor women, prevent and manage illness so they could build more secure lives for themselves and their families. Using volunteer community health workers, Bandhan's health program offers health education, loans for medical treatments, and access to health centers and essential nonprescription products such as oral rehydration salts (ORS) and deworming pills.
In fact, Laily's daughter Abida, 26, became a community health worker when the program launched in her village of Mahadevpur three years ago. While her 6-year-old son is in school, Abida dons her blue uniform and volunteers about 1.5 hours per day visiting families and leading health forums in the village. She earns a small stipend: 20% profit on the sale of health products.
Trained in hygiene with a specialization in village water and sanitation, Abida is supervised by health community organizers and receives additional health training one day per month. With medicine kit in hand, Abida makes the rounds to 200 families in her community who have come to rely on her to address their health concerns. Indeed, she recalls when a neighbor's 8-year-old son was very weak. Abida instantly recognized the signs of severe dehydration, and when the boy was too ill to drink liquids, Abida insisted they take him to the doctor. He was immediately put on an IV, which saved his life.
Abida has seen many changes since she began; she says that more people are using latrines, more people are using cleaner water sources for cooking and drinking needs, and her neighbors know to give their children deworming medication every six months, and to treat diarrhea with oral rehydration salts.
It has been our experience that mothers like Laily and Abida are willing to work hard towards goals to grow, advance and develop themselves, their families and their communities. They are proud, motivated, and supportive of each other and determined to overcome conditions of extreme poverty. In India, Johnson and Johnson supports Freedom from Hunger and its collaborator, the Microcredit Summit Campaign, to widely promote this combination of microfinance, practical education and access to health-protection services that enables women to earn and save more money, safeguard their health and buy more and better food for themselves and their families.
Worldwide, Freedom from Hunger and partners currently serve 1.3 million women in Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ecuador, India, the Philippines, Peru and Viet Nam. And at a cost of less than $2.00 per year -- 17 cents a month! -- per woman and her family.
"What is 'the good life'?" Freedom from Hunger staff often ask clients when visiting in the field. In east India, the good life is "peace," according to Laily, and "just enough money to cover daily expenses and not have to beg when we need help." For her daughter Abida, it is "to live well without falling ill. I would be happy if there were [a health worker] in every community." So would we all.
Click here to learn more about empowering women with the means to protect their families and how you can help them do it.
Disclaimer: Suzanne Skees is founder and director of the Skees Family Foundation, a longtime supporter of Freedom from Hunger. Skees is visiting the India programs early this year to discover firsthand its impact on women and their families.
Follow Suzanne Skees on Twitter: www.twitter.com/skeesfoundation