Banking on Poor Women
When Gayle Ferraro MPA 1999 first began filming "Sixteen Decisions" in a poor village in Bangladesh in 1997, little did the women who were her subjects know that when the cameras started rolling, Ferraro was almost as uncertain of the experience as they were. By their assessment, the American seemed bold, her cropped, platinum-blond hair and ripped jeans a sharp contrast to their covered heads and floor-length saris.
"But I was so timid," said Ferraro, discussing her first foray into documentary filmmaking as writer, director, and producer. "Going to Bangladesh was much more about pushing my own thought process and being amazed that I could do this. Every step of the way was a trip. One of the big messages of the film is watching these women change. However, the entire time, I was changing as well. I was out there without the support of a big production organization. The experience grew organically, and I was amazed."
The film, which debuted at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts last spring, initially grew out of Ferraro's interest in the Grameen Bank, founded 20 years ago by Muhammad Yunus, a native of Bangladesh. Traditional banking discriminated against the poor and women, Yunus believed, so he began offering small, collateral-free loans to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh so they could start their own businesses and become self-sufficient. Ferraro realized that with more than 1,000 branches providing service to nearly 40,000 villages, the bank was making a big impact, particularly on women, who made up 94 percent of the borrowing pool.
But more impressive to Ferraro than the loans which average around 3,000 takas ($60) was the social code the female borrowers had created and were expected to abide by. Called the "16 decisions," the code is recited at weekly bank meetings that the women must attend and includes concrete steps aimed at improving their lives, such as "we shall not live in dilapidated houses" and "we shall plan to keep our families small."
"I focused on the 16 decisions rather than the loan," Ferraro said, "because we can all get money. It was the guidance of the decisions and the bank that made the difference."
The biggest difference, Ferraro said, was the very visible acts the female borrowers were making in public. In a culture where modesty is central to women's social acceptance, leaving the house or even having your voice heard by others is considered courageous for Bangladeshi women.
"They have such a negative idea about themselves," Ferraro says of the women she met. "Girls, from the time they're born, think they are a burden or a problem. Having money in their hands or standing up in public is huge for them. It's going to take a lot of time to change, but there is structure out there now from the bank and from the 16 decisions. It's a huge socialization process."
Part of that process can be seen with 18-year-old Selina, the bank's newest member and the focus of the film. At first, Ferraro says, Selina didn't seem the obvious choice. Sent away from her impoverished family to work as an unpaid house servant at the age of 7 and married by 12 to a man she had never met, she was painfully shy and could barely make eye contact when Ferraro first met her in 1997.
"But Selina was a new borrower, compared with most of the other women who were hamming it up like old pros," Ferraro said. "She was still raw about the poverty and closer to being passed around as property."
Eventually, Selina's shyness gave way to Ferraro's interest and sheer presence, and she opened up. In the film, she talks about aspects of her daily routine sweeping the floor of her thatched house, getting water several times a day at a shared pump, tending the cow and baby lamb that she purchased with her loan (along with a ricksha, which her husband uses to earn money), cooking for her in-laws, and walking her two children, Shakil and Sonya, to school a place she never attended but wants the children to complete.
She also talks about more personal matters, at times shyly turning away and covering her face when the discussion turns to intimacy between husband and wife and the use of birth control pills something she takes daily, knowing that she and her husband would not be able to feed or clothe more than two children. She is also open about the decision that she and other women borrowers of the bank have the most difficult time adhering to: number 11, "We shall not take any dowry at our sons' weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughters' weddings."
Although the use of a dowry money or property brought by a bride to her husband at marriage was banned in Bangladesh with the Anti-Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980, enforcement, especially in the country's rural areas, has been lax, and so the practice continues. The catch-22, as Ferraro notes, is that while payment of a dowry is a significant financial burden for most families Selina's family had to sell all of their land for her dowry most find the cycle difficult to break because the inability to pay can affect a young girl's chance of marriage, or if she gets married, her treatment within the husband's family. On the day Selina's daughter Sonya was born, she put a sari away for her dowry.
"It's not easy to turn the tide around," Yunus says in the film. "When it's your turn to take a dowry because you are looking for a bride for your son, you always find an argument for why you must take the dowry because when you married off your daughter, you had to give a bundle. Now it's your time to get compensated."
Ferraro says that there are parallels to her own life, and to the lives of many American women, even if the "chains" are of a different caliber in the United States.
"It's not like our parents were consciously aware," Ferraro says, "but we, as women, were not encouraged to think of a partner as a match. Being a good girl' still went on in my family. It was subtle, but I noticed it. It was never about who I am or want to be. I was always measuring up. There are parallels all over the place."
Ferraro said that although she has begun to think about her next film the trafficking of Burmese girls into Thailand Selina will be on her mind for a long time. The Museum of Fine Arts plans to show the film throughout the fall, and a PBS station is presenting it for national distribution. In addition, Ferraro plans to return to Bangladesh in five years, when Sonya is about 11 and possibly already married. Ferraro wonders what Selina's life will be like then.
"These women have their hands full," Ferraro says. "It's a struggle every day, just to survive. Viewers don't see this in the film because to take them a step further would be too much."