Humeira Islam founded and leads Bangladesh's first coalition of groups working for the country's suddenly very large number of urban slum dwellers - over three million in Dhaka alone. She is also modifying the successful Grameen Bank credit programs for the rural poor to fit the different realities of the slums as well as developing new methods of delivering health care and family planning.
Humeira grew up in a highly educated family. More important, her father, who had risen to be deputy secretary of the Home Department for East Bengal, consistently treated her no differently from the boys. All the children were brought up to believe that they should "do whatever we thought was right even if others didn't agree."Yet, as she grew up, she had to grapple with both the unequal way in which women were treated in Bangladeshi society and the enormous gap between the small elite and everyone else. As she worked on her doctoral thesis, Humeira came face-to-face with the close correlation between women's unequal status and their lack of economic opportunity. After gaining practical experience, she's now setting out to do something to change both.
Bangladesh was until recently so overwhelmingly rural that little thought was given to the needs of its cities. However, with over 15 million city dwellers, Bangladesh, in Humeira's view, can't postpone any longer developing serious policies and then finding practical ways of implementing them.Consequently, in November of 1989, she sent a letter inviting the major private voluntary groups working with the urban poor to join her in forming a coalition. The five groups who came to the first meeting have since grown to 14 in the coalition's steady core, enriched by a growing number of others who come periodically, depending on the issue.The coalition serves several purposes. First, it is increasingly turning jealousies and misunderstandings among the members into working collaborations. When the government announced a plan to bulldoze homes in Agargaon, the coalition met the challenge: member groups jointly organized the residents, spoke to the press, persuaded the government, and then articulated new policies to ensure against similar errors in the future.The coalition also helps the member groups talk through their programs to ensure maximum coordination and, more important in the long term, to think through more effective approaches. For example, most of the groups, including those that are not gender-focused, are now giving special emphasis to women. Finally, the coalition is working to develop a national urban policy and will follow up with a public consideration and advocacy campaign. To lay the groundwork for this and subsequent policy changes, the coalition is also launching a long-term program to help the public understand not only the problems of the slums but also their benefits. Stereotypes of slums as parasitic havens of crime do not help the formation of sensible policies.Humeira's own organization has been adapting successful rural lending programs for the poor to the urban environment. For example, her lending policies are quite comfortable with women borrowing funds to finance rickshaws that will be operated by their husbands. This is, in fact, the most common first use of credit the members of her neighborhood women's groups use. Even if the men operate the vehicles, the women control the finances.These local women's groups operate four savings schemes, each with different objectives. One sets aside 5 percent of interest capital to pay for emergencies such as a flat tire; another is a completely open voluntary contribution fund. As the program grows its branches will become financially self-supporting. Each will have a manager, six field workers, and an accountant. Humeira expects 54,000 households to be directly involved within five years.One of the advantages of operating in the urban areas is the range of market opportunities available, and Humeira encourages the women to seek out unconventional opportunities. After the first wave of rickshaw investments, the pattern of subsequent investments becomes increasingly diverse. She estimates that market-oriented investments produce TK 30 per day compared with TK 15 for the traditional home piecework done by women. She's looking forward to the day when her women will collectively have assets large enough to graduate from micro-investments and begin to launch small businesses, e.g., garment production.Building out from this core activity, Humeira's women's groups are also organizing a community service to help young children get a head start with their education. The groups select from among their members someone with enough elementary-level education to do the job, and hire her to organize classes that are designed to feed into each area's formal schools.Humeira's organization is now also responding to the lack of health facilities in the slums by organizing its own local dispensaries and pharmacies. Responding to another of the members' needs, this health network provides family planning information as one of its important functions.
Humeira's work attacks three giant, overlapping problems: all the consequences of the rapid growth of the cities and their slums, the results of a society reacting to this growth with ill-conceived policies, and the special problems women in this society face living in these slums.If the cities were not growing in Bangladesh, there would be real grounds for concern: there, as elsewhere, they represent both the reality and an even larger hope of a far more intellectually alive, freer, diverse life for both individuals and society as a whole. However, if not managed carefully, the transition can bring both enormous, avoidable pain. If managed stupidly, the consequences can be truly perverse.The sudden, enforced eviction of poor families, many of them new immigrants to the cities, typifies for Humeira just such stupidity and insensitivity. As the experiences of cities all over the world testify, such slum removal only aggravates the city's problems. The "removed" people don't disappear. They settle elsewhere in the city, only now they are far poorer. They have lost not only the home they built, but also many of their painfully accumulated, if modest, possessions, their neighbors and support networks, perhaps their sources of income, and whatever community institutions they and their neighbors had built up. They have also been traumatized and alienated from the government and its agents.Such evictions had become an increasingly troubling symptom of the government's (and the middle class's) stereotype-informed attitude of hostility towards the slums and the country's lack of intelligent policies to cope with its urbanization.Women have suffered a great deal in this process. Traditionally highly dependent, not given education, and inexperienced in managing business and financial matters, they suddenly had to cope with an environment radically different from that of the villages. These problems, of course, carry with them an enormous promise - that of being able to break free from general rural poverty and narrow horizons and moving to more hopeful and better life opportunities as women. Getting from here to there remains very much a challenge.
Humeira's self-assigned role has several closely interrelated parts. First, she's developing and demonstrating how slum dwellers can organize and effectively address the special sets of opportunities and problems facing them with their own leadership and financial resources. She's started with the core problem of credit leading towards economic stability and independence. That central piece of the puzzle provides an organizational framework and series of direct supports for other programs ranging from literacy to family planning.With this piece in place, she's also able to begin helping the several organizations working in the slums learn how to collaborate effectively, thereby increasing each one's impacts. She's helping organize such a model coordinated attack on poverty in the Mirpur area. As it progresses beyond dispute resolution towards increasing service integration, Humeira hopes it will provide models that her broader coalition of groups working on urban poverty can take up.The coalition already is helping the involved groups and society to begin thinking through the urban poverty issues. The fight it has orchestrated to stop Dhaka's forced "slum removal" evictions is, for example, more than anything else a drama designed to pose the human dignity and urban self-interest issues and force everyone to stop, think, and hopefully emerge with a new policy.Beyond such "case method" policy development, the coalition is hosting a series of meetings through which the interested groups are preparing a broad, positive urban agenda to propose to the country next year.