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This page offers

bulletsome extracts from 'Real Voices in Development - hundred stories of Women's Bank Members'
bulletForeword by Prof S Tilakaratna
bulletW D Magret
bulletK V Rupa Manel
bulletand then a brief overview of the history of the Women's Credit Union of Sri Lanka.

Real Voices in Development

a hundred stories of Women's Bank members

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Editor: Nandasiri Gamage


There is a scarcity of literature on concrete experiences of people’s self development, that is, narratives of people’s own initiatives to improve their socio-economic situations. While there are many books, reports, journals and other documents on micro-economic development processes, micro development activities or development initiatives of people at the grass roots have not been extensively researched and documented. As a result, there is a conspicuous lacuna in the development literature. In particular, development activists (variously called change agents, facilitators, social mobilisers, catalysts, animators, group organisers and so on) do not have adequate access to literature from which they could learn in order to improve their knowledge and skills.

S Tilakaratna
Professor of Economics & Researcher on Participatory Development
Sri Lanka, 27 June 1998

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Magret of Seevali Pura is a member of the group ‘Shakthi’. They formed the group in 1995. Her husband B A Daniel Appuhamy worked as a labourer in the Colombo seaport and has retired now. W D Magret has nine children – five boys and four girls. Two boys and two girls are married. Now Magret is a grandmother.

She is an active member of her group. She likes her group very much and is satisfied with it. This is what she has to say about it.

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I lost one son and a daughter in their young age. The son was stabbed to death in 1988. This happened after a small argument with a well known person – it was a real shock to me as a mother. My daughter died of brain fever in 1980. Within one day of fever she died. I was highly worried by these deaths of my children.

I worked about ten years in Colombo Municipality in my young age. I could not give my children a good education due to our poverty and therefore they can work only as labourers. I could not provide them the opportunity to change their social life. They have to lead a life like that of ours in the same society. Is this the fate of the poor?

This is my second Women’s Help Group. In 1994 I joined the first group called ‘Eksath’ but it collapsed due to its leader’s migration for employment and a long time had to be spent for accessibility of bigger loans. Some of the members of that group did not have the patience to wait for the bigger loans but I thought that we did not have any other option for credit. Therefore I talked to some members of the first group and formed the second group.

Now we are at the bigger loan stage. I obtained Rs15000/= as a housing loan from our branch and I plastered the walls of my house and completed the toilet. I also got a loan for alms giving to commemorate my dear children. I expect to get another housing loan to complete my house and a loan for an income generation activity.

We can overcome the difficulties of our daily life with this group. I personally have settled my old debts from the local money lender which were on high rates of interest. Now we have a place to get loans at one percent interest. This group system is very useful for the poor people. I can now see the value of unity among the group members because of this group system.

Rupa Manel is the president of the Women’s Bank and she is also the Treasurer of her bank branch at Gajabapura/Bosewana in the District of Colombo. K V Rupa Manel is a member of the Praja Sahayaka Sewaya (PSS) and has been working for it for a long time. She has a good understanding of the friends and enemies of the movement as it has grown. She knows very well how friends have assisted her by deed, by word and by smile.

The time that Rupa has spent and the sweat that she has shed can not be separated from the Women’s Bank. Her devotion to the movement is well known and appreciated by all women in the movement.

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I had never participated in community development work or any organisational work before I joined the Women’s Groups.

I was born in 1958 in Bandarewela in the District of Badulla. I am a rural woman. I came to Colombo after my marriage to Luxman De Silva who is a driver by profession and who was born and lives in Colombo. He is 46 years old.

I have three children, two boys and a girl. The eldest is the only daughter – Ruwani Luxmi De Silva who is 19 years old and studying in the Advanced level class. The second is Ruwan Lakmal De Silva who is 15 years old and studying in the grade 10 class. The youngest is Thilina Sudhrshana De Silva who is 13 years old and studying in the grade 8 class.

Joining a women’s group for savings and credit was a strange thing for me. At the beginning of the programme functions in a collective activity were new to all women. I was not so interested in the work in the early period. My group members also sometimes had felt that they were in an inconvenient condition. I can remember the funny things in the early days of my group. In those days our groups were examined by an external agency called WIN. Mrs Kamalini Wijethilaka came on WIN’s behalf. She came thrice to examine the group but we could not meet together for Mrs Kamalini to do her supervision. She was annoyed by the negligent behaviour in our group. I am astonished now when this incident comes to mind. How strong my group is now. Is this the same group that got Mrs Kamalini so annoyed? Yes it is the same group and the same leader is still functioning.

In those early days I did not think of involving myself in this new direction of community development but today I am completely involved. It has become part of my life. The Women’s Bank has evolved gradually from the earlier group work and is the result of the devotion of our women leaders and the teachings and direction of Mr Gamage. Members of the Women’s Bank very clearly know the contribution of Mr Gamage to the movement and are very sorry about the ‘People to People’ documentary produced by UNCHS Regional Programme for Asia which has deliberately tried to erase his figure. This was a harsh effort. I can strongly say through my experience that Gamage and Women’s Bank are bound together.

The value of my involvement in the Women’s Bank as the President and a normal active leader is a case to be judged by the members. I am confident that I have done as much as I can. My capacity as a community leader improved completely because of Women’s Bank and the PSS. The dues should go to these two organisations.

Women’s Bank paved the way for me to visit several countries such as Thailand, India, Kenya, Turkey etc and I learned many things from those visits which made me stronger in working for the Women’s Bank. We are now a government approved national level movement of the poor people in this country. Like any good organisation we have to face obstacles but we go to our target anyway. We are reaching more and more poor people every day. We make it possible for the poor to be recognised and have bargaining power so as to have a better living using the countries available resources.

For a copy of the book contact:
Sri Lanka Women's Developmental Services Cooperative Society (Women's Bank) Ltd
151/13, E Zone, Seevali Pura,
Borella, Colombo - 08, Sri Lanka
Tel 94-1-681355, 94-71-76065

The book is available free of charge but a contribution to cover the cost of postage would be greatly appreciated - get in touch for details.

The Women’s Credit Union of Sri Lanka

Concerns about the failure of macro-development efforts to alleviate poverty have resulted in greater attention being paid to alternative approaches which enable low-income  women to become the active agents of their own development. The Women’s Credit Union (WCU) of Sri Lanka illustrates this alternative development pathway. It was formed in 1989 with government, United Nation’s Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) and Children’s Fund (UNICEF) assistance. The project, initially operating from the government’s National Housing Development Authority (NHDA), offered its members a mechanism for saving and making loans.

Banking by the Poor

After a short struggle with certain bureaucratic and authoritarian professional elements within the NHDA it became apparent to the senior management of the Housing Authority and UNCHS project staff that the WCU’s best chance of survival lay in the hands of its low-income women members. In 1992, the WCU became an independent co-operative organisation managed by low-income women thereby illustrating that women could act as agents of their own development. The WCU has a very clear and strong approach to gender and challenges the thinking that access to finance alone leads to empowerment. It recognises the importance of low-income women’s control and management of financial systems not only at the household level but also in the community. Consequently, there has been a concerted effort to make low-income women responsible for decisions on who obtains loans as well as who controls the saving funds. In doing so, the WCU goes beyond a banking for the poor approach to a banking by the poor approach.

Learning from Others

The WCU has adopted some features of other organisations such as the Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies, Grameen Bank, Self Employed Women’s Association and the Women’s Development Federation. The WCU has purposely avoided transferring a specific model of finance to low-income women. Instead it has encouraged the women to visit, study and reflect on other models and then devise an organisation based on their own needs and constraints. In so doing, the twin objectives of developing a mechanism for savings and making loans and expanding women’s capacity building for self development has been achieved.

Active Participation

Over the last ten years the WCU has grown from 9 groups with 50 members into a movement with 35 federated branches having 1500 member groups, 800 associate member groups and between 20,000 to 23,000 members. The formation of the WCU is based on certain defining principles. These include,  a decentralised approach to credit which contrasts with the approach of formal finance institutions where decision-making and management are hierarchical. The approach taken the by WCU guarantees that low-income women actively participate and manage and do not simply receive resources.

Initially the WCU supported the formation of small pre-co-operative groups through the use of a cadre of low-income women social mobilisers. This part-time cadre of self-development workers spread the approach into low-income communities through a programme of social preparation that emphasised the use of verbal training methods, exposure visits, group dynamics and self-reliance. However by 1990, there was an appreciation that these small pre-co-operative groups were unlikely to be sustainable in the long term, a fact borne out by the collapse of two of the original groups. A strategy of federating was, therefore, seen as a means through which groups could gain strength, share their experiences and solve problems. Moreover, this strategy   enables members to discuss the nature of the lending and saving systems and to develop ways of increasing their effectiveness.

Self-reliance and Common Ownership

Other defining principles include:

bulletPromoting the habit of saving  before any loans are issued; this enables the development of a self-reliant base of lending capital.
bulletEmphasising the common bond between members (who usually live or work in the same location). Shares are sold to members to promote the concept of common ownership. Shares are sold for US$2 each and it is mandatory that each member own one share for every US$20 borrowed.
bulletEquality is assured by basing voting rights on WCU membership as opposed to share ownership.

A Credit Co-operative Structure and Self-development

By using a credit co-operative mechanism the WCU has successfully retained control of both the organisation and the finance system. In addition, by using small solidarity groups of 5 to 15 women as the building blocks of its federated and branching structure, it has sought to operate a decentralised and democratised financial institution under the direct control of its membership.

Many NGO and Aid agency supported credit and savings programmes are only now beginning to address the issues of ownership, empowerment and participation. The WCU has from the very outset sought to address these fundamentals by which the poor themselves own the processes, the mechanisms and the structures of self-development. It is beyond both State welfarism and the free-market, and requires an unbending commitment and recognition of people’s abilities to create their own organisations. This is not a new concept. Indeed it was pioneered by the early co-operative movement in the 1840’s who expressed it this way:

" They took their affairs into their own hands, and what is more to the purpose,

they kept them in their own hands."


bulletAlbee, A and Gamage, N. Our Money Our Movement: Building a Poor People’s Credit Union; Intermediate Technology Publications, London 1996.
bulletAlbee, A and Gamage, N. Gender and micro-finance in Sri Lanka: The experience of the Women’s Credit Union, in Housing and Finance in Developing Countries, edited by Datta, K. and Jones, A.J. Routledge, London 1999. Pages 169 – 180.

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