trascript of mrs begum interview at grameen mkirpur hq- ju;ly 2008 on what life was like for bangakdesh village girls/mothers
Facilitator: a two or three
minute video, we’d try and get that story on film as the first part. And the second part would be of a more table
discussion. Because everyone here is incredibly interested that this organisation doesn't just have business acumen,
but you’re bringing heart to everything. I don’t have the right language for it. It’s sort of
[Ganjin] love of stuff and this is a subject that…
Interviewee (MRS NURJAHAN BEGUM FOUNDING FEMALE DIRECTOR GRAMEEN WITH DR MUHAMMADYUNUS SINCE 1974):
Yeah, that’s a good…
…my friends especially try and get over to you, so they would like to talk about. But if that makes sense, that
would probably be great. So Mark our cameraman will guide us…
…to begin with, …
I just completed my Masters Degree from Chittagong University. My doctorate was teaching economics, the same university.
After my Masters Degree I’m trying to find a job and I applied to a few companies. There was one Canadian organisation
named Carol – the lady – who is handling this NGO, and the name of the organisation was [unclear].
So I applied and they called me and I appeared at the interview and they selected me, I don't know, and I thought that maybe
I can get permission from my mum to start the job. I went back to my mum and she was not really happy to give me permission
to start the job.
It was a very good salary and with the furnished quarters everything was okay, but my mum doesn't like that an unmarried woman
should start a job so she was a little bit afraid. So Carol waited for me one month and…she wait for me one month,
but I failed to convince my mum. So after getting…why my mum is not giving me permission, because my thinking
was…on myself…depending others, like in Bangladesh. Normally women depend on the father, husband or son,
but I’m not thinking that way.
So that time Dr Yunus called me because he knows me better, so he told me that can you do that. So I told him all the
story about what happened with me and what happened with my mum, so he told me why not…student of Chittagong University,
you are leaving the university hall. Now you can convince her that way, and then I went to my mum and talked to her
and she knows very well Dr Yunus. So he gave me the permission and I started the job. And why? Why Dr Yunus
needed women? I think if I go back 32 years before, the scenery, what you can so today, is quite different. Women
mobility was very, very restricted. Women cannot move from one house to another house, one village to another village,
without permission from the husband or the head of the family. And somebody had to accompany them.
The situation of the women was very, very worse. [Unclear] is common. Divorce is – a man can divorce his
wife at anytime. A man can have one, two, three, four wives, whatever he likes. If he leaves a wife with the children,
it doesn't matter, they go another place. So the condition of the women is very, very vulnerable and if the husband
divorces, she has to go back to the parents house. And if parents are poor, they cannot support her. Then she has to
beg - that’s the scenario.
And lots of superstitions that - family planning, nobody can think about that, so six, seven, nine, ten children is common,
and malnutrition babies are common. So all this scenario…superstitions, all things…illiteracy, so with
all this kind of situation, women cannot move out. And not only that, if we are not – doesn't have any dream,
so if you don’t think that I can proceed from this stage to this stage, if you don’t have any dream, then how
we can proceed. So Dr Yunus told me that you see that situation…if you can put some dream to these people, they
can proceed. So our first is to put some dreams.
And because he cannot talk to the women straight away, because women are not allowed to come in front of the men and men cannot
enter the home, so I was the intermediary. When he wants to talk to women I am with him and I am going to the men, women,
to talk to them, and then assist with Dr Yunus and Dr Yunus assist with them. So we are starting that way, and it was
easy for him also to convey.
So as Dr Yunus, you know him better, and he’s lovely to the children. He goes to the village or in the house,
so he sits down…and all the children are coming to him, he’s loving the children and going to the women, talking
to the women and coming to the message. So we have started with the women.
That’s beautiful. How long were you the first female employee of Grameen?
For how long were you the only woman working in Grameen – oh sorry – amongst the group of people that became…
I mean, you started with Dr Yunus…
From the beginning yeah.
From the beginning?
And at the beginning, how many other people were there and how long was it before there was a second female employee…idea
as one, so could we try and repeat that bit from there and then go to the general interview. Would that suit?
Should you not like it in the form of a question to start off?
Yeah I think – what Chris is saying is that the question would be something like your initial work really inspired women
to have dreams. Is that right; is that what you want to bring out? If you keep it as a question…
Or maybe it’s just a bit more open like – I’ll just say what was your work like at the beginning…an
important thing was inspiring the dreams…actually when was it, the first year you started work, was it 1976?
Should I start again?
…I don't know which bit you want…do you want a bit shorter…
Please don’t hesitate if you want something…
Everything you said was beautiful and we’ll find a way of transcripting all of it, but the two minute bit on a sort
of YouTube, if we could start more or less like – if I ask you what was it like at the beginning. And you come
in the bit where you said the really important thing was looking at these women, both Dr Yunus and you realised it’s
necessary to inspire their dreams, and how you and Dr Yunus worked together to do that.
So if we go back to the beginning of Grameen in 1976 when you and Dr Yunus were the first people, what was it like at the
Actually, what doctor installed in me, that you know the poor people doesn't have any dream. [Unclear] understood that
okay, [unclear] came and [unclear] so that doesn't have any dream, so Dr Yunus asked me – we should put some dreams
to their hearts so that they can think about, and they can see okay, our children’s future will be different.
So it was our goal during that time to inspire the people, how they can come to make a beautiful future for their own and
for their children.
And your work initially in terms of finding these people and talking to them and explaining why they needed credit?
If I go back to the two years before, the situation of the women was very, very…women mobility was very, very restricted.
Men can divorce wives at anytime, so if a husband divorces his wife, she has to come back to the parents’ family and
if the parents cannot feed, then the situation is a very, very…illiteracy was common, a lot of superstitions.
Normally the thing that if you are pregnant you should not eat more, because the baby will be grown up and it will be difficult
to produce that baby. So you know the cause of the malnutrition. Not only the food, at the same time they do not
have any idea about all these things.
Diarrhoea was a common disease during that time. No cleanliness, and poverty everywhere, culturally or economically
or socially a lot of [unclear]. So we have the responsibility to bring all these women from that situation to another
situation. So you start talking with the women and due to restriction of the social restrictions, religious restrictions,
Dr Yunus cannot talk to the women directly. So he asked me to talk to the women.
So when we are going to some village, Dr Yunus was sitting in the [cold air] and talking to the children and he’s very
loving, he’s like children very much. So all the children get together in front of Dr Yunus, he’s laughing
with the children and then going to the home, talking to the women and bringing their message to Dr Yunus, and Dr Yunus’s
message to them. So we are starting that way.
How long did it take before the women understood the idea of credit?
Gradually we start to talk to the women, but first initial reaction okay, I’m a woman, I cannot do anything. My
husband is responsible for any economic activities. Most of them never touch money with their own hand, because the
husband is bringing all the things so she is not really handling any money matters.
So when we started talking to them and they were really, really surprised, oh you go to my husband, he can do something, I
cannot do anything. So we start to gradually convince the women to take some money to start up some business, so some
of them – very few – first loanee was Sophia [unclear]. She came and she was a beggar and start to work.
And others were just observing what was going on.
Then one by one coming up…those who have…the money and gradually are doing better. But it was not a very
easy task. From the beginning we had in our mind that at least 50% should be the women and 50% should be the men.
To talk about that is easy, but to involve women in that scenario, it was not easy. So it takes time.
We have to talk with the husband, the main member of the family. We have to talk with the women. So after the
convince, we start to work. So you see, the women situation is gradually getting better. One thing I should say,
how women feel much better and the position came up. I was in a workshop in Tangi in 1979, and in that workshop –
maybe ’79 or ’80 – I’m talking about is there any change with their family, with their husband, the
relationship. So one woman mentioned my husband…take me to doctor or never bring me any medicine if I feel sick.
But later when I joined Grameen and I’m in money, now the situation is my husband goes to the doctor, brings the medicine.
So I asked what is the reason behind? She told me that this is – I am earning women – this important thing
that you are depending on yourself, not dependent on others, husband or son or the father…and you come yourself and
you are only women, thus give you some confidence. And this is the dignity of life.
So what Dr Yunus wants, to bring the dignity among all these women, vulnerable women, so that they can make their own future,
they can make their children’s future, because the mother always loves her child very much.
That’s wonderful. Thank you for telling us about the beginnings…
In your work now, what would you say is the most important part of your work now?
Okay. You see the now situation in Grameen. I have the responsibility of all – what is going on. So
I’m looking – this is not a very difficult part for me. I don’t see any difficult part but there is
a lot of good work we have to do. In Grameen, besides the Grameen I’m also responsible for the Grameen Shikkha.
This is another sister company of Grameen Bank. So I’m the managing director of this company, but this is my voluntary
job. So there is a good programme, a scholarship management programme.
So what I am doing for this programme – and he’s also involved – he’s also one of the sponsors of
Grameen Shikkha. What I am doing – many children in Bangladesh are very, very talented but due to economical bad
situation, they cannot continue their education after O level. So what Grameen Shikkha does, we are trying to find some
sponsors. A sponsor can deposit their money in the Grameen Shikkha. The money is sponsored, but what I am doing,
I am just using the income of the money and giving this money, 6% to the children, boys and girls. It is not that she
or he has to be the Grameen Bank’s people, no. Anyone in the community, if she’s poor or he’s poor,
boys and girls, they can get this money for continuing their education.
So Grameen Shikkha is taking the management part and a sponsor can have all the information about the boys or girls they are
supporting. And now today I reached 2,000 students and they are doing a very good job. Just this year, 79 children
appeared in O level, that means in Bangladesh [unclear]. One got A Plus and 30 got A, and the remaining B and A minus.
No one failed. So you see, they are becoming our future. The whole scenario of the family is that their parents
don’t know how to read, how to write, but their children are in a better position.
So that’s a challenging job for me to bring and to manage all these things. I started some vocation and training
programme through Grameen Shikkha. If you like you can visit our vocational…and this year I started this programme.
This is also my goal and Dr Yunus’s goal that many children, they drop out at the age of 13, 14, 15, because their parents
cannot support. And now they are going to different places, gossiping or playing, gambling, so if you visit some places
you can see that scenario. So I’m trying to bring all these children to the vocational and training programme,
so I started electronics vocational programme, electrical programmes, industrial sewing and sewing, so I have set up two in
this situation, one in Dhaka, one in [Jhenaidaha], the poorest area of Bangladesh.
So they’re now starting this journey and they’ve already started – some of them are already going to finish
after six months so they will get involved with their own job, and we are trying to find a job for them. There are some
sister companies also in Grameen and others.
Is there similarly between that role of engaging the children who are dropping out, and your role when you started of engaging
the women into microcredit? Is there any similarity there?
There are some similarities there. You see, the women’s situation is different. I already mentioned that
scenario of the women was during that time very, very vulnerable and not only economically, socially, they are always different.
The children’s situation, maybe parents cannot afford continuing education or sometimes not only the parents that…situation,
children are maybe a little bit reluctant. They are not fond of education so they drop out.
Socially sometimes if you are not doing the thing and you are engaged with some bad things, and it creates a lot of other
bad impact on the society. So if we engage them in a working position, then it can create a different situation.
So what I am trying to bring these children – they have to start a job. They can create their own job. The
funding is there. If he can take some money from Grameen Bank, he can create his own business. Say I know how
to repair the mobile phones, so I can set up my own official some place, so I can start – Grameen Bank can give them
money and they can start, if he is poor, because I am trying to work with the poor people. So this is a good opportunity
for them to work out from that situation.
Like if you are a woman, girl, if she knows how to think she can find a job or she can take a credit from Grameen Bank or
any other NGO’s and buy a sewing machine and start own income. And later on she can involve other women too in
that village to earning money, even they can supply…so there’s a good opportunity to create a job for herself
and also for other people.
One of the things that fascinated me is that I’ve seen some service organisations, when they start up with five or ten
people, they have a passion to serve, they love to inspire people. To grow to 25,000 people and keep that passion, I’m
wondering how you manage to achieve that?
Okay. I think you know I’m involved with the training programme of Grameen Bank, so I’m responsible for
the international training and also our internal training. So now that we have 26,000 staff altogether, actually it’s
dependent on the system, how we build the system. In Grameen our training programme is learning by doing, so we never
give any job to a person who has the experience – not like that – we are just looking for fresh people from the
university or the college. So there’s two entry points. One is the college level and entering the master
level, so when we recruit them we give them two days briefing in the training institute and then send them to the village,
attach them to the branch, so give them some assignments, some work, not training manual. They deal directly…training
manual, because we tell them okay, discover yourself Grameen Bank and try to find how it slots.
So they go to the branch and start to work, so this is a learning by doing so they know the system. So when there is
a system you can continue that. I should say in Bangladesh two times we have the champion of corruption, but in Grameen
I don't think so. I should say that is 0%, and we took that very seriously any corruption, number to misbehave the women.
Anybody – if they do that you can sack from the Grameen Bank. So we’ve built a system so that everybody
can follow the system. So with this system, nobody can involve with the kind of corruption. If someone does that
in our mechanism, we can find it out and sack. So this is the…
Thirty years…in that time you talked about the state of women and the state of children before, so from your perspective
do you see Grameen – and what specific impact has Grameen had? I mean, has Grameen been the main driver of change
in empowering women and empowering children? Do you see Grameen as being – if there was history with Grameen and
without Grameen, what do you think?
I should say yes, because we believe that all the human beings on this talent have their own talent. Whatever you know
literate or whatever you’re illiterate, what about it. You have some kind of talents. Only due to opportunity
you can not use properly, so when Grameen brings the opportunity through credit then you see the result. They start
to work and bring their prosperity for the whole family. And if you look on our [16 decision], you’ll see there’s
a socialism doctrine…
The employment of women, I already mentioned that if you don’t have any money, you cannot arm yourself, if you are dependent
all the time on other people. You cannot…and not only employment but the dignity. If you do something then
you can defend…you can get your confidence. Like when you start with Grameen, it was commonsense for us to teach
them how to write their name, because most of the women – not only the women – men, woman – don’t
know how to read, how to write.
During that time – so maybe 13% was the literacy rate, so no one knows how to write their own name. So it was
a very difficult part for us to teach them how to write their name, so we are not teaching the alphabet, but we are teaching
how to draw the signature. So when a woman learns how to write her name, she gets a different kind of satisfaction,
yes, I can do that. To write her own name by her own hand, this was a different thing for her, and sometimes some women
think okay, if I can write my own name I can give some food to the mass…sometimes in that way, because she never thought
that she could write her name.
So this is the confidence that you are getting from yourself, so confidence is a very important thing, it was very important,
because then you can proceed. And appointment of the women in many ways – I should say in many ways – if
you see a women, if you visit them in a village, you can see women can talk to you. If you go back five years before,
they could not come in front of you, not as a foreigner, even Bangladeshi men cannot talk to them. But now they are
coming to you and talking to you, and very eager to show you what achievement they did last year, 20 years, 12, 15 years,
and they want to show you their achievement and their children. So there’s a difference, and normally in Bangladesh
during that time…they will have some problem. You cannot bring all the employment at one time. It’s
I already mentioned that women…doesn't bring the medicine for her, but now you see, husbands are bringing not only
the medicine, they’re also bringing the doctor also. So employment has come, because no more vulnerable women.
…helping women to gain more confidence and also the work of setting up systems of microcredit, sometimes it’s
the focus on changing the system, other times it’s changing…having more confidence. Do you discuss both
With women…or is it…
Okay. You see the Grameen Bank is not that only you’re giving the credit. I already mentioned about the
16 decision. How the 16 decision came – when you’re going to the village and you’re talking to the
people, you’ll see most of the case there’s a lot of problem, like for the sanitation plant. They are not
aware about the sanitation issues. Children can use bushes any places. Men can sit down anywhere, but for the
women they…so you see what is going on in their world.
So we started to talk about the sanitation plant. Not only that, we start to give the sanitary toilet as a credit and
we…in Grameen that if you want to take a housing loan you have to buy one sanitary toilet. So it was…not
only that at the same time we are talking about what can happen if you don’t have a sufficient sanitation plant.
During that time diarrhoea and a lot of other common diseases, and if someone…lake of water…diarrhoea, so sometimes
they’ll say okay, if somebody feels sick, they say okay, this is a snake…but it is not right. So we start
to teach them how to make the…so they drink it, they get better. So we demonstrate, we talk to them, we make
them aware, not only the women, we talk to the men, we talk to the women, we talk to the children. And demonstrate how
to make the oil slime, and demonstrate how to clean the family, and we also provide for the sanitation part toilet for the
ring slab and also the…so now it is not a big problem in Bangladesh.
We talk to the women about – we make a lot of workshops. We bring 35 women in the meeting or one day workshops,
we discuss all the issues. What is your problem? Why are you not getting better? So they discuss…every
time you’re going for a baby every year, so how it creates problems not only for the health issues and also for the
working issues. So we talk to them and the husband can have [unclear]. So we teach them to see – I’m
not going every year for a baby. You are losing your beauty and your husband is going…so why are you losing yourself
and if you want to do something…you must keep yourself very fit and do something. So they say okay, it is prohibited
in Islam but it’s not true, so we talk to them to make them aware. We talk to each other in the group in the centre,
then okay, then you talk to the husband so we go to the husbands…
When I start to talk about the family planning, after joining with Dr Yunus I was feeling…children, and the malnutrition
baby…so I talked to Dr Yunus, can we talk to them about the family planning. He’s going oh no, not now,
not now. I will tell you if the time comes. Then maybe after six months, he told me that now we can talk to the
So one day I went to the…this is my normal job, I talked to the women and I’m talking in front of all the men
about the family planning, though I’m not very much…because in our education system nobody teach us about all
these issues. So I just start talking the normal things, and I found after ten minutes later many men and women came
to me and shouting at me, why are you talking all these notorious things. Islam doesn't like it and okay – I just
stopped and then I came back to my office after that and talked to Dr Yunus. Dr Yunus told me no, no, Jan, not in that
way. You should not talk in front of other people. What you should do, you find out some potential women, talk
to them individually, convince them. If they’re convinced, then talk to their family planning work, they have
been introduced, so they will take what they want. So we are starting that way.
You see, about 70%, it was not that okay we bring all this – we have to talk. We find out – they must understand
what is their problem, then we took the decision in our first national workshop what to do, how we can achieve our goal.
So in that time ten decisions came, then in 1984 we had another national workshop, so another six decisions came so altogether
now 16. So you see all these decisions came from their own. It is not – we tried to find out what is the
real problem…this is a problem, how we can overcome the problem. So this is involvement of the women. So
they came up with this idea and they came up with the decision. So if you are a member of Grameen Bank you have to…the
16 decision. You cannot separate Grameen Bank from the 16 decision, so this is…building programme of Grameen
Bank, like a plantation, seed and settling.
In Grameen during that time many women – most of the women – I should not say many – most of the women use
normally rice and onion actually. They’re not much…vegetable. If they can full their stomach that’s
fine, so we have to teach them the importance of the vegetable. You know the blindness, night blindness, what is the
cause for the night blindness? So we start to talk to them about the importance of the vegetable, the importance of
the fish, food, and start to provide seed and sapling to their…so they can cultivate all the seed and sapling.
They can eat it and as well as they can sell it to make money.
So we provide seed but not without any…we must put some cost on that seed and sapling so they can start to…making
them aware of the importance of the vegetable. And now most of the Grameen Bank people know, and if you visit a Grameen
Bank village you can see 100% sanitation, they have their own toilet. So this is I should say a very comprehensive holistic
programme to make better planning among all these people. So it is not like that okay we are just giving some programme
out. We involve them, in bringing them from that situation. So this is their programme.
I think I should ask how the time is going, because we could talk to you all day about the sort of…women…more
than 31 years, but how much time have we got left from your point of view?
Okay, if you’ve finished that’s fine, or if you want five minutes that’s fine.
Are there one or two things that we haven't talked about that you would particularly like people know about Grameen, very
much we’re trying to say this is a most extraordinary service organisation I’ve ever met.
I did not get your point.
Are there things we haven't discussed, which you’d like people in the world outside to know about in terms of how a
service organisation like this continues year in year out, and all the sort of courage and energy? I mean, you put the
same energy into the work every day and keeping that passion going.
Actually if you touch the – to understand the poverty, to touch the poverty is very important things. If I go
back, I’m from the village, I was born in the village. Every Friday there’s a lot of people coming to us
begging, so I saw the poverty but I never saw poverty before the joining the Grameen Bank in this way.
So if you can understand the poverty, if you can touch the poverty, if you can feel the poverty then I think you can do a
good job. So it is important for anyone, for any in Bangladesh or any country of the world, to understand this thing.
If you understand properly and if it’s come from your own heart – one of the things, when I joined Grameen, Dr
Yunus told me to write a case study. Can you find out some women who are very outstanding women. I don't know
the reason behind why he’s talking to me to write a case study of some women.
So I tried to find out – there’s a lot of outstanding women, but among them all who is the most – so I wrote
two or three case studies and Dr Yunus gave me some input how to write a case study. And when I started to talk to these
women, I found a difference between her an me [speaking Bengali] – there is no difference. We are the same women
being of this planet. Only the opportunity – they don’t have any opportunity so they’re [speaking
Bengali] and my friends are able to give me the opportunity so I finished my masters degree from the university.
So these are the things – there is difference between Chelsea, daughter of Clinton, and there is no difference between
the daughter of [unclear], we are the same people. But the only difference like that – you have opportunity –
she doesn't have the opportunity. Dr Yunus has always mentioned that poor people are like Bonsai trees you are not giving
them opportunity to grow up. They’re always cutting. Support people are the victim of the system.
So if you understand these things properly and if you understand the poverty…I think he can do a very good job and
he can continue these things, if he understood. This time of case study I give you, I think micro-study changed me a
lot. I understood and I found women in 1974 when we had a big famine. Many people died due to starvation.
So when I was talking with that woman she mentioned that she lost her son, but it was not possible for her to put a new clock.
Normally in the [Singh] culture after a death you have to cover dead person’s body in white cloth, new cloth.
Due to that situation, the woman cannot afford to buy a new cloth for her son and she put her old sari’s – you
see her son died, she cannot afford.
So it gives me really a different kind of…I found that okay, this is my own responsibility to do something, so I think
this changed a lot.
One last question…I was picking up on the fact – earlier you were saying you were managing this large department
organisation, and for you it’s easy, maybe now it’s easy…
I should not have said easy, I think it’s not very easy but you have to do something.
I’d like to ask, what makes it easy for you, perhaps because of time or whatever reason, so what makes it easy?
If you had a message for women in any part of the world that said it’s not possible to hold positions of responsibility
in an organisation, where mostly it’s men, what would you say?
Okay. I think first of all if you see my – and I’m not sure whether you read Dr Yunus’s autobiography
– what he mentioned about me. You see I was an ordinary girl like other girls in Bangladesh, just only that I
had the opportunity to go to the university level. But my social situation when I started at the Grameen Bank, Dr Yunus
told me to come to Komilla, this is another district, with another two women.
And I was very surprised that Dr Yunus asked me during that time to come along with another two women to another district.
So I asked him can I bring some men with me? He told me no, you cannot. So I was really not feeling very good…but
I had to do that. I came along with three other women to Komilla zone, and after I reached the Komilla zone in the Komilla
[bar]. Dr Yunus told me that now you have some responsibility to organise a culture function. And you have to do that
in the opening time at three o'clock.
So you reach from [Zobra] to Komilla and now you have some more that you have to organise, some thing for show, a culture
So I did it. I hope I did a very good job and after I’d finished many people came to me and…well organised.
So it gives me some confidence, gradually I’m getting the confidence. And you see, and coming from [Zobra] to
Komilla, I asked Dr Yunus can I bring one person, any person with me? He told me no. But now today see, I am going
to many countries of the world by myself…Dr Yunus taught me to depend on myself. But after my masters degree,
I always depend – when I’m going to the university my brother took me, when I’m coming back – so all
the time there are some people helping me.
But when I started my job, Dr Yunus taught me in that way. So gradually I got my own confidence. So confidence
is a very important thing, if you’ve got your confidence, and of course I’m working in such an organisation, competition
is everywhere, so to come into this position, it is not automatic. You have to do many things. You have to make
many sacrifices so that you can come to that position.
Thank you. So wonderful. It’s just such a pleasure meeting you. Thank you very much.
END OF TRANSCRIPT