Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Welcoming Relief International Iraq to Kiva

photo credit: Relief International

Please join me in warmly welcoming Kiva’s newest field partner, Relief International-Iraq, to Kiva.org!

Relief International-Iraq (RI-Iraq) first began lending activities in 2006, and now operates 10 branches throughout the country. With a significant group lending portfolio, RI-Iraq serves over 9,700 clients a with a low average loan size of $959. They serve a 34% female client base, one of the highest ratios of women served among all microfinance institutions in the country. I was unfortunately unable to visit the head office of RI-Iraq Suleymaniya, Northern Iraq. Luckily, RI-Iraq’s new Kiva Coordinator, Csilla Budai, agreed to contribute her impressions of her new employer for this blog post:

I have the pleasure to currently work in two buildings and get to know two distinct teams who work very well together. One is the staff of RI-Iraq, always noisy, busy with loan clients and loan officers. And the other being headquarters for the MFI program in Iraq.

Spending time with the staff of RI-Iraq is great. I can best describe the office as a vibrant bee-hive that starts buzzing every morning at 8. While at first sight for an outsider their work can look chaotic, soon one can realize they are very serious about their work and pay close attention to their clients. It's a well-oiled machine with about 10 Loan Officers, Junior Supervisors and Supervisors who are both good friends and respected colleagues.

The building has two rooms; one is the waiting room for clients, where you sense the anticipation of the applicants. And the other one is the room of the Office Manager where final, approved loan contracts are signed and the important final papers are printed for closing the loan application process, making the approved amount available for disbursement.

Loan Officers and Supervisors are in and out of the building visiting clients before their loan can be approved. Initially, clients are only in contact with the Loan Officers who work with the clients on their application, double check the provided information and collect paperwork supporting the loan application. Once it's all put together, before a loan can be given to the loan committee for approval, the client is visited by the Loan Officer and the Loan Officer's Supervisor. I also had the pleasure to be on a few of these visits, and the impressions I got were only positive. I liked how well the clients and Loan Officers knew each other, making the clients feel comfortable with the entire process. I was also impressed by how fast the applications were processed. I often recognized visited clients sitting in the waiting room just a few days later, waiting for their turn to sign and finalize their contracts.

I was also very happy to see that—at least here in the Sulaymaniya office—more than half of the Loan Officers are women, which I think also helps female clients to be more at ease. I personally am eager to see how Iraq, and the status of Iraqi women will develop in the next few years—and I do hope there will be positive developments. For now, although regional differences certainly exist:

1. Women experience economic discrimination in access to, and in terms of, employment and occupation, credit, and pay equity for performing similar work or managing similar businesses as men. Government efforts to combat economic discrimination against women are minimal and unsystematic.

2. The security situation disproportionately affected women's ability to work outside the home.

3. Weak labor laws and the lack of an equal opportunity employment law left women vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal.

4. Conservative societal standards impede women's abilities to exercise their rights.

Iraq was at one time not too long ago an example in the region for high literacy rates, and education was also provided for women. Indeed, primary education was compulsory for women and men equally. But in terms of employment, the work place was reserved for men. Then during the war with Iran, and later with Kuwait, women were actually needed, and their work was needed to help support their families. To still fit with the traditional roles society dictated, and also do well as a mother and wife, having a sewing machine at home was answer for what women could do. Even when it was not used to generate income as such, women were able to meet their own and their families' clothing needs as well as make the items needed in the household, like curtains, bedding, etc.

Thank you, Csilla!
To learn more about RI-Iraq, you can visit the institution’s website, the Relief International Facebook page, RI-Iraq’s Kiva partner page , or their first Kiva loans.