Celebrating five years of the women's bank

On September 12 Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez announced the expansion of the Development Bank for Women — Banmujer — during a meeting in the Teresa Carreno Theatre to celebrate five years since the bank's founding. Chavez offered another 100 billion bolivares (A$65 million) in resources to the bank.

The creation of the women's bank began on March 8, 2001. On September 13 that year it distributed its first credit. It operated out of very modest offices, and even houses, in its first few months.

Banmujer aims to create employment and reduce poverty for women, and it promotes the participation of women in the radical economic and social developments taking place in Venezuela — the Bolivarian revolution.

The bank stimulates the organisation of women in their communities, facilitating access to credit, and aiding women through the process of formation and growth of small enterprises.

Banmujer's financial and non-financial services are particularly targeted at women living in poverty, but also benefit other sectors of the population that have no income, such indigenous communities and family groups without access to jobs.

The purpose is to form small businesses and cooperatives as models of productive organisation under self-management. Credit is not given out to individuals, only to cooperatives.

Banmujer has assisted 1.3 million people throughout Venezuela with its special programs. One of the first programs was the Coffee Plan, which assisted 18 communities in nine different states to grow organic coffee while taking into account the ecological issues involved in the process.

Seventy per cent of the participants were campesino (peasant) women. A thousand jobs that were based on sustainable development and environmental conservation were generated, directly and indirectly.

Through Mission Guaicaipuro, assistance was given to 1520 members of indigenous groups. Through Mission Vuelvan Caras, credit was given to 1200 cooperatives that involved more than 25,000 individuals.

Banmujer plays a role in educating women on social and political questions, such as how to intervene in taking decisions at the local government level and how to promote solutions that increase equality between men and women. At the same time, the bank promotes the formation of links between productive groups, tied to endogenous (national) development.

With the help of Banmujer, those who have benefited from credits are creating solidarity networks throughout the country. The networks are to assume a diversity of functions, such as verifying the use of the credits, making sure repayments are complied with and that the credit covers necessary expenses, and looking at projects that benefit the community. Already 103 Popular Networks have been formed.

Nora Castaneda, Banmujer's founder and current president, told Chavez that responsibility for the next stage of the bank's evolution will be assumed by the Popular Networks. Chavez suggested that the women should form a new organisation called the Councils of Women, similar to the Urban Land Councils.

The aim of the Councils of Women would be to tackle in greater detail problems that affect particular groups of women, such as pregnant teenagers, sex workers, women prisoners and the elderly. The idea is that Banmujer will develop special programs for these disadvantaged groups of women.

The achievements of Banmujer after five years include the delivery of 61,100 loans (an investment of more than 150 billion bolivares — A$97.5 million), the generation of 260,000 jobs, and the creation of 1280 cooperatives and 11,540 small businesses.

Some 90,300 women have taken part in workshops on popular economy, business administration, cooperatives, domestic violence, gender equality, health, self-confidence, sexual and reproductive health, and community organisation.