A Hand Up

Often we refer to microfinance as the offering of a ‘hand up, not a hand out’, a principle that tends to resonate with our supporters who look for a sustainable way to help people living in impoverished circumstances.

In our next instalment from Myanmar, Sophie Hoult meets Nilar, a mother from Au Yin Taw, a small rural village on the outskirts of Mandalay. Nilar used one of the only resources she had, her hands, to improve the lives of not only her children, but two adopted daughters as well. 

‘I can change the world, with my own two hands’; lyrics from a song I’ve always enjoyed.

My hands are soft, preserved by my life of typing in an air-conditioned office, dabbling in cooking, washing dishes and cleaning, wearing gloves when I feel particularly precious.

Nilar’s hands are calloused, stocky, working. Stained with charcoal from the flames she uses to cook fritters on the side of a dusty road in a small village called Au Yin Taw on the outskirts of Mandalay, Myanmar. Her fingernails are ringed with grime, fingers swollen from the heat of the oil she cooks with.

When I arrive in Nilar’s village at sunrise, bleary eyed, she has been up for hours and her fritter stall is in full swing. She wakes up every day at 3:30am to make various batters, which she sells on the side of the road to loyal clientele. Spending the morning with Nilar, a steady stream of Burmese faces strolled by, or pulled up on motorbikes, filling small bags with a selection of the ‘best Myanmar snacks in the village’.

As the youngest of seven children, Nilar wasn’t afforded an education. She married young, and had three children.

Her husband was an alcoholic, what little money he earned was spent on alcohol, and the marriage was abusive. When her youngest son was two, Nilar resorted to divorce, borrowing money from an illegal moneylender to pay him off so he would let her stay in the family home, with the children.

Around this time, her cousin died, leaving four young children. She adopted two of them. Later on, her middle son contracted a tropical disease, similar to malaria, and required two years’ of medical treatment. She had five children to provide for, she was in debt, and as her husband left, he assured her that she would amount to nothing without him.

The only resources Nilar had, were her hands, and a family fritter-making technique she had learned from her mother. That was until she heard about VisionFund through the local World Vision ADP. The ADP had supported her through her son’s illness, providing essential medical care and sponsoring him to go back to school after two years of battling with his disease.

Since 2013, Nilar has received seven microloans from VisionFund, securing her first just two months after her divorce. Her first three loans were spent paying off her debt, and buying the essential tools she needed for making her fritters. By her 4th loan, Nilar was beginning to experience more freedom, independence and self-sufficiency. She paid for her children’s tuition, saved money to concrete the dirt floor of the family home, purchased a motorbike for her eldest son to get to a better school, in the hope he would prepare for tertiary education, something she could only ever dream of.

Nilar used to earn just $2 a day, barely above the World Bank’s international poverty line of $1.90. She struggled to feed her five children, and although her hands were capable, she lacked the resources to expand her business and use her skills to create a better life. She now earns up to $USD30 a day.

In Myanmar, only 5 per cent of the adult population has a bank account. Nilar is not one of them. By supporting women like Nilar, VisionFund is transforming the lives of families and communities worldwide through the provision of essential, empowering financial services.

All Nilar had was her hands, and now she, and her children, have a future. As the song continues, ‘…make a better place, with my own two hands’.

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