The Philippines, during the mid-1980s had the concentration of the poorest of the poor in rural areas, with more than 80 percent of the poorest 30 percent of families. Negros, considered as the Sugar Bowl of the Philippines, is a primary example, with reports of widespread malnutrition and hunger during that period.
This was the reason why three women: Dr. Cecilia “Cecile” del Castillo, Suzette “Ching” Gaston, and Corazon “Cora” Henares decided to come up with a program that would hopefully later on free women, families, and communities from poverty.
Thus, Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation was conceived.
“I saw many women carrying their children, waiting to feed them at charity feeding stations,” recalled Suzette “Ching” Gaston, NWTF Executive Director, and one of the three founders of Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation.
Gaston was struck when she saw distressed mothers, and she knew they needed to do something about it.
“Growing up, we enjoyed organizing activities, from medical missions to feeding programs. There I saw that there were so many who were affected by the economic crisis at the time, and when Cecile shared that she wanted to put up a bank for women and help them get out of poverty, we did not hesitate to help her,” Gaston recalled.
Henares, meanwhile, said the idea of helping women rise up from poverty was what rallied them together.
Soon, Henares, Gaston, and del Castillo had friends coming in to help look for funding.
They then went to Bangladesh and Malaysia for training in the Grameen method developed by Prof. Muhammad Yunus, world renowned banker for the poor, who later became their close friend.
NWTF started microfinance with one thing in mind, empowering women to improve their lives and rise above poverty. This singular idea now has helped more than 600,000 Filipinos and their families not only in Negros but across the Philippines.
The spirit of taking risks and volunteerism compelled these three women into making their dream a reality.
“We faced many trials when we were starting but our determination to help those in need were much stronger than all of the struggles we encountered throughout the years, and we had dedicated people helping us that shared the same mission,” Gaston recalled.
At present, the nation is once again challenged anew by the effect COVID19 in the economy. The World Bank estimates that 40 million to 60 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2020, compared to 2019, as a result of COVID-19, depending on assumptions on the magnitude of the economic shock.
The global extreme poverty rate could rise by 0.3 to 0.7 percentage points, to around 9 percent in 2020.
For many years now, microfinance institutions have been the marginalized sectors’ source of hope; in an article of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 1 June, 2020 it states that:
“For over four decades, Microfinance institutions (MFIs) have played an important role in the country’s efforts to provide financial services to the unbanked informal sectors, composed of micro-entrepreneurs who work tirelessly to lift themselves out of poverty. These are the people most economically vulnerable of falling through the cracks and are now in danger of slipping back.”
The PDI article also stated the need to build a more resilient microfinance sector; the clients are in a difficult situation as their livelihoods are affected by the pandemic, making it harder for them to pay their loans. This would also mean the MFIs ability to sustain its operations are hampered as they also need to identify and manage emerging risks.
Hope seems a bit frail for the many affected by these difficult times but Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation believes that the resilience of the Filipinos is stronger than any pandemic and that by working together, we will be able to triumph over this disease.
Henares shared three practical tips that always come in handy when crisis like these come. First is to always prepare for rainy days. It should be a habit to save money for when situations like a pandemic arises.
Second, keep a healthy lifestyle, which benefits not only one’s physical health but one’s pocket’s too.
Lastly, hard work equals freedom; nothing is going to happen if we just sit waiting for things to take place, the choice to rise above poverty will be ours to make.
Henares adds, when asked about what freedom from poverty means to her, “We need to always remember the less privileged members of our community, to not be complacent and to be there for one another. Freedom from poverty starts and ends with one’s basic desire to help and be of service to other people.”