Mass Weddings for the Poor

By Josh Weinstein, KF9 Philippines

The happy couple.

This Kiva Fellows job is unique, in that it offers an endless supply of intellectual stimulation and satisfaction.  Every day, I learn something new about something interesting.  For the time being, what interests me most is microfinance.  My knowledge of microfinance prior to working with Kiva could be described as purely academic.  Experiencing it firsthand has been rewarding.  In particular, I like understanding the details of execution, the challenges faced by the institution, and generally how a microfinance institution works.  The amount of information to digest is enormous, so I try to focus on understanding a few NWTF (Negros Women for Tomorrow) programs that I think are in my wheelhouse.  The downside of that approach is that I end up overlooking many fascinating and unambiguously positive programs.

The other day my coworkers were telling me about the upcoming Foundation day at one of the branches.  Every year, each branch that meets a certain threshold of repayment and performance can have a Foundation Day party, which has upwards of 2,000 attendees (mostly clients).  I was supposed to go to one in Cauyauan on Saturday, but I got food poisoning the day before and was bedridden.  At some of the Foundation Day celebrations, NWTF holds something called a mass wedding.  This is one of those programs that I find really interesting for different reasons.  Let me explain why.

NWTF aims to serve the poorest of the poor.  It is a Grameen-model bank, where the social mission is paramount.  That mission is to provide a range of services – financial and non-financial – to women that cannot afford them.  A wedding is one of those services.  In the Philippines, it is expensive to have a wedding.  There are many couples that have been together for dozens of years and are still unmarried.  They have children together, a home, and a business, yet, legally, they are going steady.  This means that they do not receive spousal benefits and cannot necessarily legally claim their children as dependents for certain financial services, like life and health insurance.  NWTF offers insurance to their clients (at favorable rates, given that it is a pool of 80,000 new clients).  However, in order to extend maximum benefits to them and their families, the couples must be married.  In a review of NWTF’s social performance by the NGO M-Cril, the practice is discussed:

An interesting side-development of offering insurance is that legal marriage is a condition.  Accordingly, NWTF has been facilitating mass weddings, which women appreciate for their security.

This is a great example of how microfinance institutions offer more than just loans. In fact, microfinance refers to not just microcredit, but a suite of financial services directed to the unbanked.  But there are other services to offer as well.   Healthcare, insurance, clean water, electricity, cooking tools, home loans, and college scholarships for children are but a few.  I knew this about all of these before, but weddings are one I never could’ve guessed.  I never would’ve expected that a marriage ceremony would’ve been something that is beyond the reach of the poor.
A newsletter from another microfinance institution, KMBI, contains the best description of these events and their impact:

The mass weddings, to the married clients, answered their long-awaited desires to be legally bonded with their beloved with whom they have been staying for quite some time.  This project was not only a special gift to the clients, but it sought to store their relationships to what is accepted in the Bible and in society.  The program foresees that, in the long run, these clients and their families will enjoy the benefits of legally-accepted relationships.

Mass weddings are one of the best examples I’ve encountered of the interconnectedness of issues in serving the poor.  In order to offer insurance – a financial service – you must first make sure the recipients are married in order to extend benefits to the entire family.  So how do you solve this problem?  Hire a priest and marry them all at once, in a ceremony they have been waiting for their entire lives.  It is the type service that is taken for granted in the West.  After all, there are no justices of the peace coming to the poor barangays (villages) of Negros, and Las Vegas is too far.  This interconnectedness holds true for other services as well.  Electrifying a village opens up new business opportunities for the community and has public health ramifications.  Providing access to clean water reduces the amount of time people have to travel to reach a well.   If a client’s child is sick,she doesn’t have to drain the savings account if she has health insurance.  And, to get health insurance for her family, she needs to be married.

And, at the end of the day, its a really nice thing to see happen.  It is a feel-good story, with practical benefits.  It may not fit in neatly with the narrative of entrepreneurship in the developing world, but, as I am learning, it never does.  There is always a much more complex network of causality beneath the surface.  I am learning new things every day.  As I do, I will try my best to share them here.

Please help NWTF achieve its mission of serving the poorest communities in the Philippines by joining the NWTF Lending Team. Also, if you have any other questions about mass weddings or NWTF and their work, send me an email.

About the author

Josh Weinstein