To celebrate the United Nation’s International Day of Rural Women, we asked farmer and microfinance advocate, Kirsty Gilmore, about the challenges facing women in rural communities and how the No Interest Loan Scheme can make a difference.
By Kirsty Gilmore, Executive Officer Josephite Foundation
My family made a tree change and moved from the South Coast of New South Wales to a small village in Central West New South Wales when I was 13 years old, and whilst the great open spaces were terrific for walking the dog and exploring, one of the first things that struck me then was the vast distance between places and the distinct lack of public transport. I had grown up having access to buses and trains to get to school, sporting events, cinemas, and the shopping centres – and then all of a sudden with the exception of the school bus, I was stuck! I had to walk two kilometres to call my friends from a telephone booth and we had to drive over 80 kilometres to get the groceries, which by rural standards is not that far, but for a kid from the coast it was a real eye opener and it was the first of many challenges I would face during my transition to “country life”.
At the age of 16 years I embarked on a career in banking, and found the in-house training offered by the bank to be extremely stimulating. I quickly developed an interest in all aspects of lending – from simple personal loans, to the more complex Business and Agribusiness Loans, along with the Legalities of taking Security and Mortgages. Initially I was based in rural communities, and started providing relief for Rural Branch Managers from the age of 20 years in what was then traditionally a male dominated role. My Banking career lasted 20 years, during which time I progressed from working in branches to specialise in “credit” and held a variety of management roles. Working in the bank gave me the opportunity to live in a number of rural communities, which gave an insight into many of the issues faced by people who lived in the country.
In 2002, after undergoing surgery and treatment for Graves’ disease, I found I was unable to recover sufficiently to return to the long hours I had previously worked in the Bank. So after much deliberation I decided to move back to the country to be closer to my family and get a less demanding job near home. This was the start of a whole new chapter in my life and saw me working in Centrelink for seven years where I gained experience working with marginalised people from all walks of life. I also met my husband Graham – a sheep farmer, and took up a new life on the farm.
In early 2010, I saw the position of Executive Officer with the Josephite Foundation advertised. I was already aware of No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) operated by them, and given my history in credit and the social services, the role was a perfect fit for me and I was very grateful to be entrusted with the role.
I had become very passionate about financial inclusion, and I found that my unique blend of experience gave me a good base to understand the clients we serviced in rural communities.
Many people think living in “the country” is cheaper and easier than living in suburban or city areas, but the reality is that whilst the cost of housing is lower, the cost of living (food, cleaning products, household goods, fuel etc.) is much higher, community and support services are not as abundant and are often difficult or impossible to access as a result of limited transport and distance. People can also find that they have difficulty coping with the feeling of isolation when living in rural and remote areas and this can often result in people suffering from mental health issues.
Whilst many of my client’s over the years have been affected by some of the issues unique to living in the country, one particular client stands out in my memory. Following a rather traumatic divorce, Erin Blake and her 11 year old son Scott* had moved into an old house Erin had previously owned with her husband in a small rural community, only to find that the hot water system didn’t work. Erin didn’t have a job or enough money to cover the cost of a new hot water service, so for a number of months Erin had to take her son to the public pool on a daily basis to use the showers. If this wasn’t bad enough, Erin’s car was badly vandalised whilst parked in the yard and there were delays in getting the approval for repairs to be completed under her insurance policy, so she also had no reliable form of transport. This meant that Erin had to buy her groceries and cleaning products from the small local store as she couldn’t get any transport to a town with a supermarket, as a result her grocery costs more than doubled.
By the time a local nurse had told Erin about NILS, she was feeling pretty low and said “it felt like being paralysed, I couldn’t do anything to change my circumstances!”
Erin managed to get a lift into Bathurst with a neighbour to see me, and by time she left we had negotiated a good price on hot water system and a deal with a plumber to install it. We had also discussed options for legal assistance, and provided a number of tips in regards to managing her budget. When talking to Erin recently, she said “Being able to get a loan for a new hot water system was fantastic, and the advice (we gave her) was really good at the time. I started putting a bit (of money) away each fortnight to cover our costs – it really helped!”
I consider myself fortunate to have a team of employees who are as passionate about financial inclusion as I am, and we find nothing more rewarding than working with our clients and providing them with tools that assist them to become self-determining and access to socially responsible credit.
Besides the challenges of raising community awareness, distance and accessibility in rural and remote communities, I think we are now also facing the challenge of being able to compete with payday lenders on convenience, technology and simplified processes. Most NILS programs do not have the resources to tackle these issues on their own, but I believe that Good Shepherd Microfinance in partnership with the National NILS Network will be able to more effectively address these challenges by working collaboratively. It is exciting to see just how much has been achieved by Good Shepherd Microfinance and the NILS Network over the last few years, and to know that there is so much more on the drawing board to advance financial inclusion in Australia.
*Names changes for privacy reasons.