A line of women sit in the yard outside Matilde Calixte's hair salon in the heart of Venezuela. Shaded by cooling trees, they laugh and chat as they wait for their hairdos. Highlights are particularly popular at the moment,as are the styles of the actresses on US TV soaps which most watch religiously. There is generally a queue at the salon because Calixte, 43, and the other three hairdressers she works with charge low prices, have air-conditioning, and offer the trendiest styles in the neighbourhood.
The salon sits in a small room at the side of Calixte's home. Opening it, she says, has changed her life. She used to work as a hairdresser for someone else far from her three daughters at home, and earned just 30% of the cost of each haircut she did, supplementing her income with a school cleaning job. She and her fellow cutters now share their earnings equally and her income has increased tenfold.
"I feel so happy about this arrangement," she says. "With the extra money I can afford to send my oldest daughter to university. Working for ourselves means we can be in charge of our lives."
The turnaround in Calixte's fortunes is thanks to two loans from the Women's Development Bank of Venezuela, Banmujer - the only state-owned women's bank in the world.
Banking has long been seen as male territory with discrimination an occupational hazard for any female employee who dares attempt to make her way through the briefcases. But at Banmujer there is no glass ceiling. All the employees are women. By offering small loans of around $1,000 per head, its aim is to increase the prosperity of women and transform them into entrepreneurial high-fliers.
Although the loans are handed out to individuals, the women who receive them must be part of a group who have agreed to work co-operatively on a business scheme together. Women have four years to repay the money and interest is charged at only 1% per month. The idea to establish such a bank was first mooted 10 years ago at an international women's conference to discuss ways to make the male-dominated financial institutions work better for them. As men are the majority property owners in the world, asset-poor women tend to be disadvantaged when they apply for business loans.
Nora Castaneda, president of Banmujer, attended the meetings and when she got home drew up some plans. Her aim was to ensure that women with no financial collateral would not be excluded.
After the election of leftwing President Hugo Chavez in 1998, the time seemed right. "Chavez urged people to 'Bring me solutions, not problems,' and I thought this fitted the bill," Castaneda says. Working with a range of other women's groups, they petitioned the National Assembly every day between March and July 1999: "We proposed a bank which would be a public institution for small loans. We call it the different bank because we not only offer women loans and support them while they're building up their businesses, we offer help and support on sexual and reproductive health because these are human rights too." Chavez approved the proposals and duly appointed Castaneda president of the bank.
Last week, Castaneda was in London, sunk deep into a sofa. The 62-year-old grandmother is so small that her head barely touches the top of it; her voice is soft and quiet. Her mother, a domestic worker who scrimped and saved to send her to university, told her: "I don't have any money to leave you but my inheritance to you is to provide you with an education."
Castaneda was overjoyed when she was appointed a professor at the Central University of Venezuela in 1968 but vowed to provide other women with the same helping hand her mother had given to her. "Across the world, women only own 1% of property and other assets and in general they earn 30% less than men," she says. "Because they have so few assets women are unable to guarantee loans. Without economic rights women don't have human rights. The only way to change the world is to change the lives of women," she says.
The bank has just one office, in Caracas, and employs a network of female promoters who go out Avon Lady-style across the country, even to remote parts of the Amazon, offering loans. It is they who provide women with the extra information about sexual and reproductive health as well as business and legal advice. "Women are very good at looking after others but not so good at looking after themselves," says Castaneda. "If they want to be successful they need to look after themselves too."
Since it started in March 2001, the bank has issued 51,000 credits for a range of ideas from cleaning co-ops and fashion design businesses to hairdressers and sweet manufacturers. Around 96% of those receiving the loans are women - men are only granted loans if they are working with women and if the women are the coordinators of the business scheme.
The mini-entrepreneurs are encouraged to cooperate with other small businesses rather than competing with them. If one group is given money to rear chickens, another nearby will be given a loan to slaughter the chickens. Then a third group will receive funding to buy the prepared poultry and sell it on. The focus is always on producing high-quality products, suitable both for local markets and export.
While some women have defaulted, many have developed thriving businesses and paid back their loans which qualifies them for further credit, one and a half times their previous loan. One group of 70 women and one man set up an adventure eco-tourism centre which has proved particularly popular with European visitors. They market it as a holiday destination "which doesn't tax nature".
"A guest house with no doors and no windows was established where visitors sleep in hammocks. There are no mosquitoes and the community guarantees the safety of the visitors and their belongings," says Castaneda.
The sole male member of the project was struggling to repay his loan. The other 70 women were furious and called a meeting of the whole community where he was outed for not taking his repayments seriously enough. He quickly paid up and the business continues to expand.
"When women earn money they invest it in their families; when men earn money they invest some in their families and keep the rest for themselves," says Castaneda. "Men are pleased when women earn money but when women start earning more than them they can feel threatened. We have had domestic violence because men want to exert their authority."
Only a minority of poor women have had access to the bank's facilities, but Castaneda remains upbeat. "We are creating an economy at the service of human beings instead of human beings at the service of the economy."