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Microfinance as a “Progressive” Gender and Development Policy?: the Bangladesh Experience (Part 1 of 4) January 21, 2010

Posted by Athiqah Nur Alami in Gender, International Relations, Women.
Tags: , ,

The aim of this essay is to examine critically the practices of microfinance as a development strategy and how microfinance can be considered “progressive” gender and development in policy-making. This essay will use the findings and evaluations from several microfinance practices in Bangladesh.

The experiences of microfinance in Bangladesh have been unique because the country has been the “laboratory” for some of the most challenging gender and developmental experiments in the contemporary world. As Simeen Mahmud argues, microfinance practices in Bangladesh have much to contribute towards a greater understanding of the relationship between empowerment and socio-economic development.

Since the majority of microfinance practices specifically target women this paper will focus on the progress of women’s empowerment at the individual level. It includes three aspects: women’s access to and control over assets; women’s access to and control over public resources; and women’s control over their bodies.

I will use Naila Kabeer’s approach as the basis of analysis of this paper, which relates empowerment directly to “agency” – the expansion of the individual’s choices and actions as they relate to others. The experiences of women in microfinance practices are mixed. In some instances the use of microfinance contributes to remarkable progress in the lives of women. Conversely, there are some instances where credit does not result in meaningful change or may have even worsened the situation for women.

Based on the analysis of women’s empowerment in Bangladesh at the individual level, I argue that to some extents the microfinance development strategy should not be considered “progressive” gender and development policymaking. First, the assessment of women’s empowerment at the individual level does not show comprehensive and intact progress for women. The progress in women’s empowerment always contains risks on the other side.

Second, microfinance has not adapted a systematic approach to enabling both women and men to contribute together positively in the program. The design of microfinance has not reflected the gender mainstreaming in gender and development policy. It should emphasize men’s roles in advancing gender equality and gender relations.

First, this essay reviews the concept of gender and development policy, including the aspects that differentiate it from the previous concept of women in development. Secondly, it explores the practices of microfinance in Bangladesh as part of a development strategy. The next three sections discuss the impact of microfinance on three particular aspects at the individual level and analyze their role as a progressive gender and development policy. Finally, it concludes that microfinance is still promising as a development strategy, although it cannot address all the barriers to women’s empowerment in development.

Gender and Development Policy

As a framework for gender analysis, the Gender and Development (GAD) concept appears to deal with the inadequacies in the earlier concept of Women in Development (WID). GAD advocate, Carolyn Moser, argues that WID has been ineffective in improving women’s material conditions and insensitivity to the differences among women.

WID has also identified women’s lack of access to resources as the key to their subordination without raising questions about the role of gender relations in restricting women’s access in the first place. The welfare approach at that time also supported this condition by treating women as ‘passive recipients’ of development. This approach has perceived the traditional roles of women as wives and carers as the best way that women could contribute towards the economy in a developing country.

In the 1980s, there were numerous responses to these issues, which culminated in the need for analysis based on gender relations. Feminist anthropology has also supported this idea by focusing concern on the cultural representation of sexes – the social construction of gender identity and its determining influence on the relative position of men and women in society.

The notion of Gender and Development then appeared as a way of developing a framework for gender roles and mainstreaming gender into developmental works. GAD represented changes to the former WID approaches. It focuses on women’s empowerment which has moved from a “needs-based” to a “rights-based” approach in gender issues, and covers several aspects.

The first significant aspect of GAD is the emphasis on gender relations in development policy. It relates to the “social connectedness” or “togetherness” of husband and wife as an important analytical weight in gender analysis. The interrelations between men and women that may contain conflicting and cooperative dimensions must be taken into account in a gender-aware approach to development.

Another aspect of GAD relates to the issue of gender equality. It affirms that the solution of gender inequality was not only integrating women into development, but more importantly integrating gender into policy. Also, this aspect emphasized the importance of men’s roles in improving gender equality in all aspects of development.

In the late 1980s, many development programs used the GAD approach as a gender framework. It emphasized more inclusive development projects and benefited both men and women. However, the inclusion of gender in the structural adjustment programs invoked debates, particularly regarding its inefficiency in bringing progress for women over men in poor countries. To deal with that, women were brought into the economic “mix” which treated women as individual producers and consumers. Hamilton asserts that this argument supported the broader neo-liberal paradigm.

Consequently, in the 1990s and 2000s, gender mainstreaming in the GAD approach has moved away from the issues of women’s right. It reflects an acceptance of the neo-liberal paradigm that drives development policy and practice, which are not necessarily only realizing women’s rights. However, there is an argument that “the instrumentalism that mainstreaming brings can also subvert or challenge some of the tenets of neo-liberalism, such as access and equity which have to be considered in any gender analysis”.

In terms of practice, the debates have resulted in a women’s gender program, which Kilby and Olivieri argue, have focused on two principal themes, one of which is microfinance. The microfinance program contains a neo-liberal agenda because it focuses on individuals and seeks to expand the individual agency. It also holds a GAD agenda in terms of advancing gender rights and gender mainstreaming. However, whichever agenda dominates and drives microfinance practices and what effects microfinance brings for a progressive gender and development policy will be analyzed in the following sections. (Continued to part 2..)

©athiqahnuralami.wordpress.com, 2010.

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1. Weekly Reads « Humanitax - January 29, 2010

[…] Another interesting writing on empowering women was published on the new discovered blog Gendering International Relations. The paper discusses microfinance for women in developing countries and is available here. […]

Athiqah Nur Alami - January 30, 2010

Thanks 🙂

2. Justine Darling - March 15, 2011

May I use the picture on your blog here for a blog I am writing for the San Diego Microfinance Alliance website at http://sdmicrofinance.org? It is such a beautiful picture and the blog is about teaching microfinance . . . please let me know 🙂

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