Microfinance as “Progressive” Gender and Development Policy?: the Bangladesh Experience (Part 2 of 4) January 21, 2010Posted by Athiqah Nur Alami in Gender, International Relations, Women.
Tags: Gender, International Relations, Women
Microfinance, also known as microcredit, has rapidly grown in Bangladesh during the 1990s and it has enjoyed correspondingly growing prominence. However, the program was actually born in the aftermath of the country’s war of independence in the 1970s. The extreme poverty and hunger in that period led an Economics professor at the University of Chittagong, Muhammad Yunus, to begin an experimental project providing credit to the rural poor of Bangladesh. He established the Grameen Bank in 1983, as a microfinance institution that gives collateral-free income-generating loans to poor families.
In his Nobel Lecture for the Nobel Peace Prize 2006, Yunus claimed that the Bank had given loans to nearly 7 million poor people, 97 percent of whom were women, in 73,000 villages in Bangladesh. The program focused on women because giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family and they are supposed to be low-risk. Yunus is hoping that by 2010, 100 percent of the poor families in Bangladesh will be reached with the microcredit program.
The success of the Bank to alleviate poverty and to empower women has spread and has inspired other villages in Bangladesh and around the world. That experiment, driven by a strong sense of developmental idealism, developed into what is now the world’s most famous Microfinance institution, the Grameen Bank, and institution that replicates its pioneering methodology world-wide.
There are many empirical studies that give strong evidence to the positive effects of microfinance in two vital areas of national development; namely, the alleviation of poverty and the empowerment of women. Despite this positive evidence, some critics question the impact of microcredit for women’s empowerment. While microcredit has contributed positively to the well-being of women in general, it has not necessarily led to the comprehensive improvement of women.
Also, the inclusion of gender mainstreaming in development policy, including microfinance, has invoked questions on its impact on a progressive gender and development policy. Bangladesh becomes an interesting case in this issue, since traditionally, women in Bangladesh have very little contact with the labor market, and generally do not have significant cash incomes of their own. This reflects on customary and religious restrictions on women’s mobility outside the home.
This condition is also supported by the marriage traditions of patrilocal residence and village exogamy in Bangladeshi society. When a woman marries, she leaves her home, family, and village, and moves into the household of her new husband, in a new village. As a result, wives may not have many relationships outside the household and their empowerment has less attention. The following section will discuss the issue by assessing the impact of the microfinance program on women’s empowerment in Bangladesh at the individual level.
Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment: Progressive or Not?
The term empowerment is a multi-dimensional concept. Generally, empowerment is a collective process that primarily focuses on the individual. It involves expanding a person’s capacity for making choices and acting on them, which in turn can lead to higher self-esteem and self-efficacy. Kabeer argues that empowerment is seen to occur at a number of different levels, to cover a range of different dimensions and to materialize through a variety of different purposes.
The analysis of this essay will be based on the definition of empowerment by Kabeer, which emphasized the notion of power as determining choice, and the ability to choose. Disempowerment is described as a deep-seated constraint on the ability to choose. In her framework for assessing empowerment, Kabeer suggests tracing women’s ability to make choices through three dimensions: the pre-conditions of choice or resources; the exercise of choice or agency; and the consequence of choice or achievements that reflect increased capacity to transform the structure of women’s subordination.
The impact assessment of microfinance on women’s empowerment in this paper focuses on empowerment at the individual level. It is because the cognitive change that occurs within the individual may lead to further action in their relationships with others. Further, Riger argues that the individual approach of empowerment understates the political dimension and the power relationship that exists in human relations. It also helps build a base for social change.
Drawing from Kabeer’s assessment of empowerment, this essay focuses on three aspects of individual empowerment: women’s access to and control over assets; women’s access to and control over public resources; and women’s control over their bodies. The following discussions of these aspects are then analyzed for whether it leads to a progressive gender and development policy. “Progressive” in this sense means that it brings positive impacts for gender equality and gender relations, while it can be considered not progressive if it brings more negative impacts for women, such as creating double burden and gender inequality, as well as undermining gender relations. (Continued to part 3..)