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Microfinance as “Progressive” Gender and Development Policy?: the Bangladesh Experience (Part 3 of 4) January 21, 2010

Posted by Athiqah Nur Alami in Gender, International Relations, Women.
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Women’s Access to and Control over Assets

This aspect relates to the ownership of individual assets, the decision-making process of its use and standard of consumption. The impact of microcredit programs on women’s ownership of individual assets generally varied across families. A study by Hashemi, Schular and Riley acknowledged that women’s participation in microcredit was a significant determinant of the likelihood of an increase in assets, holdings and exercising of purchasing power. Women have a chance to buy and access their productive and non-productive assets from the profit of their enterprise.

However, it is problematic in terms of control because it does not necessarily improve their control over their assets. It deeply relates to the patriarchy culture in Bangladesh. As White argues, the cultural perception does allow men to exercise control over various aspects of access even if their female counterpart is the legal owner.

The extent of the control which women exercised over their assets held in their name was another delicate issue. A study by Reza revealed that the assets, such as land that women bought from the profit of their enterprise, were frequently registered in the husband’s name. Interestingly, not all women accept such treatment. A few women approached their husband to have the land in their name.

However, the results of their “lobbying” was not sufficiently satisfied because few of the husbands gave outright rejection, while the others agreed to make the registration in both names. This condition shows that the women still did not have full legal ownership over the assets that they purchased with their own money.

Another issue on the control over assets is about the capability of women to sell the assets they have without their husband’s approval. This relates to items that did not need legal registration, such as jewellery and electronic items. Women’s responses in this issue are quite cooperative. Most of them are more conciliatory in emphasizing the importance of a joint decision. They acknowledged that it would be best to have their husband’s consent in selling items, in order to avoid confrontation. It demonstrates that although women have full authority over particular assets they still respect their husband’s consideration.

However, women’s high level of consideration for their husbands did not improve their independent capability in the decision-making process on family matters. It is acknowledged that they were allowed to state their opinions; yet, it was only in the arenas which traditionally have always been the women’s domain. Reza in his study revealed that there are several degrees of control that determine the domain of decision and activities related to that domain. For example, women only had significant control in children’s or family welfare, such as cooking, food distribution, children’s schooling and the marriage of daughters.

However, they have limited control over the economic activities, including investments, the husband’s business, and the buying and selling of land. It shows that although women’s participation in microfinance enhanced their bargaining position within the household decision-making, their great contribution to the family remained under-valued. It suggests that the women just want to participate jointly for the betterment of the whole family, and not want to have power over their husbands.

Another impact of microfinance in term of accessing and controlling assets is on the standard consumption in the family. I argue that it may not be directly affected by women’s participation in microfinance. Without participating in the programs, they culturally have control over consumption because a significant control over family welfare automatically affects the standard of consumption. However, the difference essentially lies in the quality and quantity of consumption.

A study by Reza found that microcredit participants reported a positive change in food consumption patterns in the household. Another finding by Rahman drew a distinction of the standard of consumption between active and passive members. It revealed that women who made active use of at least some of their loans had higher standards of consumption than “passive” female loanees. However, the enhanced standard of consumption of the family did not affect or change the cultural meal-time practices. Most women admitted that they always waited for their husbands to eat first despite their hunger, and they sometimes ate leftover food.

Women’s Access to and Control over Public Resources

This second aspect of women’s empowerment at the individual level includes their access, control and the use of credits from microfinance. Women who participated in microfinance did not have any problems in terms of their access to credit because they directly accepted the money. However, the problems appeared to be in the control and the use of the credits. Study by Goetz and Gupta found that married women exercised little or no control over their loans and their husband controlled those loans.

Consequently, there are three possible repayment scenarios: the male family member using the loan takes responsibility; men are unable to supply the requisite repayments of funds and women loanees have to substitute funds from other sources; and men are unwilling to repay the loans, leading to tensions within the household, often spilling into violence. An analysis of domestic violence will be discussed in the next section.

The other study by Reza also supported the recognition of men’s dominance over the loans and affirmed that the higher the amount of the loan the stronger was men’s control over it. This condition affected the changes in the purpose or intended use of the loans. Men are more likely to invest in male-oriented ventures that have a high degree of risk than female-oriented activities. As a result, over the years large amounts of investments that originated from loans to women have not changed the structure of the rural communities.

This condition developed a cycle of dependency on women as the source of capital to finance economic activities and the economic orientation of the region is still dominated by male-oriented business. Also, the involvement in entrepreneurial activities may take the time that it creates in tensions between spouses over household activities. However, a study by Montgomery, Bhattacharya and Hulme found that the particular condition did not always happen in the case; there was little possibility of joint management in a few households.

Women’s Control over their Bodies and Minds

The last aspect of the impact of microcredit at the individual level is the control over women’s bodies. It covers health and medical issues, the use of contraception, the likelihood of domestic violence and self-worth, as well as knowledge.

Women’s participation in microfinance more or less influences their health. Microcredit programs increase their activities, such as running their enterprise and income-generating activities with the group. All outdoor activities do not compromise their responsibility over the family. It indicates that women need more energy than other member of the family. Thus, they are vulnerable to illness. Findings by Reza revealed that a prevalence of ill-health among women was chronic malnutrition. It is ironic since another finding revealed that women contributed positively in the quality and quantity of consumption in the family. It suggests that the malnutrition problem is caused by their cultural meal-time practices. To deal with their illness, the women asserted that they relied mainly on the natural healing process first.

Also they were given less attention by their husbands during their sickness compare to other family members. They were taken to the health care professionals when their illness became serious. However, women stated that until they were bed-ridden, husbands expected them to perform regular activities including cooking and other domestic chores. Conversely, husbands increased their spending on the medical expenses for themselves and the children. It shows that there is discrimination in the use of money for medical expenses, although women have also obviously contributed to earning an income for the family welfare. However, this condition indicates that women are aware about their rights to proper health care.

Nevertheless, there is progress in women’s freedom to decide on the use of contraception. A study by Husain found that after participation in microfinance, there was reduced contraceptive use among women. It suggests that the improved economic standard in the family led them to have more children. However, another study by Steele, Amin and Naved found the opposite. Women’s participation in the microcredit enhanced the likelihood of contraceptive use and the desire for a decrease in the size of the family.

It was supported by other studies promoting the idea that increased autonomy, relatively free from male domination, and greater interaction with the outside allows women to assert their will more in the behavior of reproduction and fertility.

The other significant issue of the implication of microfinance is the likelihood of domestic violence against the women. Violence and abusive acts are some of the components of systemic discrimination that is directed against women in Bangladesh. Because violence against women is one of the spin-offs of the patriarchal structure of the society, I argue that it might not be a direct consequence of women’s participation in microfinance practices. Microfinance impacts on the degree and intensity of violence against women, but it is not the only cause. However, the studies on the relationship between microfinance and violence showed mixed responses.

A finding by Hashemi, Schuler, Riley, and Akhter noticed that access to credit appeared to be associated with an overall reduction of the incidence of violence against women. The loans and social dimensions of credit programs may help to inhibit violence against women. Bringing home a resource that benefits men can protect women from violence. It is also supported by another study by Reza which compares the likelihood before and after involvement in the credit program. Women reported an overall decrease in normative violent behavior by their husbands. Some women acknowledged that credit is a source of conflict in the family, primarily in terms of lack of money for loan repayments.

They also highlighted poverty and inadequate income as two major factors that created frustration among men. However, most of them rejected any suggestion that they should withdraw from the credit program if it was seen to cause tension and abusive behavior by any member of the household. They were more concerned about their income which had brought in continuous funds since it resulted in reducing poverty-related stress and raised their status.

The last significant impact of microfinance is the enhancement of knowledge and self-worth. The majority of women acknowledged the benefits of microfinance programs, such as self-worth, less dependency, awareness of legal rights and social issues, interpersonal skills, and mobility. After participating in the program, they were confident in their ability to penetrate, challenge, and transform gender relations of power across multiple social boundaries. As a result of group interaction and contribution to the family, women realized their new economic roles allowed them to gain self-confidence.

 However, how far have a woman’s senses of self-confidence, self-reliance, self-esteem and their vision of the future changed as a result of microfinance practices? It can be analyzed by more discussion which relates the individual level of empowerment to the collective or social level of empowerment. (Continued to part 4..)

©athiqahnuralami.wordpress.com, 2010.

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