International Women’s Day Special: Women and Microfinance

There has been much debate regarding the role of microfinance in empowering women with a great number of studies offering evidence towards both sides of the debate. During a visit to Koitta, Manikganj, a rural village in Bangladesh in 2007, I too was a bit underwhelmed by the “female empowerment” I had observed while researching the impacts of microfinance on the area.

As a young woman who had grown up in an urban environment where opportunities, although available, were accompanied by an ever-present underlying resistance of lowered societal expectations, I had high hopes for what I would observe there because I wanted to believe, I needed to believe, that I too was capable of more than what my external environment expected of me.

Although I was privileged enough to have many supportive people in my life, I also watched perplexed as male colleagues and classmates were showered with opportunity after opportunity while I was left to fight for their scraps. Microfinance sounded beautiful and I wanted desperately to become a believer.

What I found was that the mothers, wives and daughters I encountered were just like me, still entrenched in a gender power struggle beyond their control, doing the best they could to build a place for themselves with the limited resources at their disposal, in a world that is deeply resistant to shifting boundaries. I wanted to find strong assertive women with full control of their destinies so that I too could hope for the same. What I found were women just like me, doing their best to overcome their own personal insecurities, moving forward one step at a time. What I found was that microfinance is no panacea. Women are subject to the same exploitative forces and insecurities they previously were but with an additional tool in their arsenal of defense which should not be underestimated. However, one should set realistic expectations when setting out to remote rural villages to see these changes for themselves. Important changes are taking place, but rather than a “loud” in-your-face revolution, it is one of incremental change, brewing just below the surface. Setting ones expectations too high will ultimately lead to disappointment and add further fuel to the fire of microfinance naysayers, many of whom are prominent politically powerful individuals, who claim that microfinance institutions are simply engaging in usury.

When asked by people about my views regarding microfinance, I often use the analogy of a syringe. A syringe is not inherently good or bad but its ultimate impact is determined by how it is utilized by its user. It could be used to inject a patient with lifesaving drugs or to pump heroin into the veins of a drug addict, thus furthering a cycle of addiction and destruction. Though microfinance may not always have the intended effect, it is ultimately a resource with the capacity to do immense good.

What excites me most is that microfinance access is planting millions of seeds of progress which will ultimately come into fruition in the future. Microfinance is a relatively recent concept and we are just beginning to see what the second and third generation of women who grew up with mothers and grandmothers who enjoyed the freedoms and opportunities associated with having access to microcredit will be able to achieve in their lifetime. I look forward to the day that I go back to Koitta and see the latent potential that I observed there manifest into something beyond my greatest hopes.


A novel way to help women in the workplace

Yesterday, I attended the Global Social Responsibility Conference organized by the Bangladesh German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. One story of corporate social responsibility that I found particularly compelling was that of Aboni Knitwear, the 2012 winner for Most Innovative Idea at the Social and Environmental Excellence Awards held in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The factory has a workforce that’s 60% female so the management created a daycare center and produces and distributes sanitary napkins to employees below cost at less than 50% of their market value to reduce employee absenteeism so that female employees do not have to needlessly forgo career and income. I think this is a wonderful idea and I would love to see more employers in the developing world replicating it.

It’s a great example of an intervention that seems relatively small but is immensely impactful. For men who may be confused by this, sanitary napkins equal mobility and reproductive health and are financially out of reach for the majority of the world’s female population.