Beneath the Surface
Microcredit and Women's Empowerment

By Abdul Bayes

Once the beginning of the microcredit programmes that mobilise and organise women at the grassroots levels and provide access to supportive services, the issue of women's empowerment started to constitute the cornerstone of any discussions on planned interventions for poverty alleviation. Following the foot steps of the Grameen Bank's minimalist credit strategy, a number of NGOs in Bangladesh (e.g. BRAC, ASA) have been targeting rural women hitherto been subjected to socio-economic subjugation of different types. The unique aspect of such a strategy is not its financial intermediation of credit for the poor but also its social intermediation. Needless to mention here, perhaps, is the fact that the viability of the former intermediation is ensured by the latter intermediation.

Great debate tends to persist as whether provisions of credit for the poor women could change the social equations in which this sub-set of the population live in villages. The proponents of the thesis go to argue that targeted credit can be used as a mechanism for enhancing poorer women's existing socio-economic conditions and thereby altering the relations between gender and class, to the benefit of the weaker parties. However, on the other side of the fence, critics tend to say that while a marginal increase in income and assets can enhance well-being and economic security, the increase could be too little to affect the pervasively entrenched political and economic relations.

Ruhul Amin, Stan Becker and myself attempted to explore the relationship between poor women's participation in microcredit programmes and their empowerment by using empirical data from rural Bangladesh (The Journal of Developing Areas, winter 1998, vol 32, No 2, Pages 221-236). This has been done by examining quantitative data collected from a representative sample of the female loanees as well as qualitative data from selected female loanees in five NGOs from rural Bangladesh. The authors compared NGO credit members from an NGO programme area with non-members from a non-programme area with respect to women's empowerment to examine whether or not variation in empowerment could be explained by the variation in memberships. Similarly, non-members of NGO programme areas were compared with non-members from non-programme areas in order to look at the diffusion effect of NGO credit membership on women's empowerment among non-members.

Few hypotheses were set for the abovementioned study. First, it was hypothesised that participation in credit and credit-related activities leads to greater empowerment of the members compared to non-credit members and second, the duration of credit membership is positively associated with women's empowerment. One should, however, note here that such empowerment injected by the programme could vary across regions depending on particular region's historical socio-cultural norms and practices. However, before the findings start to flow one could ask as to whether or not the empowerment issue was addressed earlier in some other studies. The authors would like to answer in the affirmative but with a note that these were beset with conceptual and methodological problems. Besides, reliance on small samples from localised areas also delimited their generalisation on a wider scale.

The concept of women's empowerment has been split into three components and measured separately in order to arrive at a better understanding of their underlying factors and their relationship to women's empowerment. These separate indices are the intersperse consultation index, individual autonomy index and authority index.. The three options were given different weights - "generally" was assigned a value of 1, "never" a value of O and "occasionally" a value 0.5.

Microcredit should help poor women in three ways.

  • First, by providing independent sources of income outside home, microcredit tends to reduce economic dependency of the women on husbands and thus help enhance autonomy.
  • Second, the same independent sources of income together with their exposure to new sets of ideas, values and social support should make these women more assertive of their rights.
  • And finally, micro credit programmes - by providing control over material resources - should raise women's prestige and status in the eyes of husbands and thereby promote intersperse consultation.

The results show that the NGO credit members are ahead of the non-members in all three indices of empowerment irrespective of nonmembers' residence in programme areas or nonprogramme areas. Moreover, the nonmembers within NGO programme areas show a higher level of empowerment on the autonomy and authority indices than do the nonmembers within the comparison areas.

Overall, it is evident that part of the higher autonomy and authority indices in the NGO programme areas in contrast to the comparison areas is accounted for by the contribution of both NGO credit members and non-members in the NGO programme areas. Being empowered by their new sources of financial income and related credit-group supports, female recipients of NGO credits may have asserted their autonomy and authority vis-a-vis their husbands' restrictions and dominance in related household affairs.

The results further indicate that education, housetype, yearly income etc. tend to be positively associated with autonomy and authority indices. Also positively associated are duration of NGO membership and non-agricultural occupations. The implications of all these findings is that NGO credit programmes in rural Bangladesh are not only likely to bring about rapid economic improvement in the situation of women but also hasten their empowerment. The NGO credit members are reported to be more confident, assertive, intelligent, self-reliant and conscious of their rights.

While NGOs are doing a good job, it would perhaps, be too much to expect that the NGOs could make all rural women resourceful and empowered.

The government should help NGOs to grow faster but at the same time, the government itself should continue to carry out its poverty alleviation programmes especially through BRDB and other organs. Despite the surge of NGO activities in recent years, they still tend to embrace only a negligible portion of the needy. The government has to have a large network of credit programme for the rural poor women to increase their economic solvency and enhance their empowerment. Only emancipation of the women from the clutches of the age-old bondage could free the society from the rots that it faces in the journey towards progress. The complementary role of NGOs and government can take care of the problem, we suppose.

Hari Srinivas -
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