Susan F. Feiner and Drucilla K. Barker, “The Dickensian World of Micro-Finance: Grameen May Not Be So Good for Women After All”

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You can read this interesting essay on microcredit programs here. Below is an excerpt:

… The evidence on whether microcredit can empower women is inconclusive. According to the World Bank, because microcredit gives women more control over household assets and resources, they enjoy increased autonomy and decision-making power, which in turn enables them to participate more fully in public life. This defense of microcredit stands or falls on stories of individual success, which feature women who have used their loans to start small-scale enterprises by renting a stall in the local market or buying a sewing machine to assemble piece goods. There is no doubt that when women succeed in business, they and their families are better off than they were before they became microdebtors.

However, access to credit is not the sole determinant of women’s empowerment. Credit can increase women’s dual burden of market and household labor. It may also increase conflict within the household if men, rather than women, try to control the use of the loans. Moreover, conflict among women can be exacerbated by the pressure of group repayment obligations. These structural realities of microdebtors’ economic lives suggest that microcredit by itself will not empower poor women.

We wonder how the Nobel Committee could have overlooked the impressive achievements of India’s 700,0000-member Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), founded in 1972 by some of the poorest women workers in India, including those whose work arrangements leave them without legal protection from exploitation. SEWA engages in a range of activities:not just microcredit:organized by and for women. Based on Gandhian principles, it addresses the full spectrum of structural and institutional practices that reproduce women’s poverty. According to Elibah Bhatt, SEWA’s first leader,

The basic elements of SEWA are organizing poor self-employed women through work, building economic organizations for them like unions and cooperatives, creating viable links between a country’s grassroots and its macro policies, and combining struggle and development through peaceful means.

One can hardly find a clearer contrast in approaches to gender equity, women’s self-sufficiency, and the alleviation of poverty than those represented by the Grameen Bank and SEWA. Progressive groups like SEWA argue that poverty is structural. Consequently, successful antipoverty programs, rather than adjusting individual behavior, must focus on creating the conditions for women’s positive inclusion in social life. Expanding collective efforts through public funding for initiatives that provide a functional infrastructure are, they argue, the best way to reduce poverty. In contrast, in the neoliberal view represented by the Grameen Bank and Yunus, restricting state aid is the way to help women help themselves. …

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