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What Does It Mean For Women To Be “Empowered” And Does Empowerment Compromise The Viability of Microfinance Institutions Worldwide? » Women's Courage

What Does It Mean For Women To Be “Empowered” And Does Empowerment Compromise The Viability of Microfinance Institutions Worldwide?

March 3rd, 2011 by ntahir Leave a reply »

Microfinance has had a positive impact on the status of women globally. What does it mean for women to be “empowered”?

According to the State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign 2001 Report, 14.2 million of the world’s poorest women how have access to financial services through bank, Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), NGOs, and other such institutions. These women belong to the 74 percent of the approximately 20 million of the world’s poorest people that are now being catered to by MFIs. This means that most of these women have access to the ‘loan’ they need to start or invest in their own enterprise; also, most of these women have great repayment records despite the financial problems they run into on a regular basis. So then, is it a good idea to lend money to the poor, and more specifically to poor women? What does this money do for them in terms of their ‘empowerment’?

The word empowerment is difficult to define precisely; yet, it is easy to pin-point an example of empowerment when we see one:

Snapshots of Empowerment:

  • Nury, an illiterate Trust Bank client at AGAPE in Colombia, formerly too shy to speak to strangers, became the treasurer for her Trust Bank.
  • A group of widows in Bali received loans from WKP to start simple projects raising pigs. Over time, they grew in confidence and solidarity and expanded to form a pig-feed cooperative that became the major supplier for their village.
  • Hanufa, a member of CODEC in Bangladesh, defends her rights against an illegal divorce but ultimately decides that she is better off on her own. “I can walk on my own shoes now.”

A lot of different terms have been associated with empowerment: self-reliance, self-respect, self-enabling to reach potential, development of self-worth, and so forth. Empowerment is definitely the goal of many MFIs worldwide; these institutions help women that have previously experienced little or no power, make choices that impact their lives forever. By providing these women with basic financial services, and a loan to become an entrepreneur, they have a tremendous impact on this empowerment process.

Even though MFIs with a strong focus on empowerment have been criticized to have lose their operational viability and sustainability in the process, this has been proved wrong by many MFIs with the same women-empowerment focus. Working Women’s Forum (WWF) in India, for example, is fully financially sustainable and offers a range of nonfinancial services, including organizing women in the informal sector to achieve better wages and working conditions. WWF also empowers poor women through its institutional structure by training them to act as health promoters and credit officers in their neighborhoods. Therefore, MFIs with a strong focus on empowerment maintain very high levels of operational and financial sustainability, suggesting that a great deal can be done to enhance women’s empowerment even within the constraints of financial sustainability.



  1. ktwebb says:

    Your examples do a fantastic job of highlighting the positive impact that MFI’s can have in the lives of women. Through this quarter, it seems that one pattern that has emerged for me–and it looks as though for you too–is that despite many of the challenges MFI’s face today (political opposition, seedy MFI’s that exploit both their loanees and their well-intentioned investors, low rates of repayment in some key areas), their track record for good still remains. I do hope that nations will see how MFI’s do require regulation to prevent abuse, but that too much of it can stifle an industry that gives people, particularly women, the opportunity to extricate themselves from poverty.

  2. anna says:


  3. anna says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post!

    I have also been interesting in the mean of “empowerment”, and I think it’s great that you’ve taken up this issue here. Because empowerment is so often an explicit goal of MFIs and other NGOs, it is important from an accountability standpoint to understand how to measure empowerment. I agree that it can be clear to those on the ground when people have been ‘empowered’ – such as the examples you’ve mentioned. But in formal evaluations, should NGOs be required to show how much they’ve empowered the people for whom they are working? You bring up some good possibilities for this – such as measuring increases in self-confidence or self-reliance. I think some other possibilities might be measuring changes in political participation or in income distribution / economic power. What do you think?

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