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The “Women-Only” Approach Versus the “Family Empowerment Approach”: Egypt as a Case-Study

March 7th, 2011

The access to basic financial services that Islamic Microfinance offers empowers Muslim women in giving them a new dimension in life and feeling of self-worth. However, while this ability of Microfinance to provide rural women with micro-loans in gender-segregated societies is laudable, working with Muslim women in particular raises the issue of interfering with social, cultural and religious codes. The Qur’an encourages men and women to play their respective roles in society, by ensuring the economic and social wellbeing of the family: “Men shall have a share of that which they have earned, and women a share of which they have earned” (Qur’an, VI, 32).

Hence, the “women-only” approach typical of conventional microfinance is not always followed by Islamic Microfinance Institutions (IMFIs) that try to adhere to Islamic principles and values while providing customers with loans. IMFIs overcome this problem by shifting their focus from “women empowerment” to “family empowerment”, which is also promoted by the Qur’an. While this kind of an approach might be met by criticism, it must be understood that it is a very culture-specific approach that mostly caters to male-dominated societies.

The “women-only” approach does weaken the institution of the family by sending both the male and the female out to work, giving them both the feeling of being the breadwinner for their family. But besides this, this approach is also prone to many risks posed by traditional male-dominated societies. In these societies, the funds provided to women for investment in their enterprises are often usurped by the male members of the family, while the women consequently end up carrying the burden of repayment and of their business independently.

In a Muslim country like Egypt, which was the first MENA country to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Microfinance has had a great impact on women’s empowerment in the country. In 2008, a national survey carried out by Planet Finance (NGO) evaluated the impact of microcredit as well as the perception of this impact: “During the focus group discussions, women unanimously stated that the loan had had a positive effect in terms of their image in their communities; they are also more self-confident and their children appreciate what they do. Their projects have allowed them to have a better life in general (“National Impact Survey” 86)”. Despite being a male-dominated Muslim society, Islamic Microfinance accentuates women empowerment.

47 percent of Egypt’s microentrepreneurs are women; 88 percent of these women operate home-based businesses and only 28 percent operate non home-based businesses. Despite these circumstances wherein women are allowed to realize their entrepreneurial skills and abilities out of their home, 45 percent of women have noticed a positive change in their life, in terms of education and economic possibilities, whereas 86 percent of women have experienced a positive impact in terms of personal autonomy (V. COSTA – H. MAKHLOUF – P. MAZAUD).


Costa, Valentina. Makhlouf, Hala. Mazaud, Perrine. “Women’s Empowerment through Islamic Microfinance in Egypt”. MESCI 2009-2010.

Legitimacy of Islamic Microfinance as a Viable and Feasible Alternative to Conventional Microfinance

March 7th, 2011

Why is there a need for Islamic Microfinance?

We know that the prime motive of every government and every country’s Finance Minister is to account for a sound and stable financial system in the economy, and try to alleviate poverty. However, factually speaking, there is no evidence of a system that has succeeded in the above-mentioned attempts. With the emergence, instant success, and exponential growth of the Microfinance industry, Microfinance has been claimed to be the mechanism that has the potential to eradicate global poverty. This claim obviously comes with its share of criticism and debate; how does Microfinance aim to defeat poverty, if it charges its high-risk, poor customers, excessive rates of interest that in some cases soar as high as 60%? The industry is getting carried away by its potential to generate profits; there is an increasing number of MFIs that have started operating under the business objectives of the commercial world, with profits and expansion being their main aim. MFIs have started to go public, when the only beneficiaries of this industry, as stated by Mohamed Yunus, should be the poor population it was initially created for. Of course, other social benefits such as justice and equality, and a proper distribution of income and wealth, remain just as unattainable and untouched with the industry moving farther away from its actual goals.

Looking at Different Countries as Case-Studies of a Global Need for Islamic Microfinance

In such a global situation, Islamic Microfinance could be the savior that the Microfinance industry needs to remind it of its original motivations. Like Muhammad Yunus pointed out, the Microfinance industry was created to protect the poor from loan sharks, not create more loan sharks. Looking at the global Microfinance industry, and the cost of borrowing money, the countries that are most shocking are Nigeria and Mexico (NYTimes). The demand in these countries for micro loans is very expansive. In this classic case of an excess demand being met by a high price, these countries charge their poor excessive rates of interest.

In Mexico, the average rate of interest for a micro loan is 70 percent, compared to a global average of about 37 percent (NYTimes). Uzbekistan also boasts a whopping 80 percent average in interest rates per annum, with Uganda, Kenya and Ghana following at approximately 55 percent, 55 percent and 50 percent (respectively) (CGAP).

In such a situation, where the global average itself is at 35 percent, would it help to have an industry serving the same purpose of providing the poor with basic financial access, WITHOUT charging interest? Islamic Microfinance is definitely an alternative to the problem of high rates of interest; although Islamic Microfinance does not mean that money is lent absolutely free cost (since the industry needs to make its profits in accordance with the Islamic Shar’iah), its compliance with Islamic rules and the Islamic goal of an Economic System with values such as justice and equality, the industry is obviously bounded by moral values that hinder it from getting carried away or trying to make profits at the expense of the poor.


Rosenberg, Richard. Kneiding, Christoph. 2008. “Variations in Microcredit Interest Rates” Brief Note. Washington, D.C.: CGAP, June.


MacFarquhar, Neil. “Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans”. NYTimes. April 13 2010.


Survivors of trafficking speak out in Nepal

February 25th, 2011

According to UN, around 4 million women, children and men are internationally trafficked each year. Unconfirmed reports claim that every year around 7 thousand women are trafficked alone from Nepal. And India is the hub of trafficked women in South Asia.

Poverty, lack of access to resources and gender discrimination has kept the business of trafficking alive for centuries. But in Nepal, some of the survivors of trafficking have started to fight against the root causes and social rejection they face after returning.

Shakti Samuha is a non-governmental organization established in 1996 to fight against anti trafficking and to establish the rights of trafficking survivors. In 2007, Shakti Samuha organized the First National Conference of Trafficking Survivors of Nepal to unite the trafficking survivors, explore the problems faced by trafficking survivors, raise awareness of trafficking amongst the survivors and public, and give pressure to the government to fulfill the demands of survivors. Around 180 trafficking survivors participated in the conference. Majority of them were illiterate or minimally literate and most of them said that they had not heard of trafficking before they were trafficked.

Today through this blog writing, I would like to share the hopes and dreams of those women who were facing rejection from society and the state but at the same time fighting for their rights, which I covered in the radio report that I did for Asia Calling in 2007. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it:

2007, Kathmandu, Nepal

By Jaya Luintel

I met hundreds of women who are the survivors of trafficking are gathered in a big room of College hostel in Kathmandu. From a 13-year-old girl who was trafficked to Circus Company to 60-year-old sexually exploited woman, they are openly sharing their experiences and sorrows to each other.

Through story telling, songs and drama participants shared there past experiences and current difficulties. Some broke into tears re-living the terrible events while others sang songs of comfort and support.

Anu Tamang, President of Shakti Samuha believes that with each other’s support they can do everything. She says, “Every woman has their own sorrows and pain but we can only get relief from the pain if we share our feelings and that is the main purpose of this gathering. We have to learn from our past and unite in order to accumulate our sorrows into power. This gathering has proved successful because we are starting to help our sisters who have survived trafficking,”

In 1996 a group of NGO’s in Nepal rescued Nepali women who were trafficked to brothels of Maharastra India and all the rescued women returned to Nepal. Anu is one of those returnees. While she was returning from such a terrifying place, she had a great faith that she could go her own home and live in her village. But for Anu things were very different at that time -“It was not long, in my village that whenever I visited the local tap to fetch water everybody would run away or stop me from taking water. They used to stop me to go near the tap before they finished their work.” She has also realized things are changing and now people have started understating their situation which makes her happy- “Now when I go to the village they say that they need me in the village to help other sisters. Those old people now remember me which makes me very happy,”

Despite social stigma and hatred towards the returnees, Shakti Samuha has become a platform for survivors to openly share and discuss their problems. For Sunita Danuwar, listening to other people voices brought back difficult memories. She says when she returned to Nepal ten years ago there was nothing like this. “At that time, there was no one to morally support us. Despite that we tried and worked hard enough to come to this stage. Now after these years, we feel very proud when we hear from other sisters that we have done a great job and many sisters can benefit from what we are doing. This gives us more courage to work for the advantage of the survivors,”

Niruta Pariyar from Sindhupalchowk district is just turning seventeen this year but has already faced a lifetime of agony. Her district just outside of the capital is where a large number of trafficked women come from. Niruta has gained courage to fight against discrimination after meeting with women who have been through similar experiences. In Niruta’s words “I used to feel that I am the most suffered women in the whole world. But after I came over here and listened to similar women like me, I feel that, no, I am the privileged and lucky one to survive the fate. I can now assume how many women have been suffering in the nooks and corners of the country,”

Shakti Samuha is still struggling to reach all the survivors and educate them about their rights. The Nepalese government does not often support their work. In 1996 when a group of women were rescued from an Indian brothel the government refused to take responsibility for them.

Despite the stigma, activist Sandhya Shrestha sees the rays of hope that is helping to change the things According to her; now the girls are accepted in their houses and their villages. After ten years our group has been able to bring more than one hundred trafficked survivors together and they able to discuss their problem, their challenges, and their pain. She feels very proud of women who are now able to sit together and speak publicly for their rights. She adds- “this is something they greatly appreciate. This work challenges the government and all sectors of society to establish the rights of women.”

Source: Shakti Samuha

Asia Calling

Mothers at the sharp edge of life and death

February 10th, 2011

“The hand came first and they couldn’t find the way to get the head out, so they decided to cut it and take piece by piece.” I see, my mother-in law’s eyes filled with tears and some rolling over her cheeks while shares this tragic event that happened 40 years ago. She was 23 at that time. There were no doctors or midwives in the village to support pregnant women. The nearest hospital was 50 miles and 3 days walk.

Everyone assumed that she is in labor and will give birth to her first child easily as other women. But for Laxmi- my mother-in law the situation was not normal. She was in labor for three days and nights but still there was no sign of delivery. Finally instead of normal delivery hand came out first of a fully-grown baby. The baby was in wrong position. Everyone was hopeless and no clue what to do. My father in law was in India and there were no male members at home.

My father-in-law’s uncle suggested seeking advice from a person in the village to help with the delivery. The women gave up as the child was already dead and there was nothing she could do. She had no clue on how to act on those situations. Therefore she suggested cutting the baby in pieces and taking out in parts. In absence of my father-in-law, his uncle decided to save his daughter- in-law’s life.

Laxmi didn’t have any idea what was happening. She did not know what to do. Stressed from 72 hours of sweat and pain she had no energy to open her eyes. A decision was made after discussing with her mother in law. The uncle took a blade and broke in into half so that he could hold it properly and started chopping by reaching to the body parts inside also. Then he asked Laxmi to push hard the sidewall with her feet so that he could pull out the baby. Laxmi- my mother in-law stopped talking for a while and said, ‘I felt someone was pulling out my heart from my body and saw blood spray all over the wall as I was pushing. I don’t remember what happened after that.’

While my mother –in –law said this to me I could see the same fear on her face and feel the same fear within me. Nobody thought that she would survive and there was no one who could take good care of her after such terrifying incident both physically and psychologically. So, her parents decided to bring her in their home, which could be reached after five hours walk. Her brothers came and carried her in a bamboo basket at the back. At her maternal home, my mother-in law got good care and returned her husband’s home after six months.

Today I am sharing my-mother-in law’s experience because she represents the case for every rural woman in Nepal (before 1990), who have no access to health services. Women have to go through the “maternity death road” as mentioned by Anne Firth Murray in her book “From Outrage to Courage” (P- 86) where they are put at the sharp edge of life and death. They even forget the definition of “ hope” and “life”.

According to a report “ State of the World’s Mothers, 2010” this situation is changing in Nepal as health services are being more accessible to women.  But still only 19% of births are attended by skilled health professional and more than 80 percent of births occur at home without the presence of skilled health personnel. Similarly, 1 woman in 31 dies due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Almost one quarter of Nepalese women have given birth before reaching age 18, and more than half have had a birth by age 20. The median age at first birth is about 20 years for all age cohorts.1

The report states, “Though Nepal has a long way to go, it is moving in the right direction. For nearly two decades the country has been systematically strengthening its health systems by investing in services for mothers, children and newborns. Nepal cut its maternal mortality rate nearly in half between 1990 and 2008.2

The report has identified the recruitment, training and deployment of 50,000 Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) as a key component of these successes who have been playing an important role in a variety of key public health programs in rural areas, including family planning, maternal care, child health, vitamin A supplementation and immunization coverage. FCHVs educate and inform women about birth preparedness, make post-partum visits, and treat and refer children with pneumonia and diarrhea.

1 Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2006 (NDHS)

2 Hogan, Margaret, et al. “Maternal Mortality for 181 Countries, 1980-2008: A Systematic Analysis of Progress Towards Millennium Development Goal 5.” The Lancet. Published online April 12, 2010

Women and Education in Nepal: Visible Change But Is This Enough?

January 22nd, 2011

“I can’t see clearly with my eyes but still I can recognize the big letters”. My Grandmother always says this to me by reading one –by- one letter of the newspaper headline. She can read each letter printed in big font size but can’t form a word. She doesn’t know what a school looks like and how does it feel being a student. She learned to read the letters by watching her younger brother. “ My parents didn’t allow me to study thinking that there is no benefit of sending me to the school. But If I had got opportunity to go to the school and study, I would surely have become the prime minister of this country” she expresses her feelings of being deprived from education. I, many times, also tried to convince her to take her to adult literacy class, but every time she denied by saying “ I am proud of you getting education, now I don’t need to go to the schools at this age.” Maiyadevi Luintel, 70, is very happy to see her grandchildren educated.

In 1932, with the establishment of first girl’s school in Kathmandu very few women got opportunity to go to the school. These women were from the capital city Kathmandu and came from families of royals and business. At the school, they were trained on embroidery, needle works, weaving and some reading and writing. My grandmother, from outside of Kathmandu valley and married at the age of nine didn’t even know her “to be home place” let alone her education.

My mother married at the age of 18 in 1977. She was in the final year of her high school when she was married off. It took her few years, before her second child was born to be able to pass the high school exams. Kitchen, children, cleaning and farm; there was so much to accomplish before she could catch her books. But she didn’t give up. Her dream of getting higher educated came to a reality only when she gave birth to a son, youngest and the only in our family. In Nepal, getting school leaving certificate with high marks is like getting enrolled in the universities like Stanford, Harvard or John Hopkins in the USA. Finally Januka Luintel, my mother, started going to the campus at the age of 27. But due to the workload at home she couldn’t continue going to the campus and had to stop after 2 years. At that time the literacy rate of women in Nepal was 12.44%(National Census 1991, Central Bureau of Statistic- Nepal).  Whenever we talk about her education, she says, “ At least I tried my best to fulfill what I wished for.”

In 1997, I completed my 10th grade in and scored 73% marks. At that time to score these many percentage was a great honor. I was recognized with an award by local council in the suburbs of Kathmandu for achieving distinction results in my high school exams. Being proud with my results I wanted to become an engineer. Later, in 2000, I decided not to become an architect engineer and but join the local community radio station contribute through journalism. By this time the literacy rate of women had increased by three times which was 34.9 %(National Census 2001, Central Bureau of Statistic- Nepal).  Now, I wish to go to the university abroad and do further study.

By telling this story, I wanted to bring forth the issues of women’s access to education in Nepal. According to the government figures literacy rate of women tripled between 1991-2001. We have yet to see the results of the national census in 2011 but there have been some visible change in the status of women education. But is this enough?

Three writers of “Social History of Nepal- 1993” write in their book – “ In the history of Nepal education was never felt necessary for the females whose main duty was to limit themselves within the four walls of the house and perform the domestic duties. Generally the girls were trained in the cook-books dealt with the moral lesson of a woman and the husband was considered as the God’s creature on earth.”(T.R. Vaidya, T. R. Manandhar, S.L. Joshi -Social history of Nepal, 1993). Though the number of literate women is increasing the status of women is still low at “multiple levels” from family to the society and the state. Education has not been considered as women’s fundamental human rights. It has always been taken as one of the means of bringing prosperity to the family and building the honor of ones family. Along with the changes in numbers, the change can only be visible when the principle of  “women’s right to education” will be pragmatic and people will start to accept it as women’s fundamental rights.

Comparing gender inequality in three generations

January 20th, 2011

In Nepal, the voices of women are never heard from their family, society and the state. These three structures had never felt women also have opinion and they can express it. Women are resisting violence in their countless forms – exclusion; struggling for work, wages, their rights to the land; right to mobility, right to choose, right to expression, right to reproductive and sexual health, right to education and so on. The deep-rooted patriarchal values, beliefs and attitude have always treated women in isolation and it has never analyzed the women’s situation in relation to their gender relationship within family, society and the state.

My blog will focus on comparing the discrimination, subordination and inequality faced by the women of latest three generations (Grandmother, Mother and Daughter). I will try to bring different issues and situations faced by women during their life and will try to look at the changes from generation to generation in context of Nepal. I have never written blog before this and I take this opportunity to document my grandmother’s, my mother’s and my own story.

Every week, I’ll focus on different issues like education, nutrition, marriage, mobility, violence, income/economic empowerment, reproductive health rights issues etc. While writing on these issues, I’ll also try to give background information and context to make it more understandable.

Microloans: Promise and Peril

January 13th, 2011


“Can I borrow a feeling? Could you send me a jar of love? Hurtin’ hearts need some healin’. Take my hand with your glove of love.”–Kirk Van Houten

As with many authors before me have done with subject-driven blogs, I decided to start mine off with an italicized quote.  Over the course of the next two months, I will be exploring a subject much more substantial than this quote by Mr. Van Houten might portend, that of women, microloans, and the cultures they work within.

Microloans: a Primer

Much like their macroloan counterparts (generally just called “loans”), microloans are small sums of money banks or dedicated financial institutions make available to people, generally women, in impoverished nations.  With these loans, they theoretically can invest in themselves through learning a trade, developing a business, or improving one they already have.  Eventually, this grants them a degree of success that will allow them to repay their debts.

While microloans are anchored in philanthropic considerations, they are not intended as philanthropy.  Instead, loans given are expected to be repaid, with the central idea being that doing so fosters in entrepreneurs a sense that they are believed in and entrusted.  As stated on the Kiva.org website, they use microloans rather than donations because it imbues loan recipients with senses of:

  • Dignity: Kiva encourages partnership relationships as opposed to benefactor relationships. Partnership relationships are characterized by mutual dignity and respect.
  • Accountability: Loans encourage more accountability than donations where repayment is not expected.
  • Transparency: The Kiva website is an open platform where communication can flow freely around the world.



Although microloans have been used as far back as the 1700s and likely have parallels still earlier than that (see for a well-written discussion of the impact of micro-loans in helping the poor in Ireland, and how the semi-philanthropic efforts became less helpful with time), microloans as we understand them today emerged in the 70’s through economist Muhammed Yunus.  With his Grameen (Bangla for “rural”) Bank, he began loaning small amounts to impoverished women and men in a local village called Jobra.  Through its success and the eventual success of neighboring communities, the program expanded to encompass all of Bangladesh and, eventually, the poor nations worldwide.  Grameen Bank is currently 90% owned by the rural people that Grameen has helped, while the other 10 % remains in the hands of government.  (http://www.grameen-info.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=114)

Other organizations have since followed in Grameen Bank’s footsteps, such as the aforementioned Kiva.org, the for-profit variant Microplace, and, more locally, the Valley Economic Development Center in the LA area.

Conflict and Controversy

Microloans are not without their dissidents.  The number of microloans issued per year appears to be growing at what some naysayers say is an unsustainable rate.  There’s an increasing rate of default, and some critics have alleged that microloan advocates have pressured rural workers into taking loans, only to harass them when they are unable to repay their mounting debt.  Additionally, it remains to be seen how open most societies are to the financial independence such grants give to women.  I hope to explore some of these darker sides to microloans through the course of this quarter.  (Check out http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/business/global/06micro.html?_r=1&ref=vikasbajaj for a more in-depth look at some of the downsides of microloans.)

Firsthand Experience

As I wrap up this first post, I wanted to note that in order to better immerse myself in this subject, I signed up for Kiva and donated the last $25 needed for a woman named Ramatu Kamara in Sierra Leone to expand her baking business.  The time for repayment is anticipated to be ten months, and the organization has a relatively high delinquency rate (3.10%), so I am unlikely to see any meaningful contact or return this quarter, if at all.  That said, with any return on the money I will be able to re-invest in other entrepreneurs, or I can donate it all to Kiva.  (With Kiva, I can’t profit off of my loans).  That said, should any updates come in, I will be sure to share them.  By the same token, I will reach out to some of the other donors in the same project in order to get their impressions of the program. (Learn more about the recipient here: http://www.kiva.org/lend/264387#lenders_to_group).

For balance, I have also invested $25 through the for-profit MicroPlace, which I already feel a little bit uneasy about.  The money will be loaned to a South African organization named Kuyasa, which supports far more women entrepreneurs as they continue to recover from the impact of Apartheid.  The interest rate is low (1%), and I have justified my activity in the program to myself by promising to re-invest any proceeds I make in women.  I will be interested in seeing how my involvement here contrasts with what happens with Kiva, and I just hope that both actions result in far more good than harm.

Entrepreneurs Ramatu Kamara , Janet Kamara, Kadiatu Kamara, Liama Turay, and Marie Kamara.