Microfinance, Women’s Empowerment and Poverty Reduction
This chapter deals with one of the central and contentious themes in microfinance, namely its potential to empower women. The chapter challenges the widely accepted assumption that the provision of microfinance to poor women by the group-based method leads to the economic, social and political empowerment of women. As outlined in the first chapter, most microfinance institutions in the global South provide their services predominantly to poor women, and many quantitative evaluations of microfinance projects indicate that access to credit leads to the economic, social and political empowerment of women (Mayoux, 2001; Ito, 2003; Padia, 2005; Rajivan, 2005; Dowla, 2006). The reason for targeting women is often connected to addressing gender inequality (Fernando, 2006a; Kabeer, 2001). Based on these simple assumptions, global and local development institutions and funding agencies assert that microfinance is a crucial tool for alleviating poverty in the developing world (Weber, 2004; 2006). However, some studies have indicated that the industry of microfinance relies on women’s cultural propensity to invest wisely and pay back their debts and this has made the industry relatively risk free. Microfinance programmes and other similar emergent development strategies, such as Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT),1 depend on women’s efficiency in managing household budgets and their willingness to provide unpaid labour. These strategies exploit women’s selflessness as well as their assumed ‘traditional’ role of mother (Mayoux, 2001; Molyneux, 2006; 2007). A number of studies have indicated that these initiatives and programmes have resulted in additional burdens on women, demanding their labour, time and expenditure. In other words, microfinance, which is rooted in and rationalised by the ‘feminisation of anti-poverty’ policies and strategies, contributes to the further feminisation of responsibility and obligation. Rather than challenging and transforming exploitative economic, political and social structures, these development strategies result in expanding inequality, social division and the subordination of women (Mayoux, 2001; Roy, 2002; Molyneux, 2006; 2007; Chant, 2008; 2010; Bradshaw, 2008; Tabbush, 2010).