Women’s empowerment comes in many different forms. As orchestrated efforts are required to make significant advances in women’s empowerment, it would also not be fair to attribute women’s empowerment entirely to one sector or development initiative. Take microfinance, for instance. Microfinance’s impact on women’s empowerment is often measured by the number of female borrowers. This form of measurement does not take into account other contributing factors such as decision making power, access to resources and self-determination. A microfinance loan alone cannot determine whether or not a woman is empowered, however access to microfinance “has been seen as contributing not only to poverty reduction and financial sustainability, but also to a series of ‘virtuous spirals’ of economic empowerment, increased well-being and social and political empowerment for women themselves, thereby addressing goals of gender equality and empowerment”*.
Oikocredit defines women’s empowerment in the context of microfinance as the “progress of women in their ability to make choices and become self-reliant, facilitated by the availability of microfinance”**. During the recent Oikocredit study tour to India, I visited two microfinance institutions financing women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in rural areas. I met 64 members from six different groups. These women have joint businesses from spice to mushrooms farming and worm compost. Some also run their own micro businesses, such as roadside restaurants and small shops.
These women use their profit primarily to contribute to the family finances and therefore do not belong to the 21.9% of India’s 1.2 billion population still living below the poverty line***. This is often the first step towards their economic empowerment as it means they no longer have to depend on their husbands to cover their basic needs. They can now make decisions on how family finances are managed. In some cases, they even contribute to their husband’s economic activity. During the study tour, I travelled around 2.5 hours to the fishing village, Radhacharanpur, to meet the women members of the Ma Mangala SHG at group president, Baijanyanti Behera’s house. The women shared with me that they help buy and repair nets and boats so that their husbands could go fishing. These women are proud that they can pay for their children’s higher education, some of whom have gained university degrees.
MFI staff told me that as the women become more empowered, cases of domestic violence drastically reduced or disappear altogether because “there are less fights at home.” As the women’s group members become closer and grow stronger through the years, I was told, they can also bring social pressure on those who try to interfere with their business or limit their freedom. The mind-set of the women that I met in India has also changed. “Before taking a loan, we sent our children out to fish in the mornings, now we send them to school each morning. We know that education means a better life,” said Baijanyanti. When she told me this, the other women nodded in agreement. Their horizons have expanded from a day-to-day existence to a broader perspective where they now think about progress, business development and a brighter future. These women make decisions and have become economic actors: credit-worthy people, owners of savings accounts and managers of profitable businesses.
These women are now business women, contributing to their household finance and paying to send their children to school. They are economic players in their society. They have dreams for the future. They are proud and feel appreciated and recognized. They take initiative and make decisions.
While in India I also travelled to meet members of the Jageswari Mahila Mandal SHG members in Bhanapur village. The colourful houses and the jasmine trees create a bucolic sphere with a delicate flower scent that contrasts with the dusty streets covered every now and then by “carpets” of rice grain drying under the sun. While there, the women spoke about going on holidays. The women told me that some of them use their profits to organize picnics and travel together to share moments of relaxation and culture. They smiled as they told me about their trip to Kolkata where some of them spread the ashes of relatives in the Hooghly river, a holy tradition most often conducted by men. The trip was paid for with their profits and savings from their diary and mushroom cultivation business.
When I visited India, these 64 women shared with me their achievements, their pride and their dreams. They were an inspiration and set in motion the wheel of change for their children and their children’s children. Going into International Women’s Day, I will think about these women, and how what empowerment meant to them.
*Gender and rural microfinance: Reaching and empowering women – page 8- http://www.ifad.org/gender/pub/gender_finance.pdf
**Women’s empowerment – Comparing Concepts & Assessing implications for microfinance- Herma Majoor and Joke Manders – 2009