An interesting issue was raised this week when I mentioned to a friend that more than two thirds of microfinance clients around the world are women. My friend posed the question: how are men reacting to this?
As a Kiva Fellow and a Kiva Lender, one of the things I value most about microfinance is it’s ability to raise the status of women.
At ‘BPW Patan’, the Kiva partner in Nepal where I am currently based, 100% of the borrowers are women. Although Kiva supports lending to men and women alike, at present more than 80% of the Kiva borrowers are women. The Grameen Bank have a 94% women borrower base and the United Nations estimates that roughly 76% of all microfinance clients around the world are women.
President of BPW Patan, Urmila Shrestha, meeting a group of new borrowers who have never before had access to Kiva loans
Lending to women has it’s benefits. A number of microfinance organisations including the Grameen Bank have found that women are more likely to repay loans than men which, from an investment perspective, makes women borrowers more sustainable. Studies have also found women are more likely to invest their income in education and health care for their children. Furthermore, lending to women creates an opportunity for financial independence that did not previously exist and gives women a sense of entitlement to contribute to the decisions on how money should be spent within the family. This naturally leads to an increase in women’s status in the home and in the wider community.
The various benefits of lending to women, combined with the fact that more women than men are accessing microfinance loans around the world, led my friend and I into a spirited debate regarding the potential impact this has on traditional gender roles, particularly in patriarchal cultures.
Some of the questions raised included: Are men feeling redundant because they are no longer the breadwinner? Is domestic violence decreasing or increasing as a result of this? Are husbands resentful of their wives success, particularly if their wife begins to earn more money than them? Are the tasks that were previously fulfilled by women, such as cooking and watching over the children, being shared more equally by men in the family? Are traditions that have been upheld for hundreds of years, particularly those ones that enforce gender roles, beginning to change?
I put these questions to my own field partner, BPW Patan, and also to all of the Kiva Fellows currently based in the field. These were my findings.
In Nepal, the general consensus is that men have been very supportive of the success their wives have encountered through microfinance loans, even if women begin to earn a higher income than their husbands. Urmila Shrestha, the President of BPW Patan, shared one story of a woman whose grocery shop was so successful that her husband abandoned his own profession and joined her in running the business. The borrower told Urmila: “Before microfinance, all of the decisions in our family were made by my husband. I didn’t get a say in anything, not even with the decisions that affected my own children. Now that I contribute the same amount of money to our family expenses, he comes to me and we make every decision together, even the small decisions.”
A new Kiva borrower from the rural village of Dolchoky. Most of the women in this village have never had access to financial services before.
Earlier this week I travelled with BPW Patan to meet for the first time with a group of new women borrowers living in a rural village that relies mainly on subsistence agriculture. For many of the women, it is the first time they have taken on the responsibility of managing a loan and are being given the opportunity to generate their own income. During the visit, I spoke with one of the husbands of a new Kiva borrower. Durga’s wife is taking out her first microfinance loan which she will use to purchase vegetables so she can grow produce and sell it at the local market. This will be the first time Durga’s wife will earn her own income. Currently Durga is working as a road worker and he is the sole breadwinner in the family. Due to the loan, however, Durga will soon leave his job and begin working with his wife on her vegetable farm. When I asked who currently makes the money decisions in the family, Durga said he makes most of them but that he expects this to change when his wife takes on the responsibility of a loan. Durga also said that he is very supportive of his wife wanting to earn money and he then excused himself because he was concerned that his wife didn’t know his whereabouts and he wanted to return home to her.
Durga, on his way home from work to meet his wife who has recently taken out her first Kiva loan
A number of other Kiva Fellows have shared similar experiences of husbands being supportive of their wives financial independence. Kiva Fellow Nancy Tuller said she recently met a female borrower whose husband used to be the sole bread winner in the family. By starting her own business, the borrower says her husband has a new found respect for her and their relationship is stronger. Nancy has also previously worked with the Grameen Bank and in one meeting with a group of women borrowers she found that: “the women spoke about how their status or “power” had risen since they were members. As one woman said, “We get the money, so we get to make the decisions.” The women unilaterally agreed that they had more power than before”.
Another Kiva Fellow, Lee Bruner, recently met with a female borrower who took out a loan to improve her beauty parlour. Her business did so well that her husband began working with her and she became the president of her borrowing group. This woman is considered to be the most responsible person in her group and, through the power of microfinance, her status has been raised in the community.
Unfortunately, not every Kiva Fellow has observed the type of women empowerment that myself and other Kiva Fellows have witnessed.
Kiva Fellow Suxy Marinkovich noted that although microfinance has empowered women and provided employment opportunities, some of the feedback from the women has indicated that their husbands don’t work as much anymore and spend more time drinking alcohol purchased with money that could otherwise be spent on the family.
Kiva Fellow Sarah Forbes noticed a number of problems women encountered as they began to gain financial independence. One loan officer said to Sarah that some of the borrowers do not tell their husbands they are taking out a loan because they worry that if their husbands find out they are earning money, they will take it from them. This can then lead to further problems because the borrower may struggle to make repayments and the borrower’s husband may not see it as his responsibility to make the repayment for her.
My overall conclusion, certainly in the case of Nepal, is that microfinance is slowly improving the way in which women are perceived in both the home and the community. And whilst in certain locations microfinance may not have led to parity between the sexes, responses from Kiva Fellows and my own observations in Nepal indicate that gender relations are improving and the status of women is being raised rather than remaining stagnant.