A Deeper Look: Women's Economic Empowerment Through Microfinance
Instead of reducing gender inequalities, the current policy of financial institutions contributes to structural discrimination against women.
Despite Bangladesh’s reputation for deep religious and social conservatism, and despite reasonable concerns about women’s low economic participation and poor reproductive health, the labour participation rate of women in the country has risen in recent decades. What has been making the difference?
Once upon a time, back in 1971 to be precise, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh a “basket case” – a hopeless country in other words – in terms of its economic and social development. It was his argument for opposing the Bangladeshis’ fight for independence, and for advising President Nixon not to support the movement. It is no wonder then that the basket case comment still sticks in the craws of many Bangladeshis.
Today, however, this deltaic land has moved far past this derogatory term. Its economy is developing rapidly and most of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals have been successfully achieved. Compared to other countries, especially developing and South Asian countries, Bangladesh has put great effort into improving the status of women. Their social role is changing thanks to new economic opportunities.
Conventionally, women have been regarded as homemakers in rural Bangladesh. Various studies from the 1980s concluded that women’s contribution to socio-economic development wasn’t visible due to set of social norms that enabled men to dominate women. But this has changed tremendously. Women are increasingly involved in external income generating activities. This is due to the rise of the textile industry, the expansion of SMEs, and technology transfer to agriculture, to name just a few factors.
Women’s participation in economic activities nearly doubled over the last seven years to 9.8% of the female population.
A labour force survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) showed that women’s participation in economic activities nearly doubled over the last seven years to 9.8% of the female population. However, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) women’s contribution to agriculture is still heavily underestimated because it’s considered unpaid family labour. So if unpaid work were included in the survey, the figures for female employment would be even higher.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, stated in an article published in the New York Times that gender norms have long kept women down even though they are increasingly feeding the world. Recent analyses, however, reveal that female participation in Bangladesh is increasing among entrepreneurs in agriculture in particular. The role of women is changing from unpaid family workers to farm managers, a phenomenon called the “feminization of agriculture”.
Though Bangladesh’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, in recent years the ready-made garments (RMG) sector has emerged as the biggest earner of foreign currency. The sector contributes around 76% to total export earnings with $ 9.35 billion in 2007. Its share of GDP has increased from 3% in 1991 to 13% in 2007. Of the estimated 4.2 million people employed in this sector, about 80% are women from rural areas and remote villages. These working opportunities have given them a chance to be financially independent and have a voice in the family. The article “Out of the Basket”, published in the Economist in 2012, elaborates that since the textile industry took off in Bangladesh, both the status and income of women have improved.
“Since the textile industry took off in Bangladesh, both the status and income of women have improved.”
But on 24 April 2013, the biggest catastrophe in the history of Bangladesh’s RMG sector shocked the global public: an eight-story commercial building, the Rana Plaza, collapsed in Savar, Dhaka. Around 1,124 people died and approximately 2,500 people were injured. The causalities were so intense that the international community expressed deep concern, and even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the RMG sector: “How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation, not playing fairly, not giving jobs because you are only looking at a balance sheet.” The US government suspended Bangladesh from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which allows duty free entry of over 5,000 types of goods to the US market from the least developed countries.
There will continue to be increasing pressure on the government to improve working conditions, and the European Union and several European importers have already come forward to tackle the situation and support the restoration of the RMG sector. This is very important for the women working in the factories: it is imperative for female empowerment that the RMG industry remain strong in Bangladesh, but working conditions must improve.
The biggest push for women’s empowerment certainly came from the invention of microcredits by Bangladeshi Nobel Prize laureate Dr Mohammad Yunus.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are generally considered the engines of economic growth. They provide income for a large segment of the population. The Bangladeshi government recently implemented its National Action Plan to support women entrepreneurs. It improves trading conditions for women, and introduces incentives, such as tax breaks, and new laws on gender equality.
Without access to microfinance, the majority of Bengali businesswomen would not be trading at all.
Without access to microfinance, the majority of Bengali businesswomen would not be trading at all. Mohammad Yunus founded the microfinance institution Grameen Bank three decades ago. It offers small loans to poor women to start their own businesses. The Grameen Bank (GB) and the Bangladeshi State Krishi Bank, which also adopted the microfinance model, have helped many Bangladeshi women start their own businesses.
They receive small-scale enterprise loans of up to around 300 US dollars at reasonable interest rates ranging from 6-15%, but typically nearer to 11%. In 2011, the GB issued over 3.5 micro loans of about 57 US dollars on average, to help women found businesses in all sectors ranging from farming to fashion.
Although these changes are welcome, there are still areas for greater improvement. Interest rates are clearly not low – less than 3% is considered a low interest rate – and paying money back can become a considerable burden for small businesses. Experts recommend that interest rates need to be reduced, loans should be easier to obtain and not be based on existing assets, and that the government needs to improve the link between gender equality and policies that encourage businesses.
For Bengali women, setting up a business is not like climbing a single mountain where reaching the top represents success. Instead the initial peak is the first in a series of marathon climbs over a number of mountains – a mountain chain that has to be scaled to reach the dizzy heights of success.
The first mountain to be overcome is represented by the unscrupulous and poorly managed NGO’s who run microfinance credit schemes in partnership with the banks. They often insist on conditions that hinder prospective businesswomen. Furthermore, financial institutions try to force them to join a co-operative society as a way of marketing their products, and to set up retail in specific areas. But it is much more difficult for women to sell in an area they are not familiar with and where they don’t know the people.
The social stigma of an independent woman trading under her own name will take time to disappear as society slowly accepts that women can be as successful as men.
Secondly, working in a male-dominated society where suppliers and government officials, such as tax inspectors, are mostly men has its own headaches. The social stigma of an independent woman trading under her own name will take time to disappear as society slowly accepts that women can be as successful as men. A Grameen Bank study pointed out that: “the status of women in business, especially in rural areas, is one of social dishonour”.
Bangladesh is often held up as a model for sustainable economic development in a least developed country. Despite being one of the world’s largest in terms of population, and most prone to natural disasters as a result of global climate change, the country has upheld an impressive 6% plus annual economic growth trajectory over the past decade.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Bangladesh’s economic rise has been constant during its tenuous transition towards a stable democratic system. The government has been commended worldwide for improving the lives of the poor, and particularly of women. It has been recognized by the UN as being one of the few countries that has made “remarkable progress” towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Women’s empowerment and reducing maternal mortality are part of this process.