A New Assignment: Placing Human Rights and Gender Equality in the Surveyors’ Manual
During a charming dinner with the founder of Fundación Paraguaya, I was pleasantly surprised by Martin Burt’s receptiveness to the importance of gender relations in the context of poverty and in the two main areas of work at Fundación Paraguaya: Microfinance and Self-Sufficient Agricultural Schools. Without any of my probing, Martin elaborated on the growing need to address domestic violence within the family unit, especially as female microborrowers gain economic power and mobility outside of the home: a topic I have been immensely curious about. It was certainly refreshing to hear an executive director of a Microfinance institution (MFI) explicitly say, “Gender is the hard stuff!”
The very next morning, Martin Burt contacted Tania Almada, a lawyer at the human resources department to put me on a new project to have me integrate or add (still not clear, though obviously the difference between these two activities is not inconsequential) human rights and gender equality into the surveyor’s manual. The assignment requires an interview with the Paraguayan government ‘s minister of women’s issues. I began my due diligence by researching MFIs in Latin America and the Caribbean that claim to incorporate similar initiatives[i].
Women’s Empowerment Initiatives
In the course of my research, I have come to wonder why Fundación Paraguaya has not implemented a women’s empowerment initiative to microfinance, as have some MFIs with larger visions for microfinance. It would be misleading however, to insinuate that the MFIs claiming to ‘do’ women empowerment, merely based on the offering of financial services to women and by default supposedly increasing their self-esteem, is properly ‘doing’ women’s empowerment. This was indeed a mainstream way of promoting women’s empowerment in the 1980s but has since come under fire. Empowerment in the Women in Development (WID) policy approach in the 1980 was defined strictly as supporting women’s productivity, increased efficiency and earnings, which would presumably trickle down into greater household welfare. The common narrative depicted the entrepreneurial women as empowered by the fact that she could do more for her children and better negotiate with her husband. If the negotiation process fails to meet the woman’s expectation, her training and self-esteem will empower her to leave him entirely. The critiques indicate that this approach renders ‘empowerment lite’[ii] because this narrow form of economic empowerment often reinforces conservative gender practices. It can reinforce traditional gender norms and roles in which women are increasingly responsible for formal productive work (e.g. entrepreneurial projects), while still remaining responsible for informal care and reproductive work in household and community –and are now responsible for raising their families out of poverty. Gender and development experts see this approach to empowerment as using women for development, as instruments for alleviating poverty as opposed to the contrary. Hence, this is rhetoric of women empowerment that Fundación Paraguaya does well by not appropriating!
Other MFIs are Doing Women’s Empowerment
However, some microcredit organizations such as Fundación Adelante, Pro Mujer, Finca Peru, and Fonkoze supplement their financial literacy and business skills training, education on human rights and health awareness especially on reproductive and sexual health. Pro Mujer and Fundación Adelante are among the few that also promote an educational session covering domestic violence. Although, it is ambiguous how MFI deliver human rights awareness. Fundación Adelante’s seems to disaggregate their human rights educational programs into sessions on the rights of women, child, elderly, work place and sexuality. The session on work place right seems particularly important as well considering many of the clients of Fundación Paraguaya that I have worked with apart from having their entrepreneurial project are also domestic employees working very long hours less than a fourth of the minimum wage and probably undergoing other exploitative conditions. It seems that it would be useful for microborrowers to gain awareness of national and UN defined workers rights while also learning ways to actively engage the government to address their needs.
People have asked me what it means to implement or support women’s empowerment. Unfortunately, there is not a straightforward answer due to the sheer diversity of what ‘empowerment’ means to different women. One women’s empowerment may very well be another women’s oppression. In the context of microfinance, women empowerment approaches have meant incorporating rights education and advocacy; as well as increasing social capital and female autonomy through solidarity efforts among female members of the microcredit committee. Despite these efforts, there are still some pitfalls.
Depoliticized Human Rights Education
Though spreading awareness about human rights may help a woman formulate a broader sense of her entitlements, the way in which the rights training is delivered may not incorporate how to claim rights beyond a local or personal context. Knowledge of how to collectively voice one’s needs and mobilize political action toward the state is equally important for empowering women as mothers and entrepreneurs. Right to leisure, demands for social provisioning from the state and justice for domestic violence can also be just as important for children as they are for women. In Paraguay there is a serious problem with involuntary domestic servitude and sex trafficking of children. Children are often abducted while supporting parent’s income generating activities as street vendors. This makes spreading awareness of child right issues, developing the capacity to demand social provisioning and promoting activist potential vital for low-income women entrepreneurs [iii].
Often MFI approaches to women empowerment that implement tight solidarity groups via village banking forget that inter-gender conflicts also exist. Men are not always the oppressor of women, women can equally play a subordinating role as mother-in-laws, grandmothers, daughter-in-laws, mothers and neighbors. During committee meeting, I frequently witness group treasurers who routinely speak for all the women. In larger discussions there are some women who remain silent and do not speak for their usages of the loans or the problems that exist among members. When I spoke to a younger microborrower in San Lorenzo, her mother-in-law with whom she lived answered the majority of my questions though none were addressed to the mother-in-law. The unrelenting silence of any participant compromises consensus and solidarity among women and transparency for the surveyor.
This habit of ‘speaking for’[iv] also occurs frequently with microborrowers who drop out or are eliminated from further microfinance committee participation. When women are expulsed from the committee, sometimes no explanation is provided beyond that the microborrower did not pay on time and did not warn the group that she was not going to do so. Surveyors’ response to this explanation is not uniform. Few will pursue a detailed justification, while most attempt no follow up to understand “why not?” The common explanations given for expulsing woman is ‘she is irresponsible and just doesn’t want to pay.’ A committee in San Lorenzo rejected a group member based on the previous mentioned reasons and moreover because she is ‘Argentinean’ and therefore unmanageably ‘rude’. For some women, the rejection and contempt of twenty or so neighbors translates into social ostracism and greater poverty [v]. After, I spoke privately to some of the co-members regarding the ‘rude Argentinean’ lady about the problems getting in the way of her repayment. A few suspected that there were larger problems at home relating to her husband’s long-term unemployment. The “she-just -doesn’t- want –to-pay” story seem to conceals the friction microcredit loans and/or entrepreneurial projects can unintentionally bestow upon the lives of the female microborrowers. Coupling this tension along with social ostracism can damage the ex-member’s prospects of attaining community support in any current or future case of need or emergency.
Legitimizing Irresponsibility of the State
Solidarity groups also present another problem. How much can be asked of a solidarity group to better enable women to dedicate more quality time to their business? It is tempting from a gender and development perspective to suggest that solidarity should expand the narrow confinement of financial cooperation to elaborate more on forms of social cooperation. This could help to promote local community welfare support such as rotating babysitting shifts and/or committee safety planning to help mothers negotiate with domestic abuse. It seems that this grassroots technique would encourage the social capital necessary for alleviating different dimensions of poverty beyond income level. However, there is significant contention about whether it is fair to transfer community provisioning, which was the state’s political obligation, on to overburdened low-income women. Another contention resides on the assumption that the microborrowers are altruistic because they are women and that village banking doesn’t create a corrosive form of competition among women even within solidarity groups.
Individualized Female Autonomy = Empowerment?
A larger issue at hand for the MFIs that claim to do women’s empowerment is to conflate individualized female economic autonomy with empowerment. For instance, when I asked several levels of the staff at Fundación Paraguaya about the issue of husbands who inhibits their wives from participating in street vending, many have responded by asserting “ with a certain level of loans and increased earnings women will be empowered to leave their husband.” However, from what I have seen some low-income women for which being divorced or single with numerous young children, living far away from extended family has not been so liberating. On the contrary, some of the more reliable microborrowers and success entrepreneurs are women that live in a household of extended family. Large families and marriages for low-income women can provide more autonomy and support to engage more fully in their entrepreneurial projects[vi].
Accountability to Women
So back to my question about; why has Fundación Paraguaya not yet appropriated any inclusion of women’s empowerment in their mission or poverty initiatives? The answer remains unclear to me. Women empowerment initiatives are inherently difficult undertakings— difficult to execute, to monitor and to evaluate since empowerment is not an end objective but rather a process. To make formal claims to empowering women certainly invites many critical expert eyes to interrogate the politics behind the organization’s vision of empowerment: who the initiative actually empowers and how. However, to opt out of any form of gender conscious initiative, whether it is a women’s empowerment scheme or not, equally invites troubling challenges. For feminist and gender researchers, mainstreaming gender or a women’s empowerment perspective in an organization such as a MFI should be for the interest of providing greater transparency and accountability to the effects that village banking have on women’s families and communities. Village banking as a microcredit methodology is highly dependent on social capital of communities as collateral and thus not necessarily complementary to the empowerment agenda. Gender projects also require a commitment to move beyond using gender roles, as village banking often does and attempt to transform them.
An ambiguous project, is what this may seem to be. However, incorporating a gender project does not require large-scale changes at first. To begin with, a MFI like Fundación Paraguaya can disaggregate the initial microcredit survey questions by sex (e.g. how much money does the microborrower make versus her husband? Do her daughters and sons go to school or work?). When providing financial literacy and budget training invite husbands and older children into the family budgeting session. During committee meetings have surveyors conduct all-inclusive group discussions and advocate services provided by other social organizations that work on issues such as domestic violence and child rights. If possible, add human right education to the training program. At Fundación Paraguaya I noticed that there is certainly no shortage of gender agenda ideas especially after meeting Maria Christina Silvero Salgueiro, who works with the agriculture schools and daughter of the founder of a large feminist NGO Mujeres por la Democracia (Women for Democracy) along with Martin Burt’s mother. A carefully thought out gender conscious initiative such as a women’s empowerment scheme may help women’s entrepreneurial projects and earnings to trickle more readily into sustainable change.
[i] A USAID gender consultant Allison Petrozziello, who I have kept in contact with from the gender focus group discussion in Mariano Roque Alonso was so gracious to give me some pointer about approaching gender and microfinance.
[ii] Andrea Cornwall (2009) “What Do You Mean, Women’s Empowerment?” New
Narratives of Women’s Empowerment http://www.research4development.info/news.asp?ArticleID=50496
[iv] Gayatri Spivak (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak.” In Nelson & Grossberg (Eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (pp.271-313) Basingstoke: Macmillan.
[v] Penny Vera-Sanso (2008) “Whose Money Is it?: On Misconceiving Female Autonomy and Economic Empowerment in Low-Income Households.” IDS Bulletin 39 (6), 51-59
[vi] Penny Vera-Sanso (2008) “Whose Money Is it?: On Misconceiving Female Autonomy and Economic Empowerment in Low-Income Households.” IDS Bulletin 39 (6), 51-59