A WORLD Bank report released last week found that 50 to 70 per cent of micro loans to women in Pakistan are used by their male relatives, sparking concerns that microfinance is not empowering women the way it ought to.
But it should come as no surprise that micro loans and other cash transfer schemes cannot change gendered power dynamics. Social, structural, and attitudinal changes are needed along with microfinance to achieve the goal of empowering women. As such, the report’s findings are less a critique of microfinance as a concept or practice, and more of Pakistani societal attitudes towards women.
According to the report, men who need loans (or who are having trouble securing loans because they defaulted in the past) are using women to access credit; as a result, up to 70 per cent of women borrowers are not the main beneficiaries of microfinance loans.
Discriminatory lending practices within the microfinance sector are exacerbating this problem: less than 25 per cent of Pakistani female entrepreneurs are microfinance borrowers because most providers require women to provide two male guarantors who are not family members — for women who are not mobile or have limited social access, this requirement is prohibitive.
Moreover, the report found that 68 per cent of women borrowers required a male relative’s permission to qualify for a loan, while young, unmarried women were often passed over because they are considered high risk.
That men use women to access credit, and that women remain reliant on men to receive loans, simply reflects women’s lowly status in Pakistan today. UNDP ranked Pakistan 115 out of 146 countries on its 2011 Gender Inequality Index, which measures women’s economic activity, reproductive health and empowerment.
Female participation in the labour market is as low as 21.7 per cent, compared to 84.9 for men; 260 women die from pregnancy-related causes for every 100,000 births. And according to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, also released last week, two-thirds of the out-of-school children in Pakistan are girls (overall, Pakistan has the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world — almost 25 million).
Further, more than 1,000 women fell victim to ‘honour’ killings in 2011, and the decision by a Dera Bugti jirga earlier this month to declare 13 girls wani highlighted the lot of women in a stubbornly patriarchal society.
The few rights and opportunities that women do have are resented and constantly at risk. Beyond its individual dimensions, the attack on Malala Yousufzai was horrifying for its brutal rejection of the one thing that can truly empower women — education.
Attempts to discuss these problems are met with boredom and dismissal. The overriding belief in Pakistan is that we must address human rights before we can bother with women’s rights (as if these were separate things, as if women were not ‘human’).
As Imran Khan put it in an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, “First you have to guarantee basic social and economic rights before you get to gender rights!”
Ironically, societal attitudes are also preventing working women in developed economies from rising to the top. Although women in those contexts have access to education and jobs, their success is hampered by societal expectations of female docility, gendered constructions of motherhood and housework, and a lack of flexibility at the workplace.
More than quotas for female board members and new rules about reporting the number of women in senior management roles, developed economies will have to embrace structural changes to further female empowerment: adjust school hours to match work hours; offer extensive maternity and paternity leave that does not impact on career trajectories; decentralise offices so that more people can work from home, etc.
In the same way, handing Pakistani women cash won’t empower them unless social and structural changes are also facilitated. This means educating women, enforcing sexual harassment and ‘free will’ marriage laws, repealing the noxious Hudood Ordinances, making public transport safe for women, working with mosques, media channels, school curriculums, and the public sector to reframe women’s role in society, and much more.
The option to shelve women’s rights until ‘human’ (or social, or economic) rights are sorted simply does not exist. Other than the fact that the continued oppression of women is morally reprehensible, Pakistan’s gradual transformation into an international pariah will only be spurred by the continued neglect of women’s rights.
On a more pragmatic level, too, economies thrive when women have the same opportunities as men. True female empowerment rests simultaneously in the political as well as economic realms.
This is why, for all the current shortcomings and discriminatory practices, we should not give up on microfinance loans that target women. In the 25 per cent of cases where businesswomen are receiving credit, they are investing in society in ways that will bring about the structural changes required for female empowerment.
Studies show that women are more likely to invest profits in families than men, spending significantly more money (by some counts, up to eight times as much) on child nutrition and education as well as on their own health.
Meanwhile, even women who depend on male relatives to secure microcredit are slowly improving societal attitudes about female empowerment. Research suggests that such women make both small and large purchases, are increasingly involved in family decision-making, participate in public action, and are more legally aware.
Some studies have observed reduced domestic violence against women borrowers, since they are valued more as economic assets. No doubt, female empowerment is the most complex and elusive goal of microfinance. It can only be achieved, however, as part of a holistic commitment to improving women’s rights.
The writer is a freelance journalist.