By Connor J. Wangler
For thousands of years in the human existence, the dichotomy of male and female privileges has remained unquestioned by most. Relative to our time here on earth as a species, there has been a recent wave of protest against the defined roles, stigmas, and stereotypes placed on genders. The economic realm remains one of the most difficult for women to gain total equality with men despite landmark legislative and social achievements. Even as we are entering a new millennium women throughout the world face an uphill battle when it comes to owning the right to make their own decisions, true empowerment. The developing world offers an interesting look at this social renewal. For the most part, many developing countries are still home to cultures that keep women from making economic and social decisions, for a variety of reasons. As development forges on in these places, however, this situation is challenged by a global culture that supports the push for female empowerment, particularly in the global economy.
“Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property (UNICEF, Gender Equality – The Big Picture, 2007).”
One area to examine this shift is in the labor force of developing countries; female makeup of the work force varies throughout the developing world. Despite that ancient Chinese proverb “Women hold up half of the sky,” these levels are extremely low. Understanding the reason for this marginalization is critical. The social roles given to men and women in a culture vary widely due to differences in cultural, religious, and political values. In many cases, women have been given the role of the family nurturer and sexual object; whereas, men deal with power and money. This did not leave any room for women to enter a workforce and earn her own money because she was supposed to be at home, she was not capable of doing certain tasks, or she was seen as untrustworthy compared to a man. When a woman does enter the workforce under these circumstances, she often faces sexual harassment, wage discrimination, and little opportunity for advancement. Several organizations, both government and private alike, have been created to fight this problem that exists throughout the world, even in the United States. They focus on social inclusion, in the forms of education and entrepreneurship, to empower women. Here is a piece about the 52nd Commission for Social Development that discusses global efforts and how they promote development.
One of the most common forms of female empowerment projects is micro-loans. The truth on micro-finance’s impact on women’s self-sufficiency in the workforce is debated given the scheme’s relatively recent entrance to the development game. I, and many others, see it as potentially offering an important opportunity for women in the developing world to enter the global economic hustle and bustle and achieve social equality with men. Micro-finance offers individuals, mostly women, access to capital to start or expand a business in situations where they would not be able to access traditional credit services. Traditionally, a loan of a few hundred dollars will be given out by a micro-finance institution at a lower interest rate and will be used to buy equipment or other operating supplies for a small business venture, such as cows or freezers. This allows women to grow their business and, thus, their own income; this supports female self-sufficiency and greater decision making abilities by removing dependencies, such as a husband or government program. Some, however, argue that the situation is much more complex and that empowerment is not directly affected by micro-finance schemes.
Here is a piece by Kiva, an international organization that specializes in micro-loans, that discusses how it works:
What can be taken away from micro-finance is that it is too soon to make a definite decision on whether it works or does not work? Many success stories of women pulling themselves out of extreme poverty can be found, but the real success will be if micro-financing can change the culture that marginalized women in the first place. Celebrating these successes is easy but only time will tell if the larger success has been achieved. That requires further assessment, further scrutiny; micro-financing is going to be a part of the conversation for a long time.