This past May, I participated in a field research course with the University of Ottawa in Nairobi, Kenya. As a student in international development, travelling to a developing country is far more than a vacation or trip, it is a chance to experience and see first-hand many of the issues you learn about in class. It became frustratingly clear to me that the immense social gaps we see here in Canada are nothing in comparison to those in the developing world. Travelling throughout the capital city, into slums, various tourist destinations, rural towns/villages/farms, and a weekend at an MP’s home made this strikingly clear. Even more shocking, were the gender disparities and inequalities I witnessed.
As a largely patriarchal society, customs and relations between men and women vary significantly from those here in Canada – I was aware of this prior to my trip, but experiencing it first-hand was different. Kenya is ranked 145/188 countries on the Human Development Index. It is at the top of the list of ‘Low Human Development’ countries, which indicates that the disparities I witnessed in Kenya are only the surface of what many other developing nations are facing. This heightened my desire to do something to change these relations; a pretty optimistic and unrealistic goal, I know. However, it comforts me that the United Nations in addition to numerous NGOs are so heavily committed to reaching gender equality. It is such an immense issue around the world, but especially in the developing world.
The purpose of this trip was to conduct my own field research with the help of a professor from a local university. Knowing that the most disadvantaged social group is often the poor rural farmer, I based my research topic on this. I added a gender aspect to my research because we know that where there are disadvantaged communities, women are often the ones left most behind – especially in patriarchal societies. My research revolved around discovering the extent to which microfinance is able to ‘empower’ rural female farmers. Microfinance has been promoted for years as a viable solution to poverty and improved agricultural production, however, it has its critics. In an ideal world, microfinance allows the poor to borrow money, grow their businesses enough to pay back the loan and its interest, build up some savings, and then repeat this process. Ignoring the fact that these loans often have extremely high interest rates for repayment, many of the institutions that offer them systematically discriminate against women. They require collateral to be put down in order for a loan to be taken out which, for the poor, is generally their title to land. Women in patriarchal societies generally do not have the sole ownership to their land. Rather, their land is owned by their husband, father, or brother. This means that women are dependent on the men in their lives to establish and grow their businesses.
I found that many microfinance institutions promote that they believe in gender equality and therefore prescribe the same collateral for men and women. However, upon closer reflection, I realized that by focusing on gender equality, banks are actually keeping many women away from formal financial institutions because they simply do not have access to the same resources (i.e. land) as men to put down as collateral. My recommendation was to switch to a focus of gender equity in which women would be given a greater opportunity to succeed. This could be established in various ways including specialized loans with different collateral requirements, which some microfinance institutions in Kenya were already doing.
This would benefit more of the population by allowing both genders to grow their agricultural businesses and ultimately
become empowered. This picture of a plot of land shows what the microfinance loan
was funding In field interviews I found that microfinance did in fact help women to grow their agricultural businesses,
make and control greater incomes, establish savings accounts and ultimately send their children to school (something men have been found not to prioritize to the same extent as women). Like many other researchers, based on this evidence, I then drew the conclusion that the women were left empowered due to their microfinance loans.
My research was by no means a full-fledged research project, it consisted of a handful of interviews and an extensive literature review. I found that in Kenya, microfinance has been able to empower the lives of female farmers, however, it is limited. Many banks ignore the fact that women cannot access the same collateral as men and penalize them by forcing them to take loans in their
husband’s (or brother’s or father’s) names. Empowerment continues to be difficult to realistically measure and is extremely context specific. Research in this specific field is extremely limited and I do suggest that more of it be conducted so that development practitioners can better understand the pros and cons of this poverty alleviation strategy.
Poverty and gender inequality are extremely intertwined – we cannot, and will not, be able to solve one without tackling the other. The UN is doing substantial work via various campaigns, projects, and organizations to ensure this.
For more information please visit the UN Women