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Reverse-Discrimination, for a change


Why are the conventional practices of MFIs biased towards women?
PRASOON MAJUMDAR | Issue Dated: April 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Grameen Bank | NGO |

From the beginning, micro-finance has largely been about women. No doubt about the fact that, historically, across all societies, across the world, gender based discrimination has existed, with women being at the receiving end, ubiquitously. And so, women empowerment has been an imperative, and thus a lot of focus has been put towards the same over the years. Researches over the years have also indicated the fact that empowerment of women also leads to unprecedented positive externalities directly on their respective families and society at large. And so governments and NGOs across the globe have been relentlessly working towards numerous interventions at various levels, with a singular objective, and that is to empower women.

Hence for decades now, there have been several interventions on the socio-economic front too, across the globe, particularly targeted towards women. And the forefront of such interventions has been the micro-finance institutions – which have largely been targeted towards women. From the time Prof. Yunus started this as an experiment and made it a world-beating exercise through his iconic Grameen Bank (which led to his winning the Nobel Prize in 2006), it has been almost like a global practice that most micro-finance institutions have been targeting women, particularly through joint liability or self help groups.

The basic premise is not just about empowering the women, but empirical researches have also indicated the fact that women are far better performers when it comes to loan repayments as compared to their male counterparts. Also has been proven over the years that micro-finance institutions across the globe catering to just women clientele have negligible delinquencies. 

But then, owing to the fact the micro-finance is a social intervention exercise, catering to women just because they are better in repayment than their male counterparts is kind of discriminatory in itself. For when it comes to poverty, it does not discriminate with respect to gender, religion, caste or nationalities. Secondly, Prof. Yunus's model is hugely successful with women, because Bangladesh has been a matriarchal society. So it's not just about financial empowerment, it is also about decisions which women in such societies are empowered to take.

This may not be the case with all societies across the globe. Talking about India, a majority of the Indian society is patriarchal, where even if the women of the family were to be financially empowered, the man would end up taking all financial decisions. Which means that even if the micro-finance institutions might end up maximizing their reach and that too on wafer-thin NPAs, whether they are able to make a real change is something that still remains debatable.

Just like poverty is non-discriminating, similarly, the sense of enterprise within human beings is innate and non-discriminatory. Yes, I agree that our societies, our histories and cultural values are different, but the concept of humanism remains consistent throughout the world. Then why is it that for something like micro-finance, which is purely meant to economically empower the marginalised, the industry trends are blatantly discriminatory towards women. And discriminated to an extent that almost 80 percent of micro-finance institutions around the world today (including India) cater to 80 percent of just women customers. Or is it that in their quest of better repayments, the micro-finance institutions are deliberately marginalising the men and finding it more convenient to cater to just women?

If that is the case, then are we really trying to change the face of poverty through financially empowering the poor, or is it that under the garb of serving such a significant social objective, we are serving our own prudent commercial interests? Hypocrisy apart, the success of micro-finance would only be sustainable when interventions are non-discriminatory and efforts are made to train the customers, irrespective of them being men or women, in such a manner that they in turn create income generating micro assets, which sustain over a period of time. Once this happens, only then, irrespective of whether it is a matriarchal or a patriarchal society, a fundamental positive change can take place in the lives of the marginalised and oppressed.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017