Ethiopian Press Agency (Addis Ababa)

16 November 2012

Ethiopia: Empowering Women Is Fostering Progress

opinion

I don't know what percentage share women in other parts of the globe do have. But it is clear that these segments of the society constitute fifty or so per cent in the majority of African states including ours.

Though empowerment is a difficult concept and cannot be imparted upon others, it must come from individuals themselves. Nevertheless, endeavours to support a person's own efforts at empowerment should be encouraged.

Be that as it may, a number of ways have been employed in Ethiopia to empower women since recently. For instance, micro-finance lending is often focused on women for a number of reasons. It is better to cite what researches say in this regard. First, there is a growing body of evidence that gender inequalities in developing societies inhibit economic growth and development. The greater the level of gender-based discrimination in a given society, the more likely the society is to experience higher levels of poverty, stagnant economic growth, and weaker governance. Additionally, those within societies where gender discrimination is the greatest tend to also have a lower standard of living. Women are disproportionately represented among the world's poorest people, indeed. This trend is now being changed and it seems it would continue changing as women allover the world are receiving increased attention.

According to studies also, some advocates assert that increasing women's access to microfinance services will enable women to make a greater contribution to household income. This, in turn, will translate into improved standards of living.

Regardless of which model is used, there are common themes in intervention programmes in Ethiopia and other countries. Below are some key issues that should be considered whenever attempts are made to initiate, implement, analyze, or evaluate programmes aimed at empowering women through microfinance. One of the key questions in thinking about women's involvement in and empowerment through microfinance is how well existing methods can measure empowerment. Empowerment is difficult to define, identify, and measure. Measurement methodology should be participatory, since no one can better define how empowered subjects feel than the subject themselves.

Microfinance loans play a part in allowing women to lead arelatively better life. However, increased income may come at the cost of depletion of other valued resources such as time, health, and general well-being.

The status of both men and women within communities is culturally and religiously constructed, giving men a higher social standing than women. The empowerment of women may therefore require social education for both men and women. It is unrealistic to expect that exposure to income-earning activities in a single generation will wipe out centuries of cultural conditioning. It is absolutely critical to understand this when interpreting the studies that claim that access to credit has positive impacts on women's empowerment. Such results need to be tempered by an understanding that it is too ambitious to expect centuries of social and cultural oppression and male domination to be overcome by a few years of participation in various income generating activities.

As stated earlier, the family is often the primary social capital for women; therefore, strengthening it becomes of central interest for women. In many patriarchal societies, women face greater vulnerability outside of a family structure, particularly when unmarried. Yet, women who have access to credit can improve their bargaining position and reduce dependence on the family (or male head of the household), the study cites. This may help to facilitate a shift in power dynamics within the family. Women most often utilize their loans not to leave their husbands (whom they continue to rely on for social protection), but rather to achieve a form of "divorce within marriage." Because of this, micro-finance institutions support to women should consider supplementing their trainings with workshops dedicated to handling the changing relationship with their husbands. Indeed, some institutions have begun including this topic in their regular training curriculum, and it should be a continuing trend in programme planning.

The key challenge to supporting the development of a country like Ethiopia is the fact that the population is scattered across the whole country with weak and non-existent infrastructure. This makes service delivery very costly. Micro finance institutions particularly those employing group-based methodology have managed to bring poor people together on a regular basis for months and sometimes years to repay loans and deposit savings.

To facilitate empowerment, women's improved access to credit should be accompanied by a number of additional measures, such as informal education, skill trainings, and social and political awareness-raising to challenge patriarchal social structures.

Financial sustainability is regarded as a means of measuring their increased outreach. Sustainability today is outreach to the poor tomorrow. A key finding of many studies is that, with very few exceptions, micro-finance programmes that have pursued financial sustainability have achieved far greater outreach to poor people, including women, than programmes that have provided subsidized credit and relied on continuing donor support to make up the resulting losses.

As the study cited in this piece put it, microfinance offers one means of doing this. However, it is important for microfinance programmes to be well-designed in order to best meet the real needs of the poor women they aim to serve. The most appropriate delivery model depends on the specific context. However, if properly supported, micro and small scale enterprises have the greatest potential to reach out to the unreached. At the same time, empowerment cannot be expected to materialize simply through the delivery of micro-enterprise services like microfinance; these challenges must be tackled through the coordinated efforts of all stakeholders involved in urban or rural development, sources state. Patriarchal structures at the community and household levels reflect centuries-old patterns that cannot be shifted by a few years of micro and small enterprises' intervention. It is, therefore, important to undertake sustained efforts that aim at empowering women now and in the years to come.

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