Microfinance- not a solution for African women

Microfinance targeting women is not the solution to gender inequality and economic growth. Rather it strongly neglects the women’s and Africa’s autonomy. Gender expert Hauwa Mahdi requests for other methods to empower women in Africa.

"If gender equality really was to be achieved, men will have a lot to give up. It will be on the cost of men if women gain more rights and start to have their own income," the voice crackles on the other side of the line. It echoes in the way voices only can do when the speakerphone is on. "Can you hear me," she asks?

Hauwa Mahdi is speaking on the other side of the line. She is sitting in her office at Gothenburg University, Sweden where she works as a lecturer in the Institution for Global Studies. African women is a recurrent theme in her gender studies. Hauwa Mahdi grew up in Nigeria and became interested in gender during her studies at the University of Nigeria. An engaged activist in the Women’s and Trade Union she also founded a women’s movement that fought for Nigeria’s autonomy in economic decisions, seeing what impact economical independency could have for women.

Hauwa Mahdi thinks that there are several problems identified with microfinance. She is critical for its failure to recognize the different situations poor people are in. She believes that the essential family network should not be underestimated in a continent where welfare is highly absent. How the borrowed money is invested is not entirely depended on the woman according to Hauwa Mahdi.

"How can you make the money grow and at the same time take care of the people around you? Relationships in Africa are different than in the Western world. A woman does not become financially independent just because she handles her own business. And in Africa, many women already handle the household, but not of choice. Despite of the loan the responsibility towards the family still remains. The loan she takes is not for her own business; she will need to share it with other family members. In the end, she will not have much left to invest in her business. I am not sure if microfinance really works. I do not think it solves gender inequality. But maybe it does."

Culture and religion as obstacles

She believes that there are two main factors preventing women in Africa to gain equal rights as men.

"Culture and religion. They are interlaced and not always so easy to distinguish from one another. Often oppression is hidden with the help of religion and culture. Society does not acknowledge oppression but rather rationalizes it by claiming that it is a part of its culture or religion. And then laws are created to justify oppression towards women."

Microfinance is generally targeted to poor women. By providing access to financial services women are ought to be empowered and more likely to take part in the community. "Women’s autonomy will not emerge just because she suddenly has her own economy, culture and religion are deeply ingrained in societies. You do also find women themselves maintaining their status quo. Other means than financial independency are needed to change the vicious mindset."

Hauwa Mahdi was privileged enough to get an education and says that she understands the impact education has on women’s right. "You cannot change everything from outside. Also women induct in this internal relationship. With education and basic health care women will be able to think of what they want to be and thus fulfilling themselves."

Owning land is also important, as agriculture is a vital element in most countries. According to the U.N 70 percent of the world’s very poor people are rural and they rely on farming and agricultural labor for survival. Lack of access to formal finance sectors is especially evident in rural areas despite of its importance of economic transition.

"Women do the majority of the so-called informal work in urban Africa. The inequality is also evident in rural area. Women only work in the field but have no power over the production whereas men have access to more land than women. This can be traced to religion and culture stating that women should not own land. But one has to remember that culture and religion are not static. They do change with time," says Hauwa Mahdi.

A means for survival

The slow development in rural areas is believed by microfinance experts, such as the English microfinance professor Stuart Rutherford, to aggravate possibilities for profit making of the borrowed money. Hauwa Mahdi does not entirely agree. "The borrowed money only makes it possible to survive but many will not be able to sustain the money. There is no value added. Bigger amounts have to be lent to create an efficient profit for sustain development," Hauwa Mahdi says.

She also considers the poor legal support many African women encounter as an obstacle to gender equality. Hauwa Mahdi believes that it takes more than just changing laws as legislation has to be a part of a joint process. "You cannot just legalize or forbid relationships that are based on inequality. To achieve gender equality we have to target the issue on a both short-term and long-term perspective. In aspects of short-term solutions we can invest in education and health care, which reduces poverty in the long term."

"Then you could also change laws. Laws minimize intimidation attacks on human rights activists. Law can help to ensure protection for individual. As you can see, the solutions are not related to money. It is a matter of political will," she adds . "We have to keep in mind that there is no existing country with equality between genders. We cannot expect that all changes will go through the same way. Societies must have to want to change and have to be allowed to do it their way. The Western world often fails to scrutinize in its own backyard. Instead it only judges other," she continues.

The gender discussion in Europe is on another level but it does not mean that it is more important than Africa's

Gender equality has to put in the right context according to Hauwa Mahdi. She criticizes that goals to reach equality in Africa are set after Western standard. "Some matters brought up in the Western world are irrelevant in Africa. We are in different positions. Our struggle for equality does not correspond to the one in Europe. People in Africa are still struggling to gain basic freedom. The gender discussion in Europe is on another level but it does not mean that it is more important than Africa's," says Hauwa Mahdi.

Breaking the westernized lenses

Hauwa Mahdi believes that neglecting successes in Africa undermines the process of gender equality and makes the discussion one-sided. "African women live in many ways under better conditions than women in the Western world. There is no question that African women work harder and are more productive than Western women. It is about canalizing it so that it benefits herself as well. African women do not need others to fight for them. They just need to be supported in their fight."

Microfinance can be such a support according to Hauwa Mahdi but she points out that is not the optimal solution to gender equality and poverty. Stories of women becoming successful entrepreneurs through microfinance are rare and not the usual cases in her opinion. "Of course there are exceptional people but to lift the majority you have to make investments in health and education primarily. Money is not the only thing. You must have a broad quality to lift the society. To lift society you have to look at those at the absolute bottom. You do not reach the absolute poor with microfinance."

Despite of women’s situation in Africa Hauwa Mahdi identifies steady evolvement in the continent and is positive about the future. She emphasizes that it is important to acknowledge the progress made so far. "You have to locate people in their history, where they are and came from. You have to measure progress from where people started, where they are at the moment and where they are heading."

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm