On a Wednesday in May 2016, the day had finally come: the Tanzania Gender Network Program (TGNP Mtandao) based in Dar es Salaam and I, a researcher from AFRASO, welcomed the participants of a workshop discussing the implementation of microcredit programs in Tanzania. Based on my research results, the workshop offered a possibility of exchange about the impact of microcredits on women as the main target group of this concept. Microcredits are often labeled as a ‘magic bullet’ to fight poverty and empower women, but also pose particular challenges.
We had invited several experts in the field representing various engagements and experiences with the concept: three groups of women, who could be described as the target group of microfinance institutions (MFIs), had already taken part in group discussions on the topic a year earlier: Winnie Terry, the head of the Tanzania Association of Microfinance Institutions (TAMFI), Dr. Dinah Mibagu, a member of the Women’s Fund, which engages in financing emancipatory projects of women groups, the researcher Dr. Loy Mbwilo from Iringa University, and Anna Sangai, Bainasi Wamunza and Esther William from TGNP.
After a short introduction of each participant, we discussed a series of pictures illustrating the perceptions of the women targeted by the MFIs and provided the entry point for the discussion. The pictures were developed based on the group discussions held by Esther William from TGNP Mtandao and myself in 2015, and were translated into paintings by Muhidini Msamba, a cartoonist at the local newspaper ‘The guardian’. The issues raised during the discussion in the workshop underlined and proved the critique on the practices of MFIs that had been identified during my previous research.
Let’s turn to the perspectives and challenges raised:
In the 1980s, Mohamad Yunus institutionalized the concept of microcredits in Bangladesh. Also representatives of Tanzanian NGOs travelled to Bangladesh to learn about the methods used and its implementation or received trainings in Tanzania. Microcredits became an important tool in the context of development institutions: the concept promises to eradicate poverty and to empower women.
However, even though the concept was first institutionalized by the Banker Mohamed Yunus in Bangladesh, it can barely be regarded as a form of South- South cooperation as the neoliberal and disciplining aspects of the concept are far more important than its geographical origin. Accordingly, research undertaken by myself showed the strong discrepancy between the perspectives of women as the target group for the practices of Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) and, on the other hand, the perceptions and logic underlying the discourse and practices of representatives of MFIs in Dar es Salaam.
The concept of microcredits builds on the perceptions that poor women don’t have any possibilities to access money, and that by receiving money they can be empowered and can improve their living situation. The supporters of microcredits don’t consider the many responsibilities and social roles women have to fulfil, which might impede a successful use of microcredits. On the contrary, the understanding that women will use money for the improvement of the family justifies and legitimizes the concept of microcredits, as MFIs claim that they help the whole family.
Accordingly, the proposal of microcredits is based on the view of women as culturally and traditionally marginalized, whereby the women themselves regard their living and working conditions as structurally embedded. This recognition of manifold responsibilities, roles and (prohibited) goals consequently leads them to a rejection of microcredits on the basis that their situation is not considered adequately by MFIs. However, their perceptions and practices are rarely considered or even acknowledged by MFIs operating upon contrary premises. Quite the opposite, the interviews with representatives showed that the practices of women to resist the concept got incorporated by the institutions into their argumentation in favour of the concept of microcredits.
In order to receive a microcredit, women have to organize themselves in groups. The group functions as a collateral for the institution: if one member of the group is not able to pay back, the others have to return the money for her or the institutions find other ways to regain the amount, sometimes with force. It is easier to influence and put pressure on women than on men, which is one of the reasons microcredits target women.
By focusing on the self-identification and needs expressed by the women the purpose is to counter the picture of the ‘average Third World women’ presented by MFIs and, generally, underlying diverse projects in the name of ‘development’. Hereby the historical, socio-political and cultural elements at play have to be considered in order to provide a locally grounded analysis. Further, the potential of such critical perceptions to challenge or even counter the hegemonic views and practices need to be examined.
There are various difficulties that women encounter: difficulties with the business, with the family, the MFIs and structural challenges.
Difficulties with business:
• difficult access to market areas/ networking
• insecurity and vulnerability in informal sector
• being reliable on customers
• seasonal profits
• profit is too small to meet daily demands and repay microcredit
• Competition is high
Difficulties with families:
• Women have to give the microcredit to other family members
• Family members might dislike the fact that a woman takes a microcredit or runs a business
• The burden on women increases as they earn money
• Family members reduce their financial support if women have their own income
Difficulties with MFIs:
• High interest rate and frequent (weekly) instalments
•Difficulties to meet the requirements to take a microcredit
• Difficulties to repay
• Paying back for other group members
• Fear of punishment, things taken away, being forced to flee
• Underlying causes of marginalization of women are not addressed, but reinforced
• Burden on women increases as they are made responsible to care for the whole family
• Gender roles are used and reinforced by the practices of MFIs
• Possible negative consequences of microcredits are blamed on a failure of individual women, not on the practices of MFIs
• Women take over duties of the nation state as they care for community members
• Ownership rights are not favourable to women
• From birth women are taught to take care of everything but not demand rights.
Dealing with challenges
Yet, microcredits can also provide opportunities women didn’t have before. Furthermore, women are well informed about possible negative impacts of microcredits and find ways to negotiate the same as they are not passive victims of circumstances. Being aware of challenges and (collectively) seeking ways to deal with them leads to a very important and necessary politization and questioning of one owns situation.
As an outcome of the workshop the participants discussed ways in which various activities and services can uplift their living situation. The following aspects were mentioned: education, learning from each other, self- confidence, hand-crafts, monitoring, networking, assistance by organizations, challenging established structures, strategies to liberate or empower women, having multiple businesses.
These points of discussion were summarized in the brochure ‘Mtazamo wa wanawake kuhusu mikopo’ (Perspectives of women on microcredits, published in Kiswahili) which is now being distributed by members of TGNP Mtandao, Women Fund Tanzania and the Tanzania Association of Microfinance Institutions (TAMFI). This presents a form of intervention into the hegemonic discussion and portrayal of microcredits, as it focuses on the critical perspectives of its target group, which are rarely considered when engaging the concept of microcredits.
The day was filled with lively discussions, important insights and the opportunity to discuss with various experts in the field of microcredits. All participants appreciated the exchange with a wide range of actors and the workshop, as well as the brochure, were received and acknowledged by the participants as an important step towards the recognition of the challenges faced by women, but also their active engagement with power structures and their local articulations.