While microfinance is meant to reach the poor there are almost universally acknowledged views that most programmes of women empowerment, despite stated objectives, do not reach the poorest of the poor. One of the reasons is related to the fact that loans which are normally given for self-employment presuppose some degree of micro enterprises and the long-term interest of every implementing agency to see that members quickly start taking loans for income generation activities.
Marguerite Robinson, the author of ‘The Micro Finance Revolution’, has expressed her view succinctly when she writes, “I don’t want to reach the poorest of the poor. I want to reach the poorest of the economically active. In general, I believe the poorest of the poor are the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Ministry of Labour, private charities and so forth”. She has suggested their low confidence becomes even lower if they are unable to repay. In fact, realizing the fact that not all the poor want necessarily to be self-employed and that some of them prefer wage employment, Government of India is implementing parallel programmes for self-employment and wage-employment.
This then begets the question of how to reach the really poor. Even if loans are used by the extremely poor, apparently their tendency is to use the loan for the purposes of consumption. In some cases, it is a dent on poverty because repayments of loans are effected through a squeeze on current consumption rather than a return on an investment. For the poorest women, therefore, the issue is whether they can access loans and also what are the other interventions that are required so that they can be reached.
The focus is on women for two reasons. Firstly, poverty has a female face and the phenomenon of the feminization of poverty is well established. Not only are there numerically more poor women than poor men, but women also experience poverty in more aggravated forms than men do. In rural areas, particularly among weaker sections of the society, women are illiterate and suppressed, the women empowerment should focus on the following aspects:
- Drudgery reduction.
- Gender sensitization.
- Capacity building.
- Promotion of micro enterprises.
While promoting women empowerment in rural areas, the participant women and the communities have recognized the success of the programme through two important indicators. firstly, the women and their family members considered women’s ability to enhance their family income as an important an indicator of success apart from the improvement in hygiene, sanitation, education of children and community health. At the community level, the ability of the women to take an active part in various social development activities was considered to be the most important indicator of success. In many women empowerment programmes, which did not include promotion of any livelihood activities, women started demanding support for initiating various income generation activities. It can, therefore, be concluded that income generation or livelihood support activities should be an integral aspect of the women empowerment programme while dealing with poor rural communities.
Rural Welfare Institute and Women Empowerment
Women units are very often too small in size. Financial Institutions are reluctant to attend loans for very small amounts and demand collateral securities three or four times of the loan amount which is sheer impossible for the majority of women.
To tackle such situation and to ensure adequate financial support to women enterprises, the RBI has taken several initiatives. The RBI in its Action Plan for 2001 provided special programmes and strategies for facilitating assistance to women in the entrepreneurial sector and to attract more to this sector. For strengthening credit delivery to women particularly in the tiny and SSI sector, RBI issued directions and an action plan to all the public sector banks.