As I observe the Nepali society and nation and the way the “so-called development” is progressing, a series of questions come to my mind mainly asking all of us involved in this process. One of them is: Are we doing things in the right way? We say the country has enacted laws which are pro-women and socially marginalised communities. But at times, looking at the status of both, I feel that although we may have been successful in pressurising the lawmakers to formulate laws, we have not been successful in changing the mind-set, attitude and behaviour of the communities where changes are required.
Common concerns Support for the target women in various development programmes currently comes from organisations of widely differing political perspectives. Common concerns with sustainability, participation and empowerment are being raised as many have started feeling that there could be different ways of approaching this. I feel that the time has now come for governments, NGOs and donor agencies to address this by getting engaged in constructive dialogue to see what could be improved. Microfinance is just one example of improving the lives of socially marginalised communities, mainly women. In Tackling the Down Side: Social Capital, Women’s Empowerment and Microfinance in Cameroon, Linda Mayoux, in her research of seven microfinance institutions gives evidence that microfinance builds social capital which contributes significantly to women’s empowerment. However, she cautions that serious attention needs to be given to what sort of norms, networks and associations are promoted and in whose interest, and how these structures can contribute to empowering the poorest women. There are three paradigms that can be seen clearly while addressing the issues of economic empowerment of women. The Feminist Empowerment Paradigm advocates explicit strategies for supporting women's ability to protect their individual and collective gender interests at the household, community and macro-levels. This paradigm emphasises women's own income-generating activities. Financial self-sustainability paradigm focusses on women’s economic empowerment. It is assumed that increasing women’s access to microfinance services will lead to individual economic empowerment through enabling women's decisions about savings and credit use, enabling women to set up micro-enterprise, increasing incomes under their control. It is then assumed that this increased economic empowerment will lead to increased well-being of women and also to social and political empowerment. The third paradigm is poverty alleviation. It lays much emphasis on increasing incomes at the household level and the use of loans for consumption. Well-being improvements are the prime focus of poverty reduction paradigm. The assumption is that increasing women’s access to microfinance will enable women to make a greater contribution to household income and this, together with other interventions to increase household well-being, will translate into improved well-being for women and enable women to bring about wider changes in gender inequality. These paradigms are typically promoted by different stakeholders and co-exist as ‘incompatible discourses’ in uneasy tension and with continually contested degrees of dominance. The tension emerges between the hard core financial sustainability advocates, the charity based approach and the hard core feminist approach. A combination of women's increased economic activity and control over income resulting from access to micro-finance and a broad range of other activities are expected to improve women's skills, mobility, access to knowledge and support networks – further leading to enhanced status for all women within the community and wider changes in women’s roles. These changes are expected to be reinforced by group formation, leading to wider movements for social and political change. The financial self-sustainability paradigm and the poverty alleviation paradigm assume that this social and political empowerment will occur without specific interventions to change gender relations at the household, community or macro-levels. However, in contrast, the feminist paradigm advocates explicit strategies for supporting women's ability to protect their individual and collective gender interests at the household, community and macro-levels. In spite of several interventions and experiments, all assumptions related to the linkage between access and empowerment then leading onwards to protection still need to be questioned. A high percentage of women still lack access to financial services, particularly for their own individual empowerment and protection for themselves and their children. Most programmes being driven for poverty eradication emphasise on providing finance and ‘empowerment’ interventions to the households via women. Though the assumption is that women get empowered by these interventions it could actually be that women are now being used as tools of household empowerment with lack of direct empowerment and protection of themselves and their children.
Pandemic’s impact Men control the main sources of cash income, for example, because they undertake paid employment if a programme offers a woman credit which she uses to buy household necessities. It is the husband's income that is the most likely source of repayments. The woman's ability to access this is often dependent on the quality of her relationship with him. Thus, social norms operate in ways that leave her vulnerable in such a relationship, rather than in one where she has socially sanctioned rights to claim the money for repayment. There are many more such constraints that she might face. Although Nepal has adopted various development approaches, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that any crisis pushes the most vulnerable deeper into risks that affect their lives and livelihoods. Work done in the field of education and economic progress has toppled down. Recent research data are now pouring in and giving facts that the pandemic has impacted the economy and mainly those who are socially marginalised mainly women. Unfortunately, they may now be pushed back into deeper holes of poverty.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights advocate. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)