Towards Collective Agency: Exploring Women's Empowerment Through Micro-Financing in India
The study’s purpose was to interview women participants in a multifaceted women’s microfinance empowerment program in Mumbai, India to explore pathways to both individual and collective empowerment. Some transnational feminists have argued that ‘empowerment,” when reduced to the provision of financial resources and services, is unlikely to lead to collective agency unless programs strategically combine microfinance with other vital services. Drawing upon feminist standpoint theory, we aimed to give voice to women’s lived experiences while furthering our understanding of empowerment as a development intervention with the potential to not only address individual financial resources but gender inequality, poverty and oppression.
Women between the ages of eighteen to fifty-five who had received micro-loans for over a 2-year period from a local agency, Annapurna Pariwar, were recruited. Participants responded to open-ended interview questions and a survey to assess their sense of agency and empowerment within different domains of life. Thematic analysis was used to identify and analyze patterns utilizing the framework for assessing women’s empowerment developed by Malhotra, Schuler and Boender (2002). Data was first categorized into different dimensions (psychological, familial/interpersonal, economic, and socio-cultural) and then coded to identify themes. Each dimension was assessed in terms of the women’s sense of agency and access to resources, both before and after taking micro-loans.
Findings revealed three emergent themes of empowerment: socio-emotional well-being, increased economic assets and improved household gender equity. Through these themes, the women’s narratives document a process of personal, household and collective empowerment along a continuum. The results suggest that, when offered alongside other vital services, microfinance-based empowerment programs can positively affect social, emotional and financial well being, as well as household gender relations, to varying degrees. When increased income is combined with other financial assets, like loans, savings and insurance, women’s economic activities can reduce household vulnerability to external risk, finance the education of children, particularly girls, and result in more equitable household decision-making and reduced gender oppression, including, in some cases, reduction of domestic violence. However, without changes to the gendered division of labor, women report feeling overburdened with work, which limits the time and energy they have for group meetings, activism, and collective action against gender-based injustices.
Microfinance continues to be accepted as one of the most popular poverty-alleviation strategies throughout the developing world. The women’s stories support the notion that these economic interventions should be conducted in conjunction with—not in replacement of—other health, social and educational initiatives. Though the small sample size limits the generalizability, the study informs international social work practice, suggesting that innovative and comprehensive strategies are needed when designing micro-finance programs to increase women’s empowerment. Further, contrary to some critics, small changes in women’s finances did lead to empowerment on a continuum from personal to collective agency.
 . Malhotra, A., Schuler, S. R., & Boender, C. (2002, June). Measuring women's empowerment as a variable in international development. Paper presented at World Bank Workshop on Poverty and Gender: New Perspectives.