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Half the Sky: Microfinance and Opportunities for Women

On the whole, Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof do an exemplary job of taking complex and thorny issues, illustrating them with compelling narratives, giving them human faces and proposing viable solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

However, in chapters eleven and twelve of Half the Sky, as the authors move from the descriptive task of characterizing the oppression of women to the prescriptive task of suggesting fixes, they open themselves to critique. I offer mine below.

In chapter 11, WuDunn and Kristof put forth microfinance as a means of empowering women in rural, poverty-stricken areas. The story of Pakistani Saima Muhammad illustrates how microcredit can turn lives around. Saima was not only desperately poor, but was also married to a man who accumulated $3,000 in debt. Faced with the prospect of being supplanted by a second wife, and receiving routine beatings from her deadbeat husband, Saima was depressed and dejected.

By chance, Saima connected with the Kashf (Miracle) Foundation, a women’s solidarity group that provided microloans to women in need. Saima took out a $65 loan to buy beads and cloth, which she turned into embroidery for sale in Lahore. She was successful, and to make a long story short, by reinvesting her profits, she not only paid off the loan but also repaid her husband’s debt and earned esteem. She became the toast of the town and a lender to other women in the neighborhood.

The authors call Saima’s an “unusual” microfinancing success story, adding that “Capitalism…can achieve what charity and good intentions sometimes cannot” (pg. 187).

The Kashf Foundation is typical of microfinance institutions that lend small amounts, primarily to women, primarily in groups. The pools of borrowers share the risk of their collective loans, and if a member of the group defaults, the group (usually 15-25) assumes the cost of repaying the loan. In this way, the cohorts hold one another responsible for debt management. WuDunn and Kristoff point to very high rates of repayment of such microloans.

Chapter eleven delves briefly into the story of Pakistani Yale graduate Roshaneh Zafar, who founded the Kashf Foundation. After meeting microfinance guru Muhammad Yunus (founder of Bangladeshi Grameen Bank, a female-centric microfinance institution), she began working on her own version of Yunus’ project.

Today, Kashf provides financing and savings options for women, who experience increasing autonomy and respect as they assume fiscal and political leadership in their homes and communities.

The authors note that microfinance is an imperfect solution, in part, they say, because women’s businesses tend to grow more slowly than men’s and women often must manage household affairs and business matters simultaneously. Further, there seem to be geographical hindrances to the success of microfinance, they suggest. What’s more, the authors point out that while the loans are small, interest rates are not, and the high cost of loan repayment often causes loan default.

Microfinance often targets women because they are disproportionally impacted by global poverty (in famines and droughts, women and girls die far more often than their male counterparts, data reveals), and because men tend to be poor money managers, choosing entertainment and beer over household necessities oftentimes.

Data suggests that when women manage finances, more money is spent on education, domestic improvements and basic necessities (pg. 193-194).

Pivoting, then, WuDunn and Kristof call for greater female representation in politics, not on the basis of gender justice as much as on pragmatic grounds. Women tend to make better governing choices, and to be more conciliatory and peaceful than men (pg. 196). Still, women leaders have at times failed to address issues like maternal mortality, girls’ education and sex trafficking (196). This may be due to their elite status and sheltering from extreme poverty, the authors suggest.

The authors round out the chapter with another anecdote about microfinance’s blessings—this time in Burundi, Africa. Goretti Nyabenda, much like Saima Muhammad, was poor and ill-treated. Goretti connected with CARE, a U.S.-based aid organization that also provides donor-funded microloans to women. More, CARE provides crucial information on women’s health and family planning. Goretti received a loan and started selling potatoes, and then banana beer. Her business became a success. She won the respect of her husband and earned autonomy. More importantly, she provides school materials and other necessities for her children.

Chapter twelve, entitled “The Axis of Equality,” examines China’s move toward gender egalitarianism, surprisingly under Mao Zedong. It was Mao who proclaimed, “Women hold up half the sky,” the phrase that inspired this book’s title. The authors argue that culture is not immutable, offering the cessation of foot binding in China as an example. They further argue that while critiquing misogynistic cultural practices (female genital mutilation, for instance) may be politically incorrect, it is the right thing to do (pg. 207).

China’s Communist Revolution was a boon for women, the authors contend, because it brought women into the workforce. The inclusion of women in the economy was emancipatory. After setbacks following the fall of communism in China, the country has now become one of the best places to grow up female (pg. 208).

“China has enjoyed virtuous circle in which, once girls had economic value, parents invested more in them and gave them greater autonomy,” the authors note (pg. 209).

One of the biggest benefits for Chinese women has been, surprisingly, sweatshops, the authors argue. They provide a preferable and more lucrative alternative to hoeing fields all day (pg. 210). The rise of manufacturing, then, has benefitted women. Labor-intensive factories bring in more capital, more employment opportunities for women, and more equality (pg. 211).

WuDunn and Kristof turn to Rwanda as a case study of a government that works because of its high participation of women in government. Rwanda, the authors state, is among the most effective, least corrupt governments in the so-called developing world. And it has the highest percentage of women in office of any nation in the world. Then, profiling Women for Women, an aid organization that provides microloans in developing nations, the authors conclude that, “Rwanda is flourishing precisely because it has figured out how to turn [women] into economic assets” (pg. 215).

Reflections and Critique:

(1) Microfinance may not be the “Financial Revolution” that WuDunn and Kristof suggest it is. They do offer some tentative notes of caution in chapter eleven, but they fail to address some of the biggest critiques of micro-lending: In some places it has become predatory big business, not unlike the banking systems that led to the U.S. financial collapse; It takes a neoliberal, individualized approach to poverty suggesting that if individuals just work hard enough, poverty can be eradicated, but does not deal with more structural causes of systemic poverty; economic growth happens in the unregulated informal sector without oversight of labor practices; the use of group accountability leads to shaming those who cannot repay loans and in some cases ostracism; and finally, the evidence that microfinance has reduced poverty levels is ambiguous at best, according to some experts. Many serious critiques have been leveled against microfinance, which the authors address only in the most cursory of manners, if at all. Microfinance may, in time, prove to be what the authors claim it is—a means of eradicating poverty—but the evidence still appears inconclusive.

(2) The commoditization of women as a means of their own empowerment is curious. Throughout the chapters under consideration, the authors argue that women are better off when they are “economic assets.” To make women servants of economies (instead of the reverse) is still ultimately a dehumanizing project, even if it has some financial benefits for the working poor. I can almost hear Jesus saying, “The economy was made for women, not women for the economy.”

(3) While the authors do not provide significant evidence to substantiate their claim that “Rwanda is one of the least corrupt…and best-governed countries in Africa” (212), if we take the claim at face value and agree with their suggestion that it is in large part due to the influence of women in leadership (55% of Rwanda’s Lower House are women), can we extrapolate inferences from this and other anecdotes about the superiority of female governance about how the Adventist Church would be better governed if more women participated in leadership roles? Perhaps we can! And should!

This was originally posted on the Women’s Resource Center website as part of the book club discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Join the discussion at the Women’s Resource Center blog.

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