Nancy Barry is president of Women's World Banking, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand low-income women's access to capital. Based in New York City, Women's World Banking has affiliates around the globe that provide credit, savings and development services to the bottom 50 percent of the economically-active population.
In South Asia, Women's World Banking has affiliates in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Typically, these affiliates provide small loans to women to start micro-businesses. The ultimate goal of Women s World Banking, says Barry, is to increase the political and economic power and participation of poor women.
Journal: Do your loans lead to a change in the power structure among men and women?
Barry: There is a shift in the power dynamic at the household level. Money is power. Most women say the reason they need a Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) or a vehicle to save is not that they are incapable of saving, but that they don't have control over that money if it is left in the household. It gets siphoned off for drinking or gambling by the husband.(1)
Once a woman starts gaining confidence that she is not going to let that happen, then tensions can ensue. It is like any power struggle. It happens gradually. In the process of there being a tension, the income of that household is rising. What do you do? Do you prevent this from happening? An adjustment process must occur.
Some people are critical that this kind of engagement affects the local culture. My belief is that this is not like Hinduism. There is a moral issue about a woman having choices. And her feeling that she has choices is a moral good.
Journal: Would you say that the economic advances that some of these women have experienced has also translated into an ability to participate in the political process?
Barry: Absolutely. If this was just about one woman gaining income, it would not be nearly as powerful. That is what makes Women's World Banking a complex story to tell. Just saying how many loans did you bang out, that would be a very easy story to tell. But it really isn't like that. It is really about economic transformation. It is about the clients and members of these organizations growing and having more influence over their households and communities and nations. The single best way to do that is in a way that is not patronizing.
You know this concept of "empowerment?" What does that mean? Women's World Banking is famous for inventing buzzwords: words like "transformation," "lateral learning," etcetera. But we did not invent the buzzword "empowerment" and I am thankful for that. I hate it. The reason I hate it is because it is basically a very patronizing term and is often used in a very patronizing way. Empowerment means to me, "I have power and I am bestowing it on you." That is very different from saying "I see you. I see myself in you.
I see a low income woman who is actually much better than me in putting the pieces of her life together; as an innovator, entrepreneur or someone with tremendous imagination and courage What that woman needs is not me giving her courses on empowerment. She needs to be recognized. She needs vehicles. Organizing is important so that she is not alone.
The other thing that I think is very powerful is that if you only organize, if you only do the political thing, you are going to run out of steam. If you are moving on the policy impact and at the same time building and providing services that will last, you are giving people the tools and you are also providing a sustainable vehicle for both sides to move forward.
Journal: What are the effects of loans on the social dynamics among women in South Asia?
Barry: Normally, what happens is that women start lending their own money among themselves. That gets very serious, because you have got to judge whether your neighbor is going to repay the loan for buying a cow or for re-claiming her land from the landlord. …