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March 2002

A Guide to gender-sensitive microfinance

Socio-economic and Gender Analysis (SEAGA) Programme

by Ruxandra Boros
Una Murray
and Ilaria Sisto

This paper was prepared for the International Conference on "Women's empowerment or feminisation of debt? Towards a new agenda in African microfinance" held in London, 21-22 March 2002. The paper is based on the "SEAGA Guide to Gender Sensitive Micro-Finance" by Una Murray and Ruxandra Boros, FAO Gender and Population Division, 2001.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
1. Introduction
2. Lessons Learned
2.1 "Women only" targeting approach
2.2 Microfinance and its effect on women entrepreneurs
2.3 Specific issues women face with respect to financial services
3. SEAGA Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance
3.1 SEAGA Programme
3.2 Structure of FAO Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance
3.3 SEAGA types of analysis
3.3.1 Stakeholder analysis
3.3.2 Development Context Analysis
3.3.3 Resources and Constraints Analysis
4. Conclusions and Recommendations
5. Bibliography and Recommended Reading


EU European Union
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
IMF International Monetary Fund
MFI Micro-Finance Institution
NGO Non Governmental Organisation
OECD Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
SEAGA Socio-Economic and Gender Analysis
UNDP United Nations Development Programme
WWB Women's World Banking

Executive Summary

Microfinance as a discipline emerged when evidence showed that low-income people can be credit-worthy and can save money, provided they are able to access tailored financial services. Experience demonstrates that the most effective and efficient microfinance programmes for low-income people must be highly personalized explicitly taking into account the needs of such clients ("Client first" approach to microfinance).

The FAO Socio-economic and Gender Analysis (SEAGA) Programme has developed a Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance1 as a practical aid for those involved in microfinance programmes to ensure that socio-economic and gender issues are taken into account when starting or developing a microfinance programme, designing national policies, and disaggregating microfinance markets to elicit information about clients. The guide is designed to be a reference point to ensure that microfinance activities reach their intended socio-economic target group and it is of relevance to any context where microfinance activities are proposed to improve social and economic development.

Although microfinance emerged in some developing countries as an alternative to top-down economic development activities, today it has also become an interesting proposition for the industrialised economies and economies in transition. The guide promotes a "reality check" analysis of whether poorer or marginalised social groups can be reached by particular microfinance activities.

This paper outlines some of the lessons learned in microfinance when applying either a "women only" or a gender approach and the specific issues women face with respect to financial services. The paper also presents the Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance and how participatory socio-economic and gender analysis can be conducted with different types of analysis (stakeholder, development, and resources and constraints analyses).

1. Introduction

An analysis of gender issues at the planning stage of microfinance activities helps to guarantee that programmes and projects are more likely to reach their objectives. Many microfinance intermediaries (MFIs) are increasingly aware of the importance of gender concerns in their activities. This is particularly true when outside donor funding is contingent on a social and gender audit of a proposed programme. Nevertheless, gender issues are often prominent in the rhetoric of microfinance intermediaries but absent in practice.

Socio-economic and gender analysis can greatly assist in disaggregating clients by sex and determining if there is a neglected market niche for the services offered by a specific microfinance intermediary. In addition, microfinance delivery must be gender-sensitive because a new source of income can change intra-household relationships and has differential impacts on women and men depending on who controls the new source of finance.

Socio-economic and gender issues are now firmly on the agenda of many governments, international donors and bilateral funders. In the widely accepted Beijing Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference for Women, 1995, governments pledged to: "promote and support women's self employment on appropriate terms equal to those of men and review, reformulate if necessary and implement policies to ensure that they do not discriminate against micro, small and medium-scale enterprises owned by women in rural and urban areas". Gender sensitive microfinance policies provide the supporting framework for an enabling environment. The promotion of women's self-employment often requires the transformation of existing policies with a gender perspective to ensure that women have equal rights to obtain financial services in their own right (Jahan, 1995).

2. Lessons Learned

2.1 "Women only" targeting approach

There are microfinance viewpoints which assume a lack of gender issues simply because microfinance has become a sector that caters predominantly to women. However, having exclusively male or female projects does not mean that there are no gender issues. There may still be important gender issues and gender bias may exist in service delivery. For instance, some members of the community or society may be adversely affected and excluded by a microfinance programme, not being vocal or powerful enough to express their needs.

It is not sufficient only to cater to women clients to solve gender issues. A gender-sensitive approach is inclusive rather than exclusive. Taking into account the needs and constraints of both women and men when designing and delivering finance, helps to ensure gender sensitivity. Gender analysis is a powerful approach to assess the impact of microfinance on the various stakeholders regardless of whether they are direct or indirect beneficiaries.

There is accumulated evidence that the women's higher repayment rates have led many microfinance intermediaries to specifically target women. It is often perceived that the small credit amounts used in microfinance seem to suit women better than men and because women in some countries are less mobile than men they will not tend to "take the money and run". However, there are problems inherent in the "women only" targeting approach that may (counter to expectations) further exacerbate gender inequities.

Poorer women and men have different needs for financial services and different access to infrastructure that supports their income generation or business expansion schemes. It is important to stress that neither women nor men (nor poorer women and men) are a homogenous group and should not be treated as such. Women for example can be widowed, single, newly married, pregnant, young girls, unemployed, employed, rural, urban, etc. Likewise men can be categorised by their marital status, age, income level and health status.

There is a possibility that "women-only" targeting of credit can place women at risk of domestic abuse where they are forced to act as fronts for others who are excluded from access to credit. In some cases loans have been used by men to set up enterprises over which women have little control, in others there are fears that women's small increases in income are leading to a decrease in male contributions to certain types of household expenditure (Mayoux, 1997). It is often assumed that just because it is women who are involved in rural finance transactions they are controlling their loans. The question remains as to what is the best way to ensure that women maintain sufficient control over their loans, invest in the most profitable activities (which can be male dominated) and maintain control over the benefits of that investment (Binns, 1998).

Hence the impact of microfinance activities cannot be simply inferred from the take-up of financial services or repayment levels of women. Overall, it cannot be naively assumed that increases in household income will necessarily translate into increased control over that income or increased household well-being, or changes in other aspects of gender inequality (Mayoux, 1995). It is important not to ignore the fact that women and men live together and have complex relations and negotiations.

On the other hand, programmes targeting only women can be justified as they address the structural causes of gender inequity over the longer term. Targeting women may sometimes prove to be the most practical entry point for making the programme work and as a bonus raising gender awareness. Additionally, in many countries there is a need for targeted, women-specific policies, programmes, and/or legislation because they have fewer alternatives than men in terms of accessing credit and other financial services. Positive discrimination towards women (i.e targeting only women) in situations where gender analysis indicates that women are a marginalized or a neglected social group, is advocated.

Addressing gender issues in microfinance interventions means more than targeting a programme towards women, or counting the number of loans made to women. It requires adopting a more client-led approach. For instance, a gender approach would imply examination of both women's and men's economic and social position in the family, and the community. It also implies examining how women and men's economic and social position is reinforced through the institutions that they deal with, and how national level laws and customs govern the economic and social position of women and men (Johnson, 1999).

2.2 Microfinance and its effect on women entrepreneurs

Women constitute the majority of the poor (UNDP, 1995b). There is a growing consensus regarding the gender and socio-economic issues that need to be analysed to ensure that microfinance is equally useful to both women and men, or to different poorer or marginalised groups in society (Binns, 1998).

Although not always recognised by governments or commercial banks in the past, many poor women have business acumen and management skills, and in some contexts largely support the household. But it is in part through their success as users of microfinance that women as entrepreneurs in their own right are recognised, and many microfinance programmes have become predominantly women-oriented.

In some situations, microfinance programmes have helped to improve women's social position. Through running their own business, women have become more mobile geographically. Because of the success of many female businesses, women are more respected in their communities, and their opinions and power to influence decisions in the household and the community may carry more weight. World-wide, many women clients of microfinance claim they now feel less isolated and express satisfaction for belonging to solidarity groups or informal client groups, where they feel encouraged, understood and supported by their peers.

Many low-income women are economically active as self-employed local microentrepreneurs in the informal sector. However many laws and the majority of conventional financial institutions ignore them. Women have become more visible as successful microentrepreneurs; disciplined credit payers, investing the proceeds from their businesses to improve their households and the family nutrition, childcare, health, and education. Microfinance can also provide the power 'platform' to create a favorable context to encourage women to gain political rights.

Another positive development for women in the microfinance arena is their deliberate hiring as staff of microfinance intermediaries, to management and leadership positions, including as board members. Women's World Banking (WWB) has developed affiliation criteria that encourage MFIs to put women in management positions.

2.3 Specific issues women face with respect to financial services

Apart from the standard barriers that lower income people face when dealing with financial institutions (e.g. their need for small loans that are unprofitable for the banks to deliver), poorer women as a group face more inconveniences and difficulties in gaining access to financial services. While illiteracy hinders both women and men's ability to fill-in application forms for financial services, female illiteracy levels are higher than male in most countries worldwide. Often both women and men everywhere find the financial language symbols and concepts confusing.

In many countries, as men generally own land and other fixed capital, women tend to lack collateral required by formal financial lending institutions. Very often procedures in formal lending institutions require the signature of a male head of household - this does not make it easy for female-headed households to apply. On the whole, women tend not to know about their rights to apply for financial services, even in industrial countries and countries in transition.

Women are even less inclined than men to take loans initially, probably because of their lack of confidence, even though they may have a higher pay back rate. This is because the structure of the formal credit system tends to be very hierarchical and from a poor women entrepreneur perspective, the system may appear even less user-friendly than for other prospective borrowers. Low-income women tend to be less educated and less exposed to dealing with official people, and formal procedures. Banks are perceived to be powerful institutions and many women may not have the confidence to approach them.

Even when opportunities for loans for micro-entrepreneurs exist within the formal banking system (due to a subsidised government scheme), often the application and screening process is time consuming and sometimes unpleasant. Entrepreneurs are happier to pay higher than market rates to microfinance intermediaries ensuring they get loans quickly and conveniently rather than trying to access loans that are hard to get.

Despite these difficulties, access to financial services can enable women to leverage their skills and ultimately to develop their business. By upgrading their skills (through gaining access to technology, raw materials, market information and business linkages) women can expand their economic role. Improving the economic position of women contributes to building their confidence and ultimately their social and political roles.

3. SEAGA Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance

3.1 SEAGA Programme

The Socio-economic and Gender Analysis Programme examines factors that affect the outcome of technical development initiatives, including microfinance programmes. A SEAGA framework is useful for systematically planning a microfinance operation, where people at the grassroots require financial services and intermediaries are attempting to provide such services, within the national regulatory and legal context.

Although there have been many successful examples of microfinance programmes, it must be acknowledged that microfinance service delivery does not always turn out as originally planned. . SEAGA can be used to investigate issues or 'bottlenecks' to microfinance activities not previously identified. Both planners and microfinance clients can then decide whether these issues are either beyond their control (e.g. a policy that cannot be easily changed) or within their control (e.g. staff training or gaining a better insight to clients needs). Possible solutions and ways to overcome 'bottlenecks' can be targeted at three levels. Often solutions to 'bottlenecks' require linking the field level reality to macro and institutional level decisions.

SEAGA focuses on the participatory identification of women's and men's priorities for development: clients participate in defining their needs with a participatory planning framework for change based on those needs. This is relevant to microfinance programmes where MFIs tailor their products and services specifically to meet their clients' needs. The SEAGA Programme facilitates a systematic way to identify the major stakeholders for a particular issue or set of issues and to examine the resources and constraints of each stakeholder group.

SEAGA addresses the different gender roles, which change according to geographic location and as a result of socio-economic and political circumstances. Variously, gender roles are influenced by perceptions and expectations arising from various factors including: class, age, ethnicity and religion. Many development interventions in the past have assumed that if money enters a household, it is pooled for the common benefit of those in the household. In some cultures women control money for small household items and men the income for larger items; while in other cultures women and men's assets are completely separate and when money is required to purchase an item, bargaining takes place between women and men within the household.

Savings are very important safety net for both low-income women and men, particularly for single-mothers or women who face an uncertain future.

Gender analysis has demonstrated that we cannot plan microfinance activities based on the notion that within the household decisions are based on a 'unitary' model. The difference in impact between what women or men use money for in the household has many policy and programmatic implications. Increased income received by women often leads to a greater share of the household budget devoted to expenditures on human capital and a higher level of nutrient intake (Haddad, 1999). Although impact analyses of microfinance on micro-entrepreneurs, and implicitly on women, are still scarce, women may increase their share of work in the household when they undertake an additional income-generating activity. This has implications in planning microfinance programmes, if women are already 'over-burdened' in terms of their roles within the household.

3.2 Structure of FAO Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance

The SEAGA Guide to Gender-sensitive Microfinance draws upon the FAO SEAGA framework, with the aim of increasing awareness of gender issues, and to strengthen the capacity of development specialists to incorporate socio-economic and gender analysis into development planning. SEAGA emphasises the socio-cultural, economic, demographic, political, institutional, and environmental factors that affect the outcome of development initiatives and the linkages between them from a gender perspective at three levels: - macro (programmes and policies), intermediate (institutions) and field (communities, households and individuals).

Questions are presented in the guide that can be asked by microfinance intermediaries in attempting to ensure that their operations are gender sensitive. There are also suggestions for ensuring that policy or macro level microfinance planning is gender sensitive and to find out more about gender relations at the microfinance client level. Overall, this guide serves as a reference to ensure that microfinance activities reach their intended socio-economic target group.

The objectives of the guide are:

  1. Raise awareness on socio-economic and gender issues in microfinance. The development context for microfinance is mainly made up of the macro policy environment, the intermediaries that provide microfinance services, and the women and men clients.

  2. Provide practical suggestions for integrating a socio-economic and gender approach at these three levels: (1) through their field level operations; (2) within the structures of their microfinance intermediary itself; and (3) in their lobbying for macro level policy change. The guide should also stimulate a process of increased dialogue and discussions between gender advocates and microfinance/private sector development divisions in donor agencies.

The target group are the people involved or interested in microfinance at the three levels: policy-makers and donors, practitioners and other actors and the ultimate clients themselves.

The structure of the guide includes 5 chapters: Each chapter examines socio-economic and gender issues at the respective level, identifying the primary stakeholders and highlighting the relative resources and constraints for microfinance operations:

Chapter 1 is an introduction to microfinance.

Chapter 2 outlines the difference between microfinance programmes targeting women and those that take a broader gender-based approach. Socio-economic factors affecting microfinance are summarised and a 'stakeholder analysis' concept applied to microfinance is explained with examples.

Chapter 3 deals specifically with the macro level or the policy environment that is required for gender sensitive microfinance operations, with practical suggestions for development of microfinance policy that is more gender-sensitive.

Chapter 4 considers socio-economic and gender issues within microfinance intermediaries, examines what is meant by 'mainstreaming gender' at the organisational level, and gives concrete suggestions for planning microfinance programmes.

Chapter 5 looks at socio-economic and gender factors at the client or field level.

Appendices contain a set of practical guidelines, suggestions and questions.

3.3 SEAGA types of analysis

Different actors in microfinance, whether they are the regulators, users or providers of microfinance services will have different perspectives. To differentiate challenges, problems and issues that arise in microfinance operations, it is helpful to distinguish different perspectives at three main levels: the macro or policy level; the field or microfinance clients level; and the intermediate or MFI level, as outlined below:

The advantage of dividing the context into macro, intermediate and field levels is that it becomes easier to diagnose at what level problems should be tackled, and to decide which issues are within our control in terms of effecting change. Recognising linkages and interdependence between the different levels is vital.

SEAGA proposes three main types of analysis:

3.3.1 Stakeholder analysis

Stakeholder analysis helps identifying the actors involved at each level and gives an insight into the dynamics of each level and the interplay between levels. Identifying a broad range of stakeholders can prove to be a useful planning exercise to ensure that microfinance programmes run according to plan. . This type of analysis helps determining whether people are already accessing credit through the informal sector, from traders or savings and credit associations, determining then the level of success and suitability of the existing mechanisms. This information is critical to decision-making regarding whether the needs of the client target group can be best met by supporting existing informal financial mechanisms and institutions, or by developing new MFIs.

Stakeholders include all those, who directly or indirectly stand to gain or lose given a particular activity, programme or policy . They can be individuals or groups, and can include:

The government policy dealing with finance is usually concentrated in the Ministry of Finance, the Bank Supervisory Authority, and/or the Securities and Exchange Agency. The policy relating to rural finance will also be under the remit of the Ministry of Agriculture.

A country may have a definite action plan for gender issues spread across different governmental ministries or concentrated in the ministry of women's affairs or of social affairs, with gender desks (if they exist at all) or focal points in other ministries, such as agriculture, labour, industry and trade. Gender issues are typically not very evident in the ministry of finance.

The assessment of stakeholders' (including clients') perceptions of an MFI can reveal why potential clients avoid or do not use the services of the MFI, e.g. many poorer rural people prefer to invest in tangible assets (e.g. livestock, televisions) to be quickly liquidated in local markets rather than place their savings in new MFIs located in the nearest urban area; or people prefer to purchase in kind in pawnshops liquidating their investments when cash is needed (Chua and Llanto, 1996).

Rural people's perceptions on the stability and future of new MFIs will provide information on whether they consider it too risky to trust their money with such MFIs. This problem will be more acute in situations of social upheaval or political uncertainty. The client's perceptions of the likely lifespan of the MFI will also influence the attitude of borrowers vis-à-vis repayments. If they feel the MFI is not going to last, borrowers might be tempted to delay payments or avoid making them. In fact MFIs play on their continuity when enticing borrowers to repay loans in time so as to take subsequent loans in increasingly higher amounts.

Clients (or potential clients) of microfinance services cannot be treated as a homogeneous group. They are in fact highly heterogeneous groups of consumers, producers, savers, investors, innovators and risk adverse economic actors (Remenyi, 1997, FAO, 1994). Deconstructing and disaggregating stakeholder groups will ensure that the most appropriate services and products are better tailored for different client groups. Stakeholder analysis can facilitate learning about the importance of financial institutions and any savings and credit groups that exist or existed in the past.

The success of a microfinance operation depends ultimately on the interactions of all relevant stakeholders, who will inevitably have different goals and interests.

3.3.2 Development Context Analysis

This type of analysis looks at the economic, environmental, social and institutional patterns that support or constraint development. Both women and men live in a complex world that is constantly changing. For example, farmers perpetually face decisions as to which crops or varieties to concentrate their micro-entrepreneurial efforts and resources in response to new market opportunities, environmental constraints such as pests and diseases, labour availability and costs. Many poorer farmers do not derive all their income purely from their own farming activities and have to weigh up the benefits of different income generating activities.

3.3.3 Resources and Constraints Analysis

This type of analysis looks at both resources and constraints of the different stakeholder groups. Understanding how individuals and groups at all levels allocate and use resources and overcome constraints will be important in a socio-economic and gender analysis of a microfinance operation.

Financial capital is a resource and includes savings and credit access and regular remittances for use of labour. Tangible assets such as land and production equipment are resources available to certain groups. Other resources necessary for entrepreneurial activities include skills, knowledge, labour, and membership of particular groups. A favourable macro policy towards entrepreneurial activities is also a resource as are natural resources (land, water and wildlife). Basic infrastructure is a useful facilitating resource in terms of market assets and is usually provided and controlled by the government.

Individuals require specific resources for their entrepreneurial activities. Both women and men must balance their use of resources to assure household food security and provide for shelter, clothing, health care, education, and production inputs. From the point of view of a microfinance intermediary, it will be necessary to ask questions about competing demands for resources before extending loans.

The state, institutions, households and individuals seek to maximise their resources, make use of them to manage risks and take full advantage of opportunities.

Constraints to achieving an optimum situation of economic well-being exist at each level.

Some constraints are beyond the control of stakeholders, whereas others can be overcome. For example, the degree of infrastructure in a country is controlled at the macro level by the government while at the field level infrastructure constrains entrepreneurs in terms of their access to markets. Inflation rates can affect the real value of individuals' savings. Conversely, constraints related to non-professional approaches by MFI staff could be overcome through training.

4. Conclusions and Recommendations

Microfinance planners should not make assumptions about what happens within households, especially regarding the distribution of household income, or how increased income might impact on the overall welfare of the different household members. Socio-economic factors determine the type of financial service provided in communities. Socio-cultural factors may also provide opportunities for discussing financial services, such as taking advantage of areas where women congregate, such as markets. Socio-economic and gender based information can improve and enhance financial services programmes to be planned according to clients' needs.

It is not generally recommended to simply transfer a particular microfinance approach or model that has worked successfully from one context to another, without making modifications for that particular situation or location. The context within which different microfinance activities operate differs from place to place and various factors influence how planned activities will work in practice.

Policy that deals with financial services and microfinance intermediaries for the poor cannot develop in isolation from a broader social perspective, but must be considered in conjunction with other policies dealing with agriculture, health, education, infrastructure and investments. (e.g. long-term investments in literacy and numeracy for women and disadvantaged groups are required for the development of effective accounting and management skills).

It is crucial to involve a representative of poor women and men entrepreneurs in policy design. Gender-sensitised women should occupy key positions in institutions. Stakeholders may have different and often opposing reasons why they wish MFIs to be highly regulated. An effective strategy is to facilitate a dialogue between microfinance 'regulators' at the policy level and those who can advocate what the effects on clients (women and men) will be, is an effective strategy.

A number of actions can be taken to increase the opportunities for gender-sensitive microfinance, including:

5. Bibliography and Recommended Reading

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1Murray. U. and Boros, R., 2001. SEAGA Guide to Gender Sensitive Micro-Finance. FAO Gender and Population Division, and FAO Agricultural Support System Division.

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