Microfinance and low-income Belizean women: A Critical Stance on Microfinance

By Tricia Gideon, World YWCA Board Member from the YWCA of Belize.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. […] True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tricia Gideon

Tricia Gideon

Micro-finance is a development approach that offers financial and social services to low-income groups using social capital as collateral. Micro-finance institutions (MFIs) have helped to increase women’s income and nutritional intake and have all offered health and educational services in areas where they operate and have assisted women to eke out a survival in the informal economy, but none of them have encouraged women to rethink the way relations in society are constructed, let alone actively challenge those relations. Women are responding to micro-finance programmes out of distress to meet family needs and not because new opportunities have presented themselves.


Westley (2005, p.3) enumerates many factors threatening the financial viability of Caribbean MFIs: (1) low repayment rates (due to poor MFI enforcement), (2) high transaction costs due to small economies and populations sizes, making it difficult to take advantage of economies of scale, and (3) heavily subsidized loans which all contribute to a non-expansive micro-finance sector. Also, unemployment and under-employment rates and educational and income levels are higher in the Caribbean compared to Asia, Africa and Latin America; and social safety nets are relatively better than other low-income countries, presenting fewer possibilities for MFIs. With fewer possibilities for viable MFIs in Belize, the survival needs of poor Belizean women will not be met at an optimal level that will enable these women to overcome their poverty.

Micro-finance enterprises operate in the unregulated informal sector that lacks the social safety nets and better economic activities that single Belizean women need to maintain sustainable livelihoods. MFIs cannot use microenterprises as compensation for poor Belizean women’s limited access to a market economy nor can it offer these women the security they need in times of unexpected illnesses and expenses. In Belize, where female-headed households are a common feature, they need, even more than dual-headed households, to secure viable economic activities.  More importantly, poor Belizean women cannot challenge their subordination if they are disconnected from the formal sector. Kabeer (1996, p.38-39, 44) contends the goal of MFIs should not be to draw women into a credit mechanism that locks them into a perpetual contract of small loans, but to empower them to gain access to bigger loans and better financial and non-financial services in the formal financial sector.

Of course pushing poor Belizean women into the formal sector will not automatically lead to their empowerment or reduce their domestic burden either, but it will address their survival needs far better than if they remain in the informal sector, for example, increasing their access to pensions, social security and unemployment benefits and other state benefits.

Micro-finance may further reduce government aid to low-income people and increase their reliance on external funding. With the introduction of microfinance and the desire to expand its coverage across the country, the Belizean state may find it easier to relinquish their social responsibilities for caring and providing for its citizens. Consequently, the burden to survive will rests upon poor Belizean women and men, instead of it becoming a social matter that involves the state and community. Also, Belizean microfinance projects receiving external funds run the risk of becoming more sensitive to their investors’ and donors’ needs than to the needs of poor Belizean women.

Micro-finance carries a short-term agenda that will insufficiently raise poor women’s income, bringing temporary relief to their economic situation without enacting structural change. Poor single women need viable and secure economic activities that connect them to the formal sector, so their basic needs are met at a level that will allow them to rise above their poverty and actively challenge the existing power imbalance that is the source of their poverty.


Challenging Barriers: Living with Disabilities

BY INUNONSE NGWENYA, Project Worker from the YWCA of Zambia.

“For whatever reason, it happened to and it can happen to anyone else.  By being disabled I will not condemn myself to suffer for the rest of my life. I believe this information can inspire many who are in the same difficult situations in their lives. People give up in life because the lack inspiration never should a persons living with disabilities give up because along the way they will meet amazing people who will make their dark day bright.” – A young woman living with disabilities from Zambia.



Persons with disabilities remain amongst the most marginalized in every society. In every region in the world, in every country in the world, persons with disabilities often live on the margins of society, deprived of some of life’s fundamental experiences. They have little hope of going to school, getting a job, having their own home, creating a family and raising their children, enjoying a social life For the vast majority of the world’s persons with disabilities, shops, public facilities, transport, and even information are largely out of reach.

Zambia Federation of disability organizations (ZAFOD) was formed by 11 member NGOs in Zambia. Under ZAFOD, the Zambian civil society, including YWCA, envisions a society where persons with disabilities, enjoy equal rights and opportunities that are generally available in society and are necessary for the fundamental elements of living and development, including education, employment, health, housing, financial and personal security, family life, participation in social and political groups, religious activity, sports, access to public facilities and freedom of movement.

So far, there is an uphill task by CSOs for realizing such a vision. The good news however, is that some private companies have began to take heed and have employed chefs that are deaf in their restaurant. Secondly Ms. Patricia Jere, a woman living with disabilities was appointed the permanent secretary in the ministry of Justice back in 2011. She is one the highest qualified Women Lawyers in Zambia. These cases encourage YWCA Zambia and other CSOs in Zambia to deliver programmes for young women living with disabilities. Pick n Pay stores for instances employed some people living with disabilities as cashiers. It is our call, as YWCA Zambia to call all key stakeholders to join and expand such bold initiatives by government and private sector to create such opportunities to empower young women living with disability.

Gender issues in disability

Women with disabilities have got equal rights as women without disabilities and should be treated at par with those without disabilities. They also have equal rights with men with disabilities. Zambia’s environment still perpetrates unfair treatment and discrimination of women with disabilities hence violating their human rights. YWCA Zambia’s programmes are attempting to addresses this on a general programming level.

Under the new five year strategic plan (2013-18), YWCA Zambia places women’s empowerment as one of  5 strategic priorities.

  • Youth,
  • Disability,
  • Gender balance
  • Sports and Recreation

YWCA Zambia subscribes to the position that sporting and recreational facilities should be accessible to all disabled people more so, the young people as a matter of right as opposed to just leisure.  Although there are commendable attempts to provide various sporting and recreational activities to young people in Zambia, YWCA Zambia has observed that most of these facilities are not user-friendly with young people living with disabilities. Civil Society needs to takes up cases of inaccessibility to such facilities to the duty-bearers so that the affected youth can enjoy their rights. Notable challenges faced by young people with disabilities in Zambia includes; inaccessible infrastructure and denial of entry.


Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women

By Laurie Gayle, Board member of the YWCA of Great Britain shares your experience of the 55th CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women).


Laurie Gayle

To paraphrase a lady who’s been getting quite a lot of press in Britain this Summer[1], it is a truth universally acknowledged that Government will always fight its corner…even if the room they find themselves in is round.

Such was the case in July, when I attended the 55th CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) session and the UK examination at the United Nations in Geneva on behalf of YWCA Great Britain. To the casual observer, only a troglodyte of a country would not comply with the treaty which many have labeled the International Bill of Rights for women. Of course, the devil is always in the details and the cause of concern for the United Kingdom, whilst less overt than that of the country which had been examined the previous week (Democratic Republic of Congo), is marked by subtlety and intersection.

The examination came after a year of immense struggle. Recent policy changes, namely the introduction of the Equality Act, austerity measures and the Welfare Reform Act have had a regressive effect on the rights of girls and women in the UK.

Even more unsettling are members of the current government, led by Theresa May, Minister for Women and Equalities, stating that they are currently looking at options to repeal the Human Rights Act and also leave the European Convention on Human Rights. Seeing that CEDAW is the Human Rights treaty for women, the above directly contradicts the Government’s repeated statements during CEDAW55 that they take the treaty ‘very seriously’.

The Government was asked over 100 questions and participated in the dialogue with the United Nations for the better part of 6 hours. By UN standards, the examination was a damning one and the formal recommendations proposed by the UN and published at the end of July solidified this.

No bones about it, the UK CEDAW report card isn’t great for a country which has always considered itself ahead of the proverbial curve where women’s rights are concerned. The Committee did not prevaricate where recommendations were urgently needed. Issues borne out of the Universal Credit system (one of the major elements of recent Welfare Reform Act), were exposed as not having undergone a gendered assessment and as such, the Committee urged the Government to adopt measures to prevent manipulation of the system by abusive male partners. Further recommendations related to economic policy focused on ensuring that government spending reviews continuously and wholly focus on balancing the impact of the austerity measures on women’s rights.

And it wasn’t just benefits that felt the brunt of the war on welfare. Access to legal aid was cut as well and here, the UN strongly rebuked the Government and implied that reforms must be looked at again to assess the impact on how women are protected.

Further to this, the Committee requires the UK to now unequivocally provide access to justice and healthcare to all women, regardless of their immigration status or nationality whilst they’re in the United Kingdom. Part and parcel of this, the UN also want to see the establishment of a framework to nationally address trafficking and urges the ratification of the Istanbul Convention to criminalise forced marriage – both of which are rife in the UK.

But the recommendations that were most localised to the UK context revolved around the more subtle nature of patriarchy and sexism at work in the country. The Committee now calls for measures to work with media outlets to eliminate stereotyping and objectification of women in the media, with express emphasis on the advertising industry. On top of this, they’re calling for implementation of a regulator to intervene in matters such as this and of discriminatory, sexist reporting. This is a first.


UN UK reporting

In all, the UN’s full recommendation list is 11 pages, and interestingly is largely based on the direct input from the NGOs involved in the process.[i]  Proving again that NGO participation is crucial for a democratic process like CEDAW to be more than just two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

For the process to work further, those who want to hold the Government’s feet to the fire must to do the following (as individuals or as part of an organisation):

  • Contact their MPs and ask what they are doing to address the CEDAW recommendations in your constituency
  • Use CEDAW ‘language’ in any lobbying or advocacy materials
  • Raise general awareness about CEDAW with your networks and encourage them to share with theirs
  • Embolden others to get involved in shadow reporting  for the next examination

The UN now requires the UK Government to report on their progress within a year’s time as well as the year following. By then – July 2015 – an election will have taken place in Britain and we’ll know if the Government really takes its obligations under International Law seriously or if they just know how to take a punch.

Iconic Dr Ruth delivers something a little different at CSW 2010

By YWCA of Canberra CEO, Rebecca Vassarotti

As week two heads into the difficult negotiation stage, CSW delivered something different today with a session involving Dr Ruth Westhhimer, the iconic  psychosexual therapist, who pioneered speaking frankly about sexual matters.

At a lunch time panel discussion, hosted by the Mission of Panama, delegates were treated to the wisdom of Dr Ruth, as she shared her experience, the evidence and her perspectives around working with individuals and couples on issues around sexual relationships.

Some of the words of wisdom shared with the room included:

  • the importance of all people to understand what is right for them sexually (and otherwise) in the context of their values, beliefs and where they are at.  She stressed the importance of people understanding this for themselves, rather than being pressured to confirmed to a particular view or behaviour
  • the importance of cultural understanding in terms of norms, and particularly education.  She noted that when working in the area of sexual and reproductive health, it is vital that people delivering this education are within the culture and understand the cultural norms operating within the communities they are working in.  She noted that when working in communities, educators must understand the diversity of beliefs, understandings and myths operating in cultures in order to be effective
  • the importance of consent, and for both parties to be comfortable with activity.  However, once there is consent, people should feel free to express themselves in the privacy of their own homes
  • the importance of focusing on relationship when responding to sexual and other health matters.  Issues should be worked through together, and both partners should be involved in decisions around sexual health

This was a great session, where significant information around working on issues of great cultural sensitivity was delivered with great humour, humility and authority.  It was a session I would not have expected to be part of CSW but one that was greatly enjoyed.

CSW 2010: Women in Fuschia

By YWCA of Canberra Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti 

We have already mentioned the decision made by the World YWCA delegation to wear scarfs as a way of identifying ourselves as YWCA delegates throughout the conference.

As part of our debrief and reflections at last night’s briefing, a discussion was held about how useful this has been as a strategy.

Everyone shared how wonderful it has been to be able to identify each other through wearing the scarfs.  It has also been incredibly successful as a tool to increase our visibility and give volume to the YWCA’s presence at the conference. It has been a great tool to create a sense of belonging amongst our delegation

In fact, what we are now finding is that the scarfs have generated interest and excitement around other delegates at the conference.  People are asking ‘what is the scarf all about’.  It has provided us with an opportunity to discuss with others the work of the YWCA , who we are and what we stand for.  People are now identifying it with some of the key issues that the YWCA is advocating for including wondering if it is a symbol around awareness raising around HIV AIDS and Violence Against Women.  Finally, women want to be part of the fuschia scarf delegation.  Women are asking if they can buy scarfs, and we are discovering other YWCA women in other delegations who wish to be part of this.  This has meant that a few of us, including our General Secretary have given our scarfs away.

Ping Lee, from the YWCA of Taiwan (one of the delegates unable to obtain official accreditation) was the generous YWCA woman who made this possible.  She sourced 100 scarfs during Chinese New Year!  Her amazing effort has meant that we have created a brand which has started comment and interest for all participating in CSW.

CSW 2010 Looking Back, Looking Forward: Strategies to Promote Young Women and Girls’ Activism

By World YWCA staff Sarah Davies

I attended a very interesting panel today at CSW 2010 on young women and girls and their role in development. Co-organised by AWID, IWHC, CREA and Women’s Forum of Kyrgyzstan, the strategy session invited women’s rights and development organisations and youth activists to identify concrete strategies and share good practices that can be applied to initiatives focused on young women and girls.

It was agreed that there is greater acceptance of the importance of young women and girls in development work but the panel also raised some interesting reflections on how and why we include young women and girls as development actors.

When panelists were asked some of the principles they have for working with young women the responses were diverse as:

–          Realisation that young women have particular needs

–          Movement building aspect to engaging with young women

–          Multigenerational approach is critical if we are to truly address gender equality

–          There is also culture specificity when working with young women. Rights are universal but their application in cultural contexts is very important

–          Participatory process is key  – there must be a personal connection to young women and girls

–          Involvement of young women who have new and creative ways to find solutions to they problems they face

–          Full engagement of young women in the problem solving process

–          Young women need to be involved in the institutional processes of their organisations to ensure succession

There were also reflections around the issues of young women and tokenism. Some organisations tend to see young people as part of their constituency but the problems begin when that young person comes in and leads a programme. The same can also be said of minorities such as lesbians and indigenous women – power struggle between generations begin.

The issues of young women can also be pigeon holed. Young women only lead young women’s’ programmes and young women staff get given the youth work but we should be adopting strategies in our programmes and movements where young women can lead ANY programmes.

When asked what principles should be avoided when working with young women and girls, the following was said:

–          Empowerment programmes that are about individual self empowerment can alienate young people from their peers. Taking an individualistic approach can have a negative effect

–          Strategies that really work are when young women are empowered to influence communities around them

–           UN agencies are now targeting vulnerable youth groups such as IDU’s, HIV positive youth and sex workers which is important but policymakers need to address the diverse youth needs as youth in a holistic manner.

–          There is a big difference between youth led organisations and NGOs working for young people – this should be explored and acknowledged more.

What was also interesting was that CREA has a staff that is made up mostly of young women under 30 and the majority of them are leading programmes. As the panelist said –  it helps us practice what we preach.

The AWID panel was a thought provoking session to attend as it raised a lot of questions and reflections about tokenism and some of the intergenerational stereotypes and clichés we are all guilty of indulging in from time to time. It was also one of the few panels I have attended where the majority if panelists were young women – so well done to AWID and their partners for keeping it real.