Women in Afghanistan: To Be Seen But Not Heard

By Catarina Santos

Visitors to Afghanistan today might see a visible sign of the nation’s progress toward gender equality – women walking to university.  While women were not allowed to attend university under the Taliban, today around 26,000 women participate in higher education. However, despite significant improvements in the past decade, critical challenges still impact Afghan women’s ability to fully participate in society. Lack of female empowerment is still a barrier to sustainable development in Afghan society, economy, and governance.

An upcoming opportunity to discuss further developments will be the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, which will be co-hosted by the Afghan government and the European Union in October. This conference will be a chance for the Afghan government to share their vision, establish plans for the future, and discuss how the international community can help. To achieve the goal of equal access for women, Afghan leadership will need to first understand the status quo of women in Afghanistan and consider two key hindrances to gender equality. First, female government officials are figureheads instead of agents of change. Second, there is an empowerment gap between those women sitting in governmental offices and the majority that is still constrained by traditional conservatism. After looking at these challenges, stakeholders must decide what opportunities lie ahead? What else can be done to advance women’s integration and recognition?

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Garment Industry in Bangladesh: Global Competitiveness Drives Need for Alternatives

By Amy Chang

The ready-made garment (RMG) industry has been the main contributor to transformative growth in Bangladesh in the last four decades, but in more recent years it has drawn international attention for its poor working conditions. In 2013, collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the capital city of Dhaka killed 1,130 people, putting Bangladesh in the international spotlight for labor reform. The response to this incident, however, has been largely PR-based and failed to create long-term change. In many ways this is unsurprising, as unfortunately international retailers are faced with increasing global competitiveness, creating difficulty in pushing for higher standards and regulation.

As exploitative as the current situation can be, the industry has created jobs for millions and produced extraordinary economic activity in a once poverty-ridden country. Since the arrival of RMGs in the 1970s, the poverty rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 70 percent to 40 percent. Clothing manufacturing accounts for almost 80 percent of exports and generates more than $20 billion in revenue annually. Apart from creating employment for more than four million people, the RMG industry has also made great strides in empowering women financially. In the industry, 90 percent of workers are female; unlike many developing countries where women can still obtain a role in the agricultural sector, women in Bangladesh typically do not work outside the home. The arrival of RMGs has changed this and spurred an exodus of poor rural women into cities to become crucial financial providers for their families, and prevented many young Bangladeshi women from marrying underage.

RMG

A worker spins yarn onto bobbins in the Wooltex Sweaters Limited factory in Shewrapara, Dhaka. In 2008, the Asian Development Bank loaned $50 million to the Bangladesh Ministry of Education to improve the skills of millions of workers in the ready-made garments and textiles, light engineering, and construction industries. Photo courtesy of the Asian Development Bank.

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Maturing Microfinance Institutions: Gauging Results

By Erin Nealer

Microfinance was the trendiest new player in economic development for the first decade of the 2000s. In 2004 Vinod Khosla, founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems, called microfinance “one of the most important economic phenomena since the advent of capitalism.” In 2006 Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in establishing micro-loans for entrepreneurs struggling to rise out of poverty. Microlending programs such as  Kiva, World Vision Micro, and Zidisha have sprung up to take advantage of the internet, creating peer-to-peer lending programs where individuals can supply small loans or pool funds for larger loans for entrepreneurs all over the world. The ability of microfinance institutions (MFIs) to reach those experiencing the greatest need and to provide long-term solutions for extreme poverty, however, remains uncertain.

The term “microfinance” refers to a broad umbrella of economic opportunities with one common objective: increasing access to financial services for those who are unable to access traditional banks. The theory is that small loans, savings accounts, insurance programs, and other basic financial services will provide the structure necessary for low-income individuals to lift themselves out of poverty, begin businesses, and provide for their families. MFIs that focus on underserved populations – particularly women, those living with HIV/AIDS, and populations in inaccessible rural areas – have the potential to enact great change in the lives of individuals, enabling them to participate in the local and global economy.

Loan Applications - Rachel Strohm in Ghana

Women submit applications for microloans in Ghana. While microfinance is a popular and relatively new vehicle for increasing access to financial services, the lasting impact of microloans on business profits and overall income is negligible. Photo by Rachel Strohm via Flickr.

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Empowering Female IDPs in Nagorno-Karabakh

By Julie Snyder

The current Syrian refugee crisis has caused alarm across the globe, leading to political, economic, and security challenges. While the international community decides how to handle this problem, it is important to consider the next stages of the Syrian crisis, particularly for women. The case of Nagorno-Karabakh presents a grim vision of what could lie ahead if Syria lapses into a frozen conflict- a situation where violence has ceased, ending the “hot” conflict, but there has not been success in reaching a satisfying peace agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a small strip of land internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan though governed as a de facto yet unrecognized state plagued by violence since the 1990s. Due to its geostrategic position and rich natural resources, Nagorno-Karabakh has been home to conflict for hundreds of years; most recently, violence erupted in the late 1980s when Armenia claimed the land from Azerbaijan, leaving over 120,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in its wake. Failed negotiations over the past few decades have left claims on Nagorno-Karabakh hotly contested, leaving hundreds of thousands forbidden from returning to their homes and producing no permanent peace agreements.

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Despite intervention from a variety of development agencies and implementers, including USAID, the Armenian government, and NGOs, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh face the obstacles of frozen conflict daily with little possibility of improved livelihoods in their future. Currently, there are over 597,000 IDPs in Nagorno-Karabakh residing in camps only miles from their homes. These IDPs face a number of issues despite significant government and international assistance, and the aid of NGOs. Their primary concerns include “inadequate housing, precarious livelihoods, gender-based violence, segregated education… and IDP’s limited participation in decisions that affect them.” Continue reading

Does Microfinance Increase Women’s Profits and Incomes?

By Helen Moser

The assumption of many Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) is that providing microfinance to women is not only a social imperative – it is also one that may yield higher returns to capital, as women are typically more credit-constrained than men due to their limited access to formal financial services.  Women in developing countries are 20 percent less likely than men to have access to formal credit. Additionally, women tend to be poorer than men on average and have less collateral to offer.

MFIs rose in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and many MFIs like the Grameen Bank began strategies of lending primarily to women that continue today. Over 80 percent of the poorest MFI clients worldwide (those who live on less than $1.25/day) are women.  MFIs and their supporters often claim women make better use of loaned or granted funds than men do. But in actuality, microfinance may not be an effective solution to raise women’s business profits from microenterprise, nor their incomes. Continue reading