Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
The travel research grant allowed me to collect data to use in my SYE research with an effort to answer the question of whether empowerment alleviates poverty. Being a founder of a microfinance project allowed me to narrow my focus from general empowerment of women to specifically focus on microfinance in rural part of Western Kenya. My focus was on whether the agendas of NGOs, governments, any International Financial Institutions etc meet the challenges rural women face. This meant comparing projects that receive loans in any form from NGOs or governments versus other projects that do not.
In conducting my research I structured my questionnaire making sure that I covered three main paradigms; feminist empowerment, financial self-sustainability and poverty alleviation paradigm. In feminist empowerment, I focused on human rights and gender equality. In this case, microfinance act as an entry point for women's economic and socio-political empowerment that focuses on gender awareness and feminist organization. The financial self-sustainability paradigm means empowering women economically; women are able to make decisions and manage their credits. Finally, the poverty alleviation paradigm focused on developing sustainable livelihoods, community development and social service provisions like literacy, healthcare and infrastructure development. There is not only a concern with reaching the poor, but also the poorest.
I therefore conducted 20 interviews with women who were part of microfinance and ones that were not in order to see if the projects met the above three paradigms. I conducted interviews within two different villages and the women who I interviewed were all excited and willing to participate. In recruiting interviewers, I found it challenging to find women who were not involved in any form of microfinance. Each of the women was part of some women group and always showing an excitement to work together for change. Kenya Women Finance for example seemed to be a very popular lender to many of these women.
The most surprising finding for me was the difference in level of ownership and autonomy between the two groups of women. Those women that started and ran businesses that they started with their own capital appeared to have strong negotiation skills, they showed a sense of pride and also being their own bosses allowed them flexibilities (i.e incase they had family emergencies). On the other hand, women who ran businesses that they started with funding from NGOs, government groups, etc showed lack of ownership, they lacked flexibility (incase of emergencies they seek permission from their lenders or they felt pressure from the rest of the group members). Further, the lenders in many ways influenced the type of businesses that the women started as oppose to the women themselves having autonomy to choose without any pressure
Undertaking this research experience in Western Kenya was a dream come true for me. I am thankful to the donors who made this experience possible. Not only did I learn about microfinance and the challenges that rural Kenyan women face, but also the opportunity allowed me to critically think of ways in which I can improve my microfinance institution. Unlike any past projects in which I offer criticism to others, in this case I had to criticize my work and come up with what works and what doesn't. Thus from this project, I was challenged, I got to know the women that I interviewed better, and got moved by their spirits that I could sense each day even those days full of work, struggles and frustrations. I look forward to sharing with these women the final product of the research!