WASHINGTON D.C. — On July 12, 2017, Californian Representative Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a hearing to discuss women’s empowerment through microfinance in the developing world. This was the fourth hearing in a series Royce has held over the last year to “examine the challenges and opportunities facing women worldwide.”
Congressional hearings are often open to the public and can serve to gain information on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, oversee the implementation of a law, or simply discuss topics of interest. “Beyond Microfinance: Empowering Women in the Developing World” fell along the lines of the latter.
Royce opened the discussion by explaining that women’s participation in the formal economy also benefits them personally, allowing them to work and control their own money. However, it would also likely result in significant GDP increases across the globe. Royce specifically identified mobile money as a technology that enhances women’s empowerment through microfinance.
Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, contended that women are in need of specialized banking opportunities that accommodate the extra barriers that they face as they attempt to participate in banking. These barriers include a lack of documentation and collateral. Iskenderian also noted that 1.7 billion women in developing countries still do not have access to mobile phones.
However, MIT Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri elaborated on how mobile money can be especially impactful on the lives of women who do have access to mobile phones. Suri found that while the mobile money program M-PESA made users more financially resilient and lifted two percent of Kenyan households above the poverty line, female-headed households made more dramatic advances.
Financial resilience refers to the ability to manage money when faced with setbacks, which is facilitated by mobile money programs as users of these programs are able to communicate with family members and ask to borrow money in times of crisis.
Finally, Melanne Verveer, the Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, discussed women’s empowerment through microfinance on a broader level. Verveer remarked upon the extra barriers women face when starting microenterprises, and identified the mobile phone as a powerful tool that will continue to lift women out of poverty.
Verveer then urged the committee to advocate for the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues within the current administration, emphasizing the idea that a focus on women’s empowerment through microfinance among a myriad of other issues is necessary to achieve true diplomacy.
Royce’s series of hearings seek to gain perspective on the multifaceted issues women face, focusing on existing constraints, benefits of removing these constraints and potentially helpful actions within the political sphere.
As is clear from this hearing, women need special accommodations when it comes to microfinance as they face unique barriers towards financial independence that can be overlooked during discussions of microfinance in developing countries.
– Caroline Meyers