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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Microcredit and the Discourse of Empowerment: A Case Study in Jinotega, Nicaragua


Microcredit has become an increasingly popular strategy for improving the social, economic, and health status of women in the developing world. NGOs, government agencies and private enterprise have all put forth credit initiatives geared toward “women’s empowerment.” Despite the ubiquity of such programs, there is very little consensus about what it actually means to “empower” women. Using abstract terms is problematic as it undermines the ability to establish specific targets and goals for gender equity programs. Moreover, when interventions are aimed at such broadly defined goals, it becomes near impossible to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of these programs.

Despite the wide variety of microcredit program design and client demographics, they are spoken of as uniform categories in the literature. Little to no attention has been given to how varying program design leads to different benefits. For example, individual loans lead to a greater amount of financial autonomy and decision-making power, whereas solidarity loans excel at building social connections and community affiliation. Such nuances should be considered when designing economic and gender equity interventions in order to ensure that needs are properly met, and benefits maximized to their fullest potential.

This paper takes into consideration what it means to be “empowered,” and whether or not empowerment is the correct form of discourse for discussing gender equality. It also compares three different microcredit program designs in order to understand how program design and demographics affect outcomes.

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