Domestic Violence and Microfinance: What Is Our Role as Financial Service Providers?

> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, Freedom from Hunger

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The day after the closing of the Microcredit Summit in Merida, Mexico, conference participants were also invited to join in a day-long discussion about integrating health with microfinance. Half of the day was spent discussing a set of health indicators that are currently being tested in India, Peru, and the Philippines as part of Freedom from Hunger and the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s Health and Microfinance Alliance. Alliance data from several participating institutions was presented, with the goal of the discussion to identify the most appropriate combination of indicators to track changes in client well-being over time and identify aspects of health that can be effectively addressed by financial service providers (FSPs).

The goal of these pilots is to provide the financial services industry with a set of standardized, comparable, relevant, and reliable health indicators that they can add to the existing poverty measurements they are using to assess the impacts of their services for clients. To be most effective, these indicators must also resonate for health sector actors to promote real, active collaboration and appreciation for our respective competencies in improving health outcomes.

During the meeting, we discussed dimensions that may be missing from the short set of indicators that are currently being tested. One notable omission was identified: domestic violence.

The same week as the meeting a media frenzy about domestic violence erupted in the United States. Controversy continues to swirl around the issue, in professional sports as well as in other arenas.

Women are coming forward and sharing emotional, and often harrowing, stories of domestic violence and explaining why they stayed in these abusive relationships, even as bystanders question their sanity. The many tragic cases that have been brought to light have helped raise public awareness about domestic violence.

Women’s “empowerment” is often closely related to some health indicators and to poverty levels. As such, domestic violence, and particularly the mental health consequences of domestic violence, fits appropriately as part of a comprehensive set of health and client well-being metrics.

Within the microfinance sector, there have long been discussions about the inclusion of indicators on domestic violence that range from women’s beliefs that domestic violence is acceptable in some cases to whether she has ever been hit by a spouse or family member.

The reason for FSPs to include domestic violence indicators rests on two possible outcomes: 1) When microfinance is introduced into a household, the woman may gain financial empowerment. That empowerment could lead to more domestic violence if it proves to be a disruptive innovation that challenges the cultural norms and behaviors. 2) Microfinance might decrease violence against women, particularly in cases where violence is triggered by financial disagreements. While these two possibilities are debated, domestic violence is often an afterthought in client outcome assessments.

The meetings in Merida were a stark reminder that domestic violence is an ongoing challenge that can and should be directly and indirectly addressed by microfinance institutions.

When Freedom from Hunger was designing its “Learning Conversations” (dialogue-based, problem-solving discussions designed for illiterate women served by self-help promoting institutions) in India, one of the stories that came from a self-help group was a commitment made by the women in one community. Together, they decided that if they heard violence occurring in any one of their households, all the women would leave their huts and bang pots and pans loudly so that the abuser would be aware that others found his abuse to be deplorable. While they might not be able to step in and stop the violence directly, they could do so indirectly by bringing the abuse to light, and acknowledging it loudly.

An article posted by a CNN anchor, Christi Paul, tried to explain why women stay in abusive relationships, why men hit, and how others can help. She wrote, “Unless you’ve walked in her shoes, don’t judge her; help her. Offer her a smile. Give her encouragement. Listen in silence. Let her know you’re there when she’s ready. She doesn’t need your judgment. She needs your support. She doesn’t need your pity. She needs your prayers. She doesn’t need your ignorance. She just needs a safe place [in which] to fall.”

Women’s self-help groups often play this role, by offering a safe place in which to fall.

But what was brought to light in Mexico is that we have to measure this because as we know, what we measure, matters. If it matters, we should measure it. Domestic violence is not just an empowerment indicator, but also a mental health indicator. It would likely give us a more complete indication of a woman’s ability to make use of financial and health services for her ultimate benefit and that of her children.

Ms. Paul concludes, “Like her, you have the power, too, to say ‘this isn’t how the story is going to end.’ Ask the questions that matter. Then don’t be afraid to stand up and find some answers.”

We may not see a direct role now, but indirectly we can start by fully acknowledging, as we do with health crises, that domestic violence is a reality for women. We can then begin making stronger strides to include this dimension in our client well-being assessments and programs. At a minimum, we should stand up to find some answers. This seems to be an important beginning to do just that.

Have you read?

Savings Groups, Mobile Phones, and a New Solution for Rural Women

Integrating Health and Microfinance in India

Tools for Developing Water and Sanitation Microfinance Products