Noeleen Heyzer

Today we celebrate the fact that, in the hands of women, microfinance has become a powerful tool helping women transform their lives and the lives of their families and their communities. Microfinance is about much more than access to credit. It is about women gaining control over their lives. It is about women achieving economic and political empowerment within their homes and within their villages, towns, cities and countries. It is about changing power relationships in favor of those who previously exercised little power over their own lives. If we are to reach our goal of ensuring credit for self-employment for 100 million of the world’s poorest families, and especially the women of those families, we must take full advantage of all the lessons we have learned about microfinance over the last two decades.

We have learned that participation in credit schemes can be a pathway for women toward greater civic participation and engagement in the public sphere; that access to credit allows women to lift themselves out of poverty, powerlessness, and vulnerability. But we have also learned that women’s problems are not only economic but social and political. Our goal should always be to improve the economic assets of women as a means of enhancing their socioeconomic position. We have learned that when women gain economic autonomy, the health, nutrition, and education of other members of the household—especially children—improve at the same time.

So as we work to formulate strategies that will shape the future of microfinance, we must acknowledge how far we have come and recognize how far we have to go to really reach the Summit’s goal. If we analyze how successful credit schemes have functioned, we can then draw policy guidelines to assist bankers and policy-makers, as well as women’s organizations and other NGOs working with poor women. We can establish support systems for redesigning existing mainstream credit programs and reorienting government agencies so that they can plan and cater more effectively to the needs of women in poverty. It is critical that we link microfinance with a necessary and enabling environment in which women traders, microentrepreneurs, street vendors, and cross-border vendors can receive protection from harassment and exploitation as they conduct their businesses. We must ensure that gender concerns are reflected in the vast range of economic development and restructuring issues that affect women’s lives and livelihoods in an increasingly globalized economy.

As we look to the future, our ability to break through the vicious cycle of poverty and to prevent the transfer of poverty from generation to generation along gender lines means that we must all deal directly with the structures that create inequality. As women struggle to the mainstream, microfinance, if used correctly and with great skill and thought, can become an essential tool. And microfinance will prove equally as powerful as women move from the mainstream to become a force to transform the economic mainstream.