Friday, March 23, 2012

Social Performance in Action: Hidden women's empowerment

What does empowerment look like? It could be the iconic women in the 60s burning their bras or it could be as subtle as a whisper. Empowerment is subjective, it’s personal, and it often looks different or even unrecognizable.

As you browse through the borrower profiles on Kiva have you ever noticed a blurred photo or a loan for a woman that has a photo of a man? That’s not a mistake. In this edition of Social Performance in Action, and in honor of International Women’s month, we will focus on how Kiva and our Field Partners help empower women through methods that may not be obvious at first.

It’s no secret that Kiva thrives on the connection a lender feels with a borrower. Searching through profiles and learning about the lives of businesswomen and men around the world can be fun, powerful, and life changing all at the same time. But if a picture says 1,000 words, can you really feel connected when you can’t see someone’s face?

In answering this question, it’s important to remember that while the Kiva experience starts with a simple connection, it can evolve beyond the individual. The ultimate goal of Kiva is to empower borrowers, mainly by giving them access to capital, but also by offering products and services, and reaching clients that would otherwise be unserved.

In some regions of the world, that means making loan dollars available to women who otherwise would not qualify through traditional financing channels. In fact, Kiva encourages Field Partners to develop products that are specifically designed for women clients in markets where they are traditionally underserved. Sometimes doing so means crossing cultural lines and, in some situations, can even be dangerous for those involved.

In some countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it is not culturally acceptable for a woman to display her picture on the Internet. In other areas where there may have been recent conflict, like Iraq, it may be unsafe for women borrowers to publicly display their faces. 

While Kiva normally requires a picture as part of the borrower profile to build a strong connection with lenders, there are certain exceptions made for cultural and safety reasons. Field Partners, like Al-Amal in Yemen, choose not only to lend to women, they also offer group loans to women too (a very uncommon yet impactful offering in the Middle East).

In Yemen, women tend to dress conservatively and generally do not prefer to have their photographs displayed on the internet.

ACSI, another Field Partner in Iraq, blurs the faces of all of their clients because they may be at risk for working with certain organizations.

These clients are at a disadvantage when compared to the other borrower profiles with clear pictures on the Kiva marketplace. In these circumstances, a blurred face is the image of the roots of empowerment as these clients may not have even had the opportunity to receive a loan if Kiva mandated clear pictures in their cases. We feel that allowing the less popular blurred pictures, and even less popular family member replacement picture instead of the borrower picture is better than no picture (and therefore no loan).

Kiva greatly values our Field Partners that seek to empower women. Research shows that when a woman is able to contribute to her family’s income, at least 80% of her contribution goes toward creating a better future for herself and her children. Kiva partners that seek to empower their clients through additional, dangerous, inventive or unconventional means earn corresponding Social Performance badges in seven different categories. We believe supporting empowerment in all its shapes and forms is crucial to maintain cultural identity while encouraging economic development.

What does empowerment look like to you? Tell us

Photos courtesy of: rohit chhiber, pyjama, theqspeaks.