Sustainability Patterns

Empowered Women

Empowered Women


Photo courtesy Sameera Huque, Bangladesh

In 1999, a Bangladeshi organization, Prokaushali Sangsad Limited (PSL), headed by women engineers, decided to bring rural women from a remote location into the mainstream energy arena. They turned the tables making the women energy service providers as opposed to users. Thirty-five women on the isolated island of Char Montaz were organized into a cooperative. They discovered they could make a huge difference in their community by going into business. Ignoring criticism that they were breaking society's rules by working outside the home, they started the Women's DC Lamp Enterprise with funding from the World Bank. The women built battery-powered direct current lamps to replace kerosene lanterns widely used in local homes—a known source of indoor air pollution. As they mastered lamp construction, they also learned about quality control, business development, and marketing. Soon, their critics were their customers. Within two years, they were bringing low-cost light and clean power to over 1,200 households, shops, and boats, and 300 businesses. Shops stayed open longer, children spent more time on school work at home, and incomes increased by 30 percent.

Focus on women recipients for development to ensure that the impact lives on through the women’s children.

Women and girls suffer disproportionately from the burden of extreme poverty. Your development organization wants to address these issues as well as the other obvious problems. Members of the community are cognizant of the benefits of Passing on the Gift and have begun to form Small Support Groups.

In many cultures, the role of women has been minimalized. Even when development aid is given, women are not the primary recipients, men are.

The historic approach to development support allocation is not effective. What can be done to improve the impact?

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work with the Grameen Bank and the microcredit innovation. He found that giving credit to poor women brings more benefits to a family than giving it to men. It was Grameen’s experience that when men make money, they tend to spend it on themselves, but when women make money, they bring benefits to the whole family, particularly the children. For Grameen, lending to women created a cascading effect that brought social benefits as well as economic benefits to the whole family and ultimately to the entire community. Their conclusion is that if poverty is to be reduced or eliminated, the next generation must be the focus. This next generation is reached through the women, the mothers in the family, not for emotional reasons, but because it makes economic sense. [1]

Women make up 70 percent of the 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day. They work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property. In some cultures women are not full members of society but may even be treated as sub-human.

It might be that women see problems differently than men as they have to deal directly with issues that arise because of lack of food or illnesses in children.


Turn your attention to women recipients, not to the exclusion of men, but to encourage an equal share in decision-making, labor, and benefits.

The goal of successful development organizations is to empower the local people to solve their own problems. Many of the problems arise because women, who are the primary nurturers in a family, have no control over the use of the limited family resources. By emphasizing women as recipients of assistance, you will directly benefit the whole family. Women tend to have a greater focus on the well-being of the children and therefore have a more long range view.

Women have become the focus of many microcredit institutions and agencies worldwide, because loans to women are more likely to benefit the whole family than do loans to men. Giving women control and responsibility for small loans raises their socio-economic status, which has a positive impact on many of the gender and class relationships.

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Using this pattern helps target the recipients who will make the most lasting change. Not only will the lives of women be improved but also the lives of their children.

However, care must be taken to not overburden the women. We have all heard of the problem of the “supermom” who tries to do too much and fails to balance the needs of a career and family. In “Expanding women’s opportunities: the potential of heifer projects in sub-Saharan Africa” ( F.M. Ssewamala in the journal Development in Practice) says, “Of special concern, however, is the issue of increased workload, which may eventually adversely affect the health of women and constrain their participation in community meetings.”

When speaking of change brought about by helping women, Darcy Kiefel Gyatri Adhikari, a member of a Heifer women’s group in the village of Astam, says, “Before the formation of our group, men used to believe women could do nothing but today, the men have progressed as well and are treating us equally. They have started appreciating our work along with supporting the poorer members and lower caste.”

A summary of microlending practices by ACCION reports, “Loans to women more often benefit the whole family than loans to men. Giving women the control and the responsibility of small loans raises their socio-economic status, which positively impacts the relationships of gender and class.”

Heifer International says, “By focusing on women we also help struggling families and communities. Overlooked by government programs and often denied education, rural women face a cycle of poverty, hunger, and despair. Without help, many toil endlessly yet watch, helpless, as death, too often, steals their children.”

Women for Women International began its Microcredit Lending Program in Afghanistan in July 2004 with an initial investment of $34,210, and is the only organization in the country that offers loans exclusively to women. As of November 2006, $2.7 million in loans had been dispersed to more than 7,500 women, with a total of $4.2 million projected over the next five years. The current repayment rate is 100 percent. The Microcredit Program provides vital income-generation support to some of the most socially excluded women in Afghanistan.


[1] Creating a World without Poverty, Muhammad Yunus with Karl Weber, Perseus Books, 2007.

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