Microfinance and Women's Empowerment: The Case of Lao PDR
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Women's empowerment is a critical concern in developing countries. There are many attempts to address this issue, due to the realisation that the aims of development and poverty reduction cannot be effective without attention to women and improving their role in society. Over the decades, microfinance has emerged as a powerful tool not only to address poverty and development issues but specifically to empower women. Because of this, much international literature focuses on the relationships between microfinance and women's empowerment. However, in the context of Lao PDR, the research is very limited. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to investigate the role of microfinance in women’s empowerment in Lao PDR. A qualitative methodology was employed in this research, using both primary and secondary data. The primary data was collected through an individual interview with six participants who worked for either the Bank of Lao PDR or for the Lao Women’s Union. The secondary data was collected from the Vientiane Times newspaper, a press agency of the government in Lao PDR. All the data were subjected to a Directed Qualitative Content Analysis (DQlCA). Kabeer’s women’s empowerment framework was adopted as a theoretical framework to analyse women’s empowerment. The empirical findings provide a unique insight into attempts by the government of Lao PDR through the Bank of Lao PDR and Lao Women’s Union to implement microfinance initiatives to combat poverty and empower women. This was achieved through analysis of primary data from the preeminent governmental organisations involved in the administration of microfinance activities in Lao PDR. Even though the findings cannot provide a comprehensive and conclusive answer as to the extent that microfinance might help empower women, it provides insight into the important role of the Bank of Lao PDR and Lao Women’s Union in helping Lao women to access microfinance including microcredit and micro-saving, which are perceived to be important enablers for empowerment. However, other forms of resources that are no less important to empowerment were also found. These resources are networks, education and jobs. The findings further shed light on the constraints facing women's empowerment, including cultural issues, gender inequality and gender pay gaps. Therefore, it can be concluded that in the context of Lao PDR, microfinance alone may not automatically lead to empowerment, but education, knowledge, networks, jobs and cultural norms are also important factors that can determine the success or failure of the empowerment approach.