Micro Finance and Women Empowerment in Sierra Leone

Subject: Finance
Pages: 17
Words: 5138
Reading time:
22 min
Study level: PhD


In the past 20 years, micro-finance has received a lot of attention from policymakers and scholars alike. Microfinance has been seen as one of the most effective ways of supporting and maintaining development, especially in third-world countries. It has however been criticized by economic scholars and researchers as well as the general public. One of the main bases of this criticism is that the risk faced by the clients is subject to questioning and its effectiveness in the reduction of poverty is also questionable (Amin, Ashok & Giorgio, 2003; Caudill, Gropper & Hartarska, 2009).

The concept of microfinancing was developed in the mid 19th Century when Lysander Spooner developed a paper listing the advantages of small credits to farmers and business people as a means of alleviating poverty (Eyben, 2008). Microfinance as it is understood today can be accredited to the Works of Muhammad Yunas a Professor from Chittagong University in Bangladesh. In 1974, Yunas lent some money to a group of poor villagers to enable them to set up a business with which to sustain their families. He then began to find ways of addressing the lack of credit access to the poor through action research (De Haan, & Lakwo, 2010; Hulme & Arun, 2008). In 1976, Yunas together with his students created a credit program intended to serve the poor. They worked together with rural banks whereby the banks provided the money while the program was responsible for disbursing and recovering the loans from the people. In 1983, Yunas and his associates created the Grameen Bank and soon the microfinance program spread to all corners of the country (Johnson, 1998; Rosenberg, 2009). It was soon taken by other Asian country such as India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Over time, the success of microfinance in Asia elicited other countries of the world to pick up the practice and it was not long before microfinance infiltrated the African continent (De Haan & Lakwo, 2010). Marconi and Mosley (2005) have noted that in the continent where most countries have been ravaged by war and famine, microfinance has created many chances that would otherwise have been impossible.

Sierra Leone is a country located on the coast of West Africa. It gained its independence in 1961 from the United Kingdom. As of 2009, the country has an estimated population of 5.7 million with an annual growth rate of 2.2% (Abdulai, 2010). The country has been involved in many civil conflicts since its independence. Due to continuous fighting, the country’s economy is low and has poor infrastructures and a weak economic foundation. According to the UNDP (2009), over 80% of the population in Sierra Leone lives below the poverty line of $1 per day. The country has one of the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) rankings of 158 out of a possible 169. This has had a significant effect on the socio-economic conditions of the people in the country (PSRP, 2008).

Women in Sierra Leone face a dual tragedy; the first tragedy is poverty that affects over 80% of the population, the second tragedy is being women in a country that is dominated by men and where women are granted very little rights (Christiana, 2005). In Sierra Leone, most women are uneducated thus they cannot access formal employment and only a few women are active in the political arena of the country. Access to health in Sierra Leone is also very poor and women are also exposed to Female Genital Mutilation (PRSP II, 2008). Apart from this, the maternal death rate in the country is one of the highest in the world and stands at 1800 deaths per 100,000 (UNEP, 2010). Women in Sierra Leone do not inherit wealth from their families and in most cases are not allowed to own land and other resources. This makes it harder for them to access loans from banks and previously they could only do so with the help of their husbands or other male relatives (GSL, 2000). It is thus for this group that microfinance stands to make the largest impact. In some instances, women in the country are forced to offer sexual favors to members of the bank staff to have their loan requests processed (Guardian, 2011).

At the moment, the collective microfinance program in Sierra Leone has a loan portfolio worth US$3.4 million, with 45, 717 borrowers and 23,243 depositors accounting for US$963, 373.90 (MIX, 2011). The microfinance program has been hailed as a means of alleviating poverty in developing countries. In Sierra Leone, these programs provide an effective means through which the war-ravaged country can be repaired (IMF, 2005). The subjugation of women by the culture in Sierra Leon prompted policymakers and development planners in the country to institute organized and sustainable microfinance programs aimed specifically at women (Strier, 2010; Kai & Hamori, 2009). According to Cristiana (2005), by offering women a means to empower themselves, the economy of Sierra Leone has already seen a great change in the positive direction. Berkmuller et al. (2011) argue that financing women through microfinance programs are more prudent as they are more likely to use the funds better to sustain themselves and their families than men.

Statement of the Problem

It has become clear that empowering women in developing African states is imperative if economic development is to be achieved (Rugimbana & Spring, 2009). The cultural, social, and economic system of Sierra Leon has for a long time been discriminative towards women. Women were relegated to childbearing and maintaining homes (Faridi, 2011). The girl child took the last priority when it came to education. This thus meant that there were fewer women in the formal employment sector and the majority of working women participated in the informal sector that received little assistance from the government (Spanda, 2011). The institution of microfinance programs sought to rectify this situation. Various programs were developed to target women only especially those in the informal sector. Over the last few decades, the economic condition of Sierra Leone has been improving with an economic growth rate of 5.4% and inflation of 2.2% (MITAF, 2010). It is therefore important to understand how the microfinance programs have helped women and if these programs have achieved the required levels of social and economic empowerment of women in the country. It has also been noted that some women who partake in the microfinance program are usually not successful (Muhammad, 2010).

Objectives of the Research

Microfinance institutions have been operational in Sierra Leone for some time now. In that time, it has had a big impact on the economic situation of the country (MSC, 2009). Programs have also been set up to target women. However, giving women economic stability does not necessarily imply that women’s empowerment takes place (Goetz & Gupta, 1996). Empowerment generally exists in two dimensions; personal empowerment and political empowerment. Personal empowerment involves improving the personal perceptions of worth, self-esteem, and purpose and in effect giving the individual a means to voice their opinions (Swain & Wallentin, 2008). Political empowerment is giving voice to various individuals or groups in the political sphere. To women, political empowerment involves creating chances for women to participate in political affairs as well as creating policies that give women rights and freedoms enjoyed by their male counterparts (Bangura, 2007). The main function of empowerment is giving people the power to make decisions on aspects that affect them

This paper seeks to find out whether microfinance institutions have affected women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone. Specifically, the study will focus on the following objectives:

  • To determine the impact of microfinance programs on the economic development of the country
  • To determine the relationship between the approaches used by microfinance programs and the empowerment of women
  • To determine the exact route through which women empowerment is affected by microfinance institutions (perceptual, material, relational and cognitive) (Grasmuck, & Espinal, 2000)
  • To determine the influence of access to microfinance on women’s perceptions of empowerment
  • To compare the data on the microfinance programs and the perception of respondent women borrowers of their level of empowerment, to correlate the two


Research Questions

To meet these objectives, this study seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. Approaches used by microfinance institutions in Sierra Leone
  2. The state of the microfinance industry in the country includes financial positions, capital to asset ratios, write-off ratios, etc.
  3. Is there a verifiable aggregate effect of the microfinance programs on the improvement of the gross national income?
  4. What is the total percentage of women borrowers from microfinance institutions?
  • What percentage of the total women population have access to MFIs
  • What is the average loan amount disbursed to women?
  • What is the average cost per borrower?
  1. The type of economic activities women borrowers usually engage in and the average amount of returns from these activities
  2. What is the relationship between women’s sense of empowerment and the level of performance of the microfinance programs in the country?
  3. In what visible ways has the microfinance system affected women in the country?
  4. How can the Microfinance system be enhanced to improve its effectiveness as a tool of women empowerment?

Significance of the study

This study aims at ascertaining the impact microfinance institutions have on the empowerment of women. In particular, it will try to find out the level of economic empowerment of women and in what capacity women borrowers contribute to the gross national income of the country. In this study, the primary intention is to prove that the empowerment of women through micro-loans has a direct impact on the gross national income of the country. Through the analysis of the microfinance industry and its contribution to the total gross national income, it is possible to find a relationship between the economic empowerment of women and the growth in the Gross National Income (GNI).

This study is very important as it will enable policymakers and microfinance institutions to understand the advantage of availing micro-loans to women and the need to ensure that women in the country are more empowered. The study will embark on proving the causal link between improvement in the gross national income and empowerment of women through the microfinance system. The causal link will be proved by using components of women empowerment resulting from access to micro-loans (proxy variables). These components will be investigated from previous studies concerning women empowerment and using survey techniques, their applicability in the Sierra Leone context will be investigated. After this, the condition of the country’s microfinance system will be analyzed with the hope of knowing the total contribution of the microfinance system to the gross national income. Using these variables, it is thus possible to conclude the impact of women’s empowerment on the gross national income (Campbell & Stanley, 1966; Hartarska & Nadolnyak, 2007).

Many studies concerning women’s empowerment have usually focused on how the lives of these women have been affected by the empowerment (Gadio & Cathy, 1995; Hashemi et al, 1996; Holvoet, 2005). This study will shift away from this type of thinking and will look at the bigger picture which involves the impact of empowerment on the total economic system of the country. This study, therefore, does not simply describe the process of empowerment but seeks to add information on how this empowerment has affected the women in this country.

Literature Review

Over the years, various studies have been carried out on the subject of women empowerment, microfinance, and the relationship between the two constructs. To conduct this research objectively, an understanding of previous studies on the subject is important.

Women Empowerment

The world bank defines empowerment as “the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor and powerless people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold institutions accountable that affect their lives” (TWBG, 2001). Berkmuller et al. (2011) define empowerment as the process in which organized groups and individuals can visualize the world differently and achieve that vision by transforming the structures and relations that had taken power from them. Swain and Wallentin (2007) assert that empowerment only occurs after disempowered women can pose a serious challenge to existing norms and values in their culture, to create a significant improvement to their living conditions and well-being. Vetrivel & Chandrakumaramangalam (2010) defined empowerment as a way of creating a social environment whereby people can make decisions and are availed choices either collectively as a group or individually to achieve social transformation.

Various studies have been carried out on the subject of women’s empowerment in Africa. A study by Manuh (1998), sought to find out the position of women in the development processes of several African countries. She looked at various countries in Africa including Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, she noted that 88% of women in the country were illiterate. She also noted that the political system was generally run by men and since social-cultural norms had relegated women to playing second fiddle, women’s issues were generally non-existent in the political arena. She also noted that poverty was especially hard on women as they had their families to look at and most of the time women had to act as providers since some men had either gone to war or died during the war. She concludes that for women to be empowered economic programs geared for women should be set up and women should be trained in skills that could best utilize funds from these economic programs. Mayoux (1999) also notes that women have for a long time been ignored when it comes to financial issues. Most women who attempt to access microfinance support are usually rejected. This is due to lack of security, poor financial education, and discrimination. He also notes that there is a need for setting up a system that targets only women to rectify this condition.

Bangura (2007) researched to find out the various means women could be empowered (both economically and politically) in Sierra Leone. She argued that one of the most important players in empowerment is employment. As a result, she noted that the lack of education for young girls and the high levels of illiteracy in older women have impeded empowerment. For true empowerment, Bangura (2007) argues that women should have more access to credit facilities, factors of production, and marketing channels.

This conclusion was supported by Christiana (2005) who undertook to find out the role of women in the economic transformation of Sierra Leone. Christiana’s main focus was women in the informal sector as it comprises the largest percentage of working women. She noted that through the use of micro-credits and small loans, women were able to open up successful businesses and attain economic stability and relative autonomy from their male relatives. She concludes that while the microfinance scheme can enable women to engage in economic activities, the scheme is only a micro-solution and should not be taken as a means of alleviating poverty.

Several studies support Christiana’s conclusions that microfinance is not truly an effective means of poverty alleviation (Basargekar, 2008; Swain & Wallentin, 2008; Rowlands, 1997). Most of these studies argue that due to poor management, the excessive risk is taken by borrowers, and the fear amongst the poor of taking risks, microfinance has not been very effective in alleviating poverty. However, Bayada (1992) argues that for one to assess the impact of microfinance on the borrower’s state of life, it is important to consider various aspects such as the cultural foundation of the society and the generational and inter-generational differences.

A study carried out by Maksudova (2010) seeking to find out the impact of microfinance on national financial systems found out that there is direct causality between microfinance and economic growth. He however found out that this relationship relies on the income group and the development stage of the country. Shetty (2010) also noted that there are some transfer mechanisms between microfinance and financial development. He notes that MFI increases the circulation of money in the economy allowing for more investments that may drive growth. Apart from this, he notes financial reforms may result from microfinance since MFIs help in destroying various constraints that impede growth.

Studying Women Empowerment: Different Approaches

Several theoretical approaches have been utilized in measuring the effect MFIs have on women’s empowerment. Lucy, Ghosh, and Kujawa (2008) sought to find out how women receiving microfinance were affected in terms of empowerment. The duo interviewed three microfinance institutions in Bangladesh and a selection of 25 women groups and 246 individuals. The main objective of the study was to find out whether there was a relationship between credit access and the enhancement of women’s status within the communities as well as their households. The duo found out that 40% of women who received micro-loans from these institutions passed on their money to their male relatives and only received enough money to make weekly repayments. Women who had full control of the micro-loans accounted for only 20% and most of them were unmarried. This study is very similar to that carried out by Rahman, Junankar and Mallik, (2009) in the same country trying to assess the same factors.

Hashemi, Schuler, and Riley (1996) studied the change in the empowerment of women with the aid of a quantitative survey and an ethnographic study. They analyzed 1300 women to measure the effect of two microfinance institutions; Grameen Bank and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. A comprehensive study carried out by Swain and Wallentin (2007) sought to study whether microfinance programs do result in the empowerment of women. The researchers first note that most of the research on women empowerment has been conceptually ungrounded. They also note that women’s empowerment is unobservable and exists in many different aspects and as such should be treated as a latent variable and not an observable one. The study by Swain and Wallentin (2007) was quasi-experimental and sampled 961 households belonging to women who participated in self-help groups (SHG) and also to non-SHG households. They found out that on average there is a substantial increase in women empowerment of the members of the self-help groups.

A study of significant importance to this paper is that carried out by Basargekar (2008) on the economic empowerment of women through microfinance. The empirical survey was carried out on a sample of 217 women who had received micro-loans from MFIs. The survey was verbal where qualified field workers sought responses to pilot-tested questionnaires from the sampled women. Empowerment exists in four dimensions: economic, social, self, and political. OF all these dimensions, economic empowerment is the easiest to measure and is readily evident. The respondents were polled according to how they perceived several aspects of their economic conditions namely: control over earnings; control over savings; control overuse of loan; the decision about the use of income; the decision about the use of savings; access to legal aid; regularity of income; security of earnings; reduction in vulnerability in case of emergency; workload at the workplace; domestic workload; reduction in dependence on moneylenders; and total economic empowerment. The study also utilized economic parameters designed to act as the foundation for describing economic differences.

This technique was also used by Burkmuller et al. (2011) who identified four pathways of empowerment. The four pathways include cognitive, perceptual, material, and relational pathways. As they explain, various changes occur when women have access to microfinance. These changes are what results in empowerment. In the material pathway, financial assistance may enable women to increase their earnings through the setting up of businesses or expansion of existing ones. This may lead to self-reliance (relational) and an increase in self-confidence (Perceptual). Through microfinance services such as training, and workshops, women get to learn new skills (cognitive pathway) and thus are empowered to be masters of their destiny (Hudon & Seibel, 2007; Karl, 1995; Kabeer, 2005; Boserup, 1970).

Conceptual Framework

The main objective of this study is to find the relationship between microfinance and women’s empowerment. Although empowerment takes various dimensions, the main focus of this study will be economic empowerment. The other types of empowerment will also be investigated but only through their relationship with economic empowerment. Another important relationship that will be investigated will be the impact of the economic empowerment of women on the national economy. The conceptual framework is best described in figure 1.


The theoretical frame presented above shall be supplemented through the use of a multi-perspective study on the process of women’s empowerment. To obtain a comprehensive perspective on the subject and to obtain reliable information to assess our research questions, different research tools shall be used. First, the analysis of literature shall be carried out. Next, a survey using questionnaires provided to the various stakeholders involved will be utilized and finally, direct interviews with individual clients shall be carried out.

Conceptual Framework
Figure 1: Conceptual Framework

Research Units and Sample

The research will involve two main research units. The first research unit involves women clients who utilize the services offered by the microfinance institutions either as a group or individually. The second research unit will be the microfinance institutions themselves.

The sample of women clients will be chosen through a variety of selection criteria. First, the women clients should have been participating in the program for more than half a year. This is to obtain objective data on the empowerment process and to get a good account of how these women’s lives have changed (MacKenzie, 2009). The study shall also include a control sample consisting of women participating in similar trades as our active sample but who have never received financial help from microfinance institutions.

Data for the microfinance institutions in Sierra Leone will be sourced through the analysis of data from the Micro financial Informational Exchange (MIX) database. The database consists of various accounts and statistics concerning microfinance institutions in various countries including Sierra Leone. According to Maksudova (2010), a well-organized microfinance system can complement a country’s financial institutions and in the process help to achieve economic growth. Ayayi and Sene (2010) noted that an organized and sustainable microfinance system should meet various criteria and it is these criteria that we shall collect data on. The data is both accurate and reliable and it will provide a good base with which to analyze the microfinance institutions in the country.

Research Design

This research is a quantitative study that requires an analysis of two sets of data. The first set of data comprises financial details of microfinance institutions and their performance in the country. This data will provide a means to account for the contribution of women borrowers to the economic development of the country.

The second set of data shall consist of measures of various indicators of women’s empowerment. Since empowerment is intangible and therefore hard to quantify, the perceptions of the chosen sample shall be used to collect data. This research will therefore utilize the perceptual study that has been used before by Basergekar (2008) and Berkmuller et al. (2011) whereby the pathways to empowerment shall be tested rather than assigning arbitrary weights to various indices. Pitt, Khandker, and Cartwright (2006) note that measuring empowerment through the use of indices is inapt as it entails the use of arbitrary weights. Mayoux and Hartl (2009) and Berkmuller et al. (2011) and identified four pathways to empowerment that include: cognitive, perceptual, material, and relational.

By assigning a numerical equivalent to the subjective perception of the respondent microfinance borrowers, a consensus shall be sought in terms of a mean rating among the groups of respondents. The degree to which the ratings of the three groups of respondents shall be statistically similar shall provide consensus on the perceived degree of empowerment of the respondents.

Using the two sets of data, a statistical analysis will be carried out to determine whether there is a relationship between microfinance and economic women empowerment.

Description of the Variables

This research will utilize only one dependent variable and that is the Gross National Income. The data that shall comprise the independent variables will involve financial and performance information of the microfinance institutions in the country (as retrieved from MIX) and data collected from women responders.

From the financial institutions, five main factors are of interest: Breadth of outreach (how many clients are being served), Depth of Outreach (how poor are the clients), portfolio quality, financial sustainability, and efficiency. The following variables will be utilized to cover all these aspects:

  1. average deposit balance per person
  2. average loan balance per borrower
  3. capital to asset ratio
  4. debt to equity ratio
  5. total deposits
  6. gross loan portfolio
  7. number of active borrowers
  8. total women borrowers
  9. total assets
  10. total borrowing
  11. total equity
  12. the write-off ratio, and
  13. the yield on gross portfolio

Data on women’s empowerment will be collected from variables representing the four pathways of empowerment namely relational pathway, cognitive pathway, material pathway, and perceptual pathway. The perception data identified are:

  1. control over earnings
  2. control over savings
  3. control overuse of loan
  4. the decision about the use of income
  5. the decision about the use of savings
  6. access to legal aid
  7. regularity of income
  8. security of earnings
  9. reduction in vulnerability in case of emergency
  10. the workload at workplace
  11. domestic workload
  12. reduction in dependence on moneylenders, and
  13. Total economic empowerment.

To convert the perceptions of the women into quantified data, the Likert scale utilized in the Basargekar (2009) study will be used. The MFI set of data will provide means to analyze the contribution of microfinance institutions to the overall economy of the country. Through this, it is thus possible to relate the contribution of women borrowers to the overall economy. The data so chosen are appropriate for this study as they represent the various pathways of empowerment. Our main focus is economic empowerment as, through it, it can be possible to achieve the other levels (Basargekar, 2010). From the theoretical framework, the various relationships between the pathways of empowerment and economic empowerment have been shown. According to various studies, empowerment is a latent variable difficult to assess (Swain and Wallentin, 2007). While empowerment may be intangible, it is however discernible to the extent that it may be perceived by those persons who are themselves experiencing the empowerment.

It is thus important to develop a study that can link both the perceptual and financial data to get a comprehensive view on the subject of economic empowerment.

Statistical Data Analysis

Various techniques of data collection and analysis will be utilized to develop this paper.

Data collection

One of the most important means of data collection will be a review of online databases on the financial details of the microfinance industry in Sierra Leone. The financial and performance details will be retrieved from the Micro financial Information Exchange (MIX). Data concerning the economic condition of the country, mainly the Gross National Income (GNI), will be retrieved from the Sierra Leone government databases or other private databases.

Besides these data, perceptual data on the various pathways of empowerment will be collected. Since perceptual data entails a direct description of how various women feel about the various aspects of empowerment, the use of questionnaires covering various aspects of empowerment will be utilized. The questionnaires will be semi-structured will a large part having choices for the women to correlate the results. The questionnaires will be administered either online or delivered to various microfinance institutions whereby they can be dissipated to various women who meet the selection criteria

Data Analysis

The main analysis techniques that will be applied to this study will be multiple regression, T-test analysis, and analysis of variance (ANOVA).

T-test Analysis

The perceptual data will be mainly descriptive and will be collected in a standardized manner through the use of online surveys. These results will be analyzed through the use of various central tendencies such as the mean, standard deviation, and frequency distribution. The T-test analysis will be utilized for comparing the various means collected as a means of making initial evaluations about relationships between the variables mainly to prepare a way for the multiple regression analyses. The T-Test can be used to measure aspects such as decision-making abilities between women who have taken out microfinance funding and those who have not. The T-test forms our main correlation test that will provide an understanding of how the economic empowerment of women can affect the Gross National Income (GNI).

Regression Analysis

According to Freedman (2005), multiple regression analysis allows one to analyze the relationship between the dependent variable and several independent variables. In this study, we seek to understand the impact various empowerment variables and the financial details of all the microfinance institutes have on the main dependent variable, the Gross National Income.

The regression analysis will comprise of various independent variables and thus will be multivariate and will take the form:

Y = β0 + β1X1 + β2X2 + β3X3 + …. + β12X12 + β13X13

In this equation, X1 –X3 represent the independent variables that exist as economic empowerment aspects and as financial and performance details of the Microfinance Institutes as listed above. The regression coefficients β1 to β13 shall signify the level with which a particular independent variable affects the dependent variable (GNI) (Fox, 1997). The regression analysis may help us identify which of the many independent variables has a larger relationship with the dependent variable. This is particularly important as the main aim is to decide the level at which microfinance funding can influence the empowerment t of women. Unlike other data analysis techniques, multiple regression analyses allow us to analyze the relationship between several sets of data


This research aims at finding out how funding from microfinance institutes influences empowerment. Since empowerment is a latent variable and has several pathways, we, therefore, concentrate on the economic (material) pathway to empowerment. The research objective thus entails finding out how various factors relating to the performance of microfinance institutes and women empowerment can impact the Gross National Income.

It has been stated by several studies that providing microfinance services to poor women may be more beneficial than providing it to men. Some of the reasons provided are that in war-torn countries and most third world countries, women and children comprise the largest percentage of the poor and hence stand to gain a lot. Other studies claim that women are more likely to put the money to better use than men (Vanroose & D’Espallier, 2009; Ashraf, Karlan & Yin, 2006). Regardless of the reason, our main aim is women’s empowerment as the Sierra Leonean government has played very little attention to women’s matters and the existing social and cultural environment is very discriminative against the poor.

From the study, we expect that microfinance institute has a substantial impact on the Gross National Income of the country. We also expect evidence that women’s empowerment plays a very big role in economic development and thus is expected to affect the Gross National Income.


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