Entrepreneurial Women Are Leading Social Institutions’ Transformation in Latin America
Elisa Chuchupoma (R) with her Financiera Confianza loan officer / Photo credit: BBVAMF
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According to the 2019 edition of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) report, the two main challenges obstructing South America’s journey towards gender equality are: restricted access to productive and financial resources, and discrimination within the family.

While laws and policies are set by government authorities, it is up to the rest of us to transform social norms in favor of women’s increased participation in the economic, social and political spheres.

Elisa Cuchupoma always wanted to run her own business, but formal lending institutions wouldn’t talk to her, since most loan officers in Peru go straight to the male head of household. Even more so in Elisa’s case, since the house they live in is under her husband’s name, meaning only he has collateral for a loan.

According to the 2019 edition of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) report, Elisa’s experience captures the two main challenges obstructing South America’s journey towards gender equality: restricted access to productive and financial resources, and discrimination within the family.

When the Development Centre presented its findings during an event hosted by the Ibero-American General Secretariat and the BBVA Microfinance Foundation (BBVAMF), Elisa was there to amplify the voice of millions of women who have defied these prejudices.

It is the combined effect of weak legislative implementations and the persistence of discriminatory social norms that preserve and perpetuate gender gaps.

The report states that discriminations like those faced by Elisa widen the regional gender gap, with an estimated opportunity cost of around USD 400 billion for the region. These practices also deprive the world of women’s potential talents and capacities. And politically, they make half of the world’s population invisible.

This price is too high for the issue to be ignored, and most authorities have already taken action. In fact, in Peru, a law now exists prohibiting discrimination in access to financial resources. The World Bank has found such policies to increase women’s financial inclusion by 26 percentage points.

With legislative frameworks to prevent discrimination already at work, and mechanisms such as microfinance are at hand, what keeps us from advancing towards a more equitable scenario? At the launch event, Bathylle Missika, OECD Development Centre, shared the report’s answer to this question: it is the combined effect of weak legislative implementations and the persistence of discriminatory social norms that preserve and perpetuate gender gaps.

Anti-discrimination legislation for financial access is only regulated in 72 countries. In addition, legislative action is insufficient because of the stronger, deeply rooted traditions and social norms that block women’s opportunities for growth and progress. For instance, in Elisa’s community, norms still dictate that women follow their husbands’ “advice” on how to manage household resources. In fact, the main reason why she hadn’t proactively taken out a loan was because of her partner’s apprehension about becoming indebted, discouraging her each time she tried to set her project in motion. Furthermore, many Peruvians still follow a tradition that requires the husband to stand as guarantor or a co-signee for a woman to borrow money from a formal institution.

While laws and policies are set by government authorities, it is up to the rest of us to transform social norms in favor of women’s increased participation in the economic, social and political spheres. SIGI calls for an adaptive and whole-society approach to advancing gender equality. This is a task that we at BBVAMF have taken on as a commitment in the most unequal region on the planet. Aligned with SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), ensuring equality of opportunities is a priority for us, and we do this by making the financial system more accessible to people who find it hard to work within the formal banking system. We innovate so that the services we offer are tailored to every entrepreneur’s needs.

For instance, through our Peruvian institution, Financiera Confianza, BBVAMF currently supports 90,000 women living under vulnerable conditions with “Palabra de Mujer” (Woman’s word). This is the lending program that enabled Elisa to finally obtain a loan. She used the loan to buy and sell guinea pigs, and start her own knitting workshop from where she makes hair ornaments sold at Lima’s Mercado Central. She now leads a group of 13 female neighbors who also knit for a living.

It may not seem much, but, as “social norms shape acceptable roles, opportunities and behaviors of men and women in society and the household” (OECD Gender data, 2018), this is the kind of support network women need to defy their communities’ attitudes towards their empowerment and economic independence. With this in mind, BBVAMF supports more than 1.2 million women in Latin America to make sure that no one is left behind.

As Elisa told participants at the event, she is grateful for being able to provide for her family and proud because she can now make both short- and long-term plans for the future. She wishes to build a house made of sturdier materials, and to see her son finish his studies.

Isn’t this the world we should strive for? Where all women can participate in their households and wider communities? In the words of Ibero-American General Secretary Rebeca Grynspan, “if we eliminate the barriers to women’s economic empowerment, we will experience a more dynamic and inclusive growth, more equity and less poverty”.

The author of this guest article, Karessa Ramos, is a Social Media Data Analyst at BBVA Microfinance Foundation.

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