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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

Print version ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.14 n.3 Texcoco Jul./Sep. 2017



Women, empowerment and microcredit: Banmujer’s social microenterprise program in Chiapas

E. Carmen Aguilar-Pinto1 

Esperanza Tuñón-Pablos1  * 

Emma Zapata-Martelo2 

A. Aremy Evangelista-García1 

1 El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), San Cristóbal de Las Casas-Chiapas. ( ( (

2 Colegio de Postgraduados, Campus Montecillo (


Stemming from Rowlands’ (1997) tridimensional model of empowerment, in this study we analyze Banmujer’s Social Microenterprise Program (Microempresas Sociales, MES) in Chiapas, with the objective of identifying the elements that, including the training received, could potentiate and favor characteristics of empowerment in the program’s beneficiaries in the personal, collective and close relations spheres. A questionnaire was applied to a total of 158 women and 108 semi-structured interviews were performed, as well as ten in-depth interviews with women who showed characteristics of empowerment, and also with eight public servants in charge of designing and operating the program during the three government periods that it has been in effect. Among the main findings, it is that training with gender perspective implemented during the first and second stage of the MES effectively contributed to developing characteristics of empowerment in many of the beneficiaries, which show up more in the personal dimension than in the collective, and in close relationships, and that Rowlands’ (1997) description is confirmed in the sense that empowerment is a process that shows advancement and setbacks, where promoting and inhibiting elements take part in parallel.

Key words: Banmujer; empowerment; microcredit; women


At present, the term empowerment has become generalized and used in the scope of international development, gender policies and social intervention, both by financing agents, international organizations, governments, social movements, academics and researchers, and by various sectors of civil society. The theoretical work around it is intense and several women authors agree that feminist movements from the 1960s can be found in its origins, which sought to awake feminine awareness, transform power relations, and exceed the limitations and biases of the Women in Development approach (Mujeres en el Desarrollo, MED) (León, 1997; Batliwala, 1997; Kabeer, 1997; Rowlands, 1997; Hidalgo, 2002; Delgado et al., 2010; Tuñón, 2010). Other women authors agree that empowerment should be considered a process where elements converge that favor and inhibit it at different moments (Rowlands, 1997; Towsend, 2002; Zapata et al., 2002; Zapata et al., 2004).

For Batliwala (1997) empowerment is manifested in face of an unequal redistribution of power, whether between nations, classes, races or genders. With regards to women, the author points out that it constitutes a strategy to challenge the patriarchal ideology, transform structures and institutions that reinforce gender discrimination, and train poor women to gain access to information and key resources for their personal development. In words by León (1997), this includes both individual change and collective action to transform the processes and structures that reproduce the subordination of women. Zapata et al. (2004:18) consider that “it is a process of change in which women increasingly gain access to power with the objective of achieving transformations in unequal gender relations”. For Murguialday (2006), empowerment is linked to the notion of power in a way as profound as the absence of this to disempowerment, so it is related to vulnerable and marginalized groups and, especially, to women. In the words of Pérez Villar et al. (2008), empowerment implies a redistribution of power. García and Zapata (2012) point out that it is about a process that begins within the person and prepares him/her to self-evaluate, change, grow and seek greater autonomy; and in the same sense, Tuñón (2010:88) states that it arises from inside a person and that it is the women themselves who become empowered. In the author’s words, “the most that “external agents” can do is contribute to the effectiveness of the process, simplifying the communication of the needs and priorities of women and promoting a more active performance by them in the promotion of these interests and needs”.

Diverse case studies carried out in the country show the political aspects present when delving into the issue of feminine empowerment and account for how it is expressed. For example, when analyzing the impact of credit programs supported by FONAES on women from Tabasco, Vázquez et al. (2002) show that in six out of nine groups studied there are empowerment processes related to the experience accumulated from prior years of organization. Hidalgo (2002) finds that the beneficiaries from the savings accounts SSS Susana Sawyer in Álamos-Sonora present some degree of empowerment that is evident, particularly in those who have received training in gender issues. Rosales and Tolentino (2007) highlight that empowerment is exteriorized beyond the sole role of being social managers, when women transform into important agents of development who strengthen the social capital and the cooperation networks between men and women local actors; and Pérez, Vázquez and Zapata (2008), when analyzing the role of the regional funds from the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los pueblos Indígenas, CDI) in the empowerment of indigenous women from Tabasco, identify that the aspects that drive them most are self-management, the degree of women’s appropriation of the project, sharing a sentiment of group unity, and personal development that results from training workshops.

In their turn, Meza et al. (2002) analyze the role of government institutions or programs that do not favor women’s empowerment, as is the case of the Education, Health and Food Program (Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación, PROGRESA) in the community of Vista Hermosa in Chiapas. Mendieta et al. (2009) analyze the case of the human development project, “Women Blooming” (“Mujeres floreciendo”), financed by Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (Agencia de Cooperación Internacional de Japón, JICA), where the training component turns out to be central in the empowerment process. Delgado et al. (2010) find that the activities carried out by the beneficiaries within the framework of the project, “Identity and empowerment in a training project” in Celaya-Guanajuato have an effect in the way they see themselves, responding to conflicts and perceiving the world (identity), while García and Zapata (2012) find that empowerment is expressed in the transition from the private to the public sphere. Various studies coincide in considering that, in order to promote feminine empowerment in social programs and projects, training in themes of gender and human development is necessary (Mendieta et al., 2009), incorporating the gender perspective (Vázquez et al., 2013), and fostering the exchange of experiences (Pérez et al., 2008).

Empowerment and microfinancing

Since the middle of the 1980s, cooperation agents, international organizations, non-government organizations, and governments inspired by the work of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, as well as by the Nairobi World Conference in 1985, divulged that microfinances have the potential to transform power relations and grant power to the poor, so they began to finance microcredit projects in rural zones and especially for women (Allen, 2012). This momentum was greater in the decade of 1990 with the height of neoliberalism, since, inscribed in the market logic microfinances are considered an effective tool to reduce poverty while providing employment and the possibility to build microenterprises. Therefore, many microfinance programs were promoted, both in the private sector and through the governments (Gutiérrez Pastor, 2012; Mayoux, 2008; Cheston and Kuhn, 2001). It is convenient to underline that in México this drive has been centered on microcredit, leaving aside other aspects of microfinances, such as savings, insurance and remittances (Tuñón et al., 2007; Valdez and Hidalgo, 2004).

Concerning the relationship between microcredits and feminine empowerment, various studies describe the feminine experiences in microfinancing programs (Vázquez Luna et al., 2013; Castro, 2010; Tuñón et al., 2010; Pérez et al., 2008; Riaño and Okali, 2008; Cardero, 2008; Tuñón et al., 2007; Varela, 2007; Zapata et al., 2004; Zapata et al., 2003; Vázquez et al., 2002; Cheston and Khun, 2001). In this regard, Zapata et al. (2003:104) point out that “in the case of women who manage microcredits, empowerment must be a self-generated, conscious process, with regards to something, an interest, a need”. Gutiérrez Pastor (2012:135) mentions that studies show that microfinance programs contribute to “transforming the power relations and give power to the poor, especially women”; and Varela (2007) states that women identify the possibility of creating their own business or improving the one they had and, with this, feeling useful and independent, such as the main benefit that microcredit gives them.

Rowlands’ tridimensional model of empowerment

For Rowlands (1997:224), empowerment is “a set of psychological processes which, when developed, allow the individual or the group to act or interact with their environment, in a way that increases their access to power and its use in several forms”. The author mentions that empowerment can be seen in three dimensions: the personal, which relates to changes in the woman as a person and is expressed in the development of trust and the sense of being; the dimension of close relations, which are represented in the connections to family and spouse, and about which Rowlands expresses that this generally constitutes the most difficult area of change because it is a space that can be both supporting and caring, and a place of struggle and disempowerment; and the collective dimension, which includes the connections that are established with the group, community or context for joint work and to achieve a higher impact than would be reached individually.

Rowlands (1997: 225) points out that empowerment is “a personal and different process, since each has his/her own unique life experience”, and that the processes vary according to the context and do not take place in a linear manner insofar as sometimes advances are made in one dimension, but there are setbacks in others and because in each dimension there are factors that drive and promote or inhibit women’s empowerment. In Rowlands’ work, the concept of power turns out to be central in the theme of empowerment and, in an exercise to understand it, the author distinguishes four types on which it is based: Power over, which represents a controlling power that implies the ability to make another person or group do something against their will; Power for, which is persuasive and more productive insofar as it promotes processes of leadership for a person or group to reach their goals; Power with, which represents the collaborative power that, based on relations between equals, awakens the sensation that the sum of individual wills has a great effect on the solution of problems; and Power from within, which is based on the acceptance and respect for themselves and which gives confidence to reach goals and establish horizontal relationships with other men and women.

With Rowlands, we understand empowerment as a process of change that begins within the person and involves positive modifications that range from self-confidence, an increase in the capacity for decision, and an increase of personal conviction, to the ability to transform unequal relationships and develop the collective capacity to modify structures of subordination. The latter is expressed in the participation of organizations and the development of leadership where a more cooperative rather than competitive sense predominates.

Methodology and techniques employed

To perform this study, we used quantitative instruments, such as the individual questionnaire (Hernández Sampieri et al., 2010), and qualitative ones, such as the semi-structured and in-depth interview, as well as the field diary (Taylor and Bogdan, 2000; Tarrés, 2001). To approach them, a transverse observational (non-experimental) study was designed because it is a state program of partial coverage (Rossi et al., 2004). We took the MES case, program which has been in effect for three consecutive government periods, and we selected a sample integrated by beneficiaries from each of them. Our control group includes women who no longer receive financing3 and which correspond to the first and second period of the program’s operation.

The universe of study is represented by the MES beneficiaries who live in six municipalities of the state: Berriozábal, Chiapa de Corzo, Cintalapa, Ocozocoautla, Villaflores and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which are attended by the Delegation I Center of the Ministry of Women Empowerment (Secretaría de Empoderamiento de las Mujeres, SEDEM) and which reflect the composition of women to whom the program is directed (urban, semi-urban and rural contexts). Of the 682 women covered by the MES program in these municipalities, a sample of 158 women was considered, representing 23 % of the total of the population addressed. They are integrated into 53 groups and live in eight localities or ejidos and 21 neighborhoods from the municipalities selected. The sample contemplates 61 beneficiaries from the third stage of the program (2012-2018), 80 women from the second (2006-2012), and 17 beneficiaries from the first stage (2000-2006).

An individual questionnaire was applied to all the beneficiaries of the sample (n=158), with the objective of collecting information about socioeconomic, labor data, previous experience in the project, use of microcredit, and perception of women about their impact in the business. We performed 108 semi-structured interviews to understand the perception of the beneficiaries regarding the program in their lives and ten in-depth interviews with women selected by identifying characteristics of empowerment in their discourse: self-confidence, capacity to express their ideas, participation in decision making, independence, autonomy, development of self-esteem, and trust in the future.

Eight semi-structured interviews were also carried out with public servants who participated in the design and implementation of the program during the three periods and diverse sources were consulted to obtain official information about the program. It was decided to do interviews because they are flexible, dynamic, non-standardized, and allow the understanding of men and women informants about their lives, experiences or situations, as expressed through their words (Taylor and Bogdan, 2000), and because they can formulate their experiences.

In ethical terms, the study had the informed consent of all the beneficiaries and public servants interviewed, and all the names that appear on the text are fictitious because of confidentiality criteria.

About the MES program

The MES program constitutes a state policy of microfinancing that has been implemented for three successive government periods. It was created during the 2000-2006 six-year period in the Deputy Secretary’s Office of Social Economy-Banmujer (Subsecretaría de Economía Social-Banmujer) with the purpose of dispersing credits for poor women through two microcredit programs: “A Seed to Grow” (Una Semilla para Crecer, USPC), directed at poor women organized into solidary groups of 12 to 20 people with the amount of $500 to $2000, which was destined to small-scale businesses related to informal commerce; and “Social Microenterprises” (Microempresas Sociales, MES) which, although at the beginning financed groups of men with credits of $20 000 to $50 000, was later directed towards groups of two to five women and reduced the backing to amounts of $10 000 to $20 000. The financing model contemplated that the women who moved through all the USPC phases could continue later in the MES. During this first period the participation of women with a trajectory in feminism and with a clear vision of gender equity and empowerment in the design of these programs stood out. Among their actions, performing workshops for the strengthening of self-esteem and to promote the empowerment and leadership of women stood out, as well as the emphasis that they displayed, both in the training of middle-level public servants, technicians and beneficiaries of the programs, and in divulging and elaborating didactic materials that are accessible to women (books, brochures, plates, felt-boards, flip boards, and manuals).

During the period of 2006-2012, important structural changes took place that impacted the amount of financing allotted and the training processes. In 2009, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment (Secretaría de Empoderamiento de las Mujeres, SEDEM) was created, which, although in its executive order establishes that it has the purpose of “performing actions, promotion and encouragement to attain the full development of women” (Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 2010:3), through the program “Women Working United” (Mujeres Trabajando Unidas, MTU) gradually weakened the training offered in the prior period and free workshops began to be given on crafts and cooking. It should be pointed out that in this period many of the founding women of MES, and who had given a clear gender perspective to its operation, abandoned this government agency.

The last period corresponds to the current six-year-period of 2012-2018, where although the microfinancing programs by SEDEM continue to be USPC and MES, they occupy a secondary place in face of the subsidy program for single mothers “Welfare from Heart to Heart” (Bienestar de Corazón a Corazón), which places women in a passive role, reinforces a handout mentality and promotes a spoils system. The training program inherited from the previous program and now known as “Women Working United by Heart” (Mujeres Trabajando Unidas de Corazón) is focused on offering workshops in traditional embroidery, handbags with ribbon embroidering, painting on fabric, confectionary, candle making, fantasy embroidery, baking and enterprising vision (SEDEM, 2014:9), in a very different logic from what was promoted at the beginning of the MES.


Sociodemographic aspects, use and perception of microcredit

More than half of the beneficiaries from our sample are between 30 and 50 years of age (53.8 %). The group of women 51 years and older represents 34.9 %, while that of younger ones, 18 to 29, includes 6.9 %. Of the beneficiaries, 7.6 % does not have any schooling; 23.4 % expressed that they have unconcluded primary; 31 % studied up to primary school; 20.2 %, secondary; 6.9 % high school; and 10.8 % studied a technical or professional career. Regarding their marital status, eight out of ten are married or have a couple (79.8 %), almost all have two or three children who are still economically dependent on them because they don’t work or are infants (95.5 %) and 46.2 % live in households made up of two to four people. Regarding the domestic activities and the help they receive, 97.5 % are housewives, 72 % devote four to eight hours daily to domestic activities without receiving pay, and 57o% receive help for domestic labor. More than half of the latter receive help from their daughters (51.1 %); 24.2 % hire people for domestic service, paying up to $120 daily; 22.3 % have help from another woman in her family network (mother, aunt, niece, cousin, god-daughter, daughter-in-law or mother-in-law), and only 22 % receive help from their sons. These data show the reproduction of traditional gender roles inside the family units of MES beneficiaries.

Although all of the women received financing from MES, 26 % declared being exclusively devoted to the household, and 74 % also carry out another activity. From these, 64.9 % attend to their businesses (double workday), 32.5 % attend their business and are also paid workers (triple workday), and 2.6 % are devoted to studying and also collaborate in domestic activities. Regarding the use of microcredit, we have that, although all the women in the sample (n=158) received financing from MES, only eight out of ten stated having used the microcredit from the program to establish a microenterprise (77.8 %). From the remaining 22.2 %, 21 women destined it to the strengthening of a family business that a masculine member of the family executes (husband, father, brother or son); six kept the money to cover contingencies, such as diseases, deaths, graduations and travels; six more used it to pay debts and two other to build something or pay for tuition, which shows the lack of real institutional monitoring to understand how microcredit is used by the beneficiaries.

The businesses that predominate are the following: 41 % correspond to the sale of groceries, vegetables, fruits, seafood, beef and chicken; 19 % to catalog sales; 15 % to elaborating and selling food; 14 % to services like beauty shops, tailor shops, repair shops, drugstores, internet café and tortilla shops; 10 % to hand crafts elaboration and sale; and 1 % to livestock production and agriculture. It should be mentioned that 60 % of the businesses are in the retail sales area (sale of groceries, perishables, and catalog products) and that in 14 % of the service businesses there are those in which women are fronts or where male family members use the microcredit.

About the physical conditions from where they operate the businesses, it should be mentioned that more than half of the women develop them at home (58 %), 26 % sell on the street or door-to-door, and only 16.1 % has a formal shop. A theme to reflect upon is whether the businesses that they establish, where they establish them and sell their products, allows them or not to have a clear limit between what corresponds to work and unpaid family reproduction and the business. Regarding the sphere of influence or the reach that the businesses have, it stands out that 66 % sell their products in the district or neighborhood where they live, which implies that very likely their clients are family members or neighbors; 20.3 % sells them in the local market and nearby localities; and 13 % in other municipalities, in the state capital or outside of Chiapas.

In general, the income that micro-businesswomen receive are small, which explains that they are businesses that contribute fundamentally to the daily survival and very few generate assets. Thus, eight out of ten women (77.2 %) declare receiving income from their business and 22.8 % state that they do not make any income. Among those who do receive income from their business, in the extremes, we find that 65o% say they receive a weekly income of up to $500 and only 5.6 % up to $1000 or more. Regarding the destination or use of the income received in their microbusinesses, it stands out that eight out of ten women use them to purchase food for the family (77.6 %). In a lower proportion the income is destined to contingencies such as diseases, deaths, travels, graduations and family celebrations (11.9 %), paying debts (7 %), and in absolute numbers only one to three women use it to build something or pay tuition, buy something for themselves (clothes, shoes or cosmetics), or purchase articles for the household (furniture and electrical appliances).

Regarding the perception that women have about the impact of the program, slightly over half of the beneficiaries considers that microcredit has served them little (50.6 %), while 28.5 % and 20.9o% state that it has served them much and nothing, respectively. Although 50.6 % considers that the microcredit has served them little, 62.9 % of the total points out that the business they were able to develop is good because it is profitable, 30 % say it is fair, and 7 % that it is bad because it generates few or null earnings. In this point, it is worth to wonder about the non-agreement between the valuation of the microcredit sum and the perception of the utility achieved and reported by the women themselves. Next, we show testimonies that value positively the loan received and others that relativize its effect:

“This support from MES is the first one that they give me and it helps a lot. I have been selling pozol at the market for more than 30 years; with it, I bought my maize, my cacao, wholesale, and I got a better price and that’s how I got a little more of profit” (Julieta, 64 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 3rd stage of MES).

“Truth be told, the loan didn’t help me much, it was not a lot of money; I used it to buy an industrial cutter for my workshop but it was not enough. I had to put money from my pocket and then it was really complicated to explain for the verification and receipts; there was a whole mess and I was left not wanting to request it again” (Adriana, 36 years, Tuxtla, 2014, 3rd stage of MES).


The results from the questionnaire indicate that only three out of ten (29.7 %) of the total beneficiaries from our study received some type of training during the cycle of their project. Of the 17 beneficiaries (10.8 % from the sample total) that we could locate and which were supported during the first stage of MES, five expressed having received training in issues of self-esteem, organizational aspects of the business, recovering credits and gender equity. Of the 80 beneficiaries from the second (50.6 % from the sample total), 26 mentioned having been trained in themes of domestic violence, sexual and reproductive rights, women’s rights, human development, leadership, basic aspects of administration and accounting. From the third stage of the program we found 61 beneficiaries (38.6 % from the sample total), of which 16 said they received workshops in handcrafts, confectionary, candle-making, fantasy embroidery and entrepreneurial vision.

The following fragments from interviews carried out with women civil servants from the program in the first and second period account for this process:

“The fundamental part of Banmujer was the training; the USPC program was a hook to move women from the private to the public scope and to bring them information about how to defend their rights, self-esteem, talk about leadership and also to facilitate information about the management of credit, functioning of businesses, accounting things [ ]. The results were good, sometimes better than we thought; we had some that we didn’t expect, such as the training of women leaders and some genuine leadership and which had an effect on good things, but there were others where they learned to exercise control in a traditional way, became allied to groups of power and political parties… there were even beneficiaries participating in the local governments in the coast that learned other practices” (Elena, Delegate from Región I Centro (2001-2005) and Director of Training and productive projects (2005-2011), Tuxtla, 2014).

“We knew that with this microcredit program we had to begin from the bottom; in the training we dealt with quite simple themes of accounting, then self-esteem, human development, assertiveness, our intention was to empower women” (Cinthia, Delegate from Región Altos, (2001-2006), San Cristóbal, 2016).

“Another very nice experience was to have the technical staff become aware of gender and relate to those themes so that working with the women could be more amicable, more human work, so we had many processes of sensitization with the men and women; we worked a lot the issue of establishing empathic relationships, from knocking on doors, greeting them and asking them about their project, to being key agents in conflict resolution in the groups” (Sofía, Head of the Training Department of the Director’s Office of Non-Financial Services from BANMUJER (2000-2009), Tuxtla, 2014).

The beneficiaries who received training during these first stages account for their advancements in the personal dimension of empowerment which, according to what some expressed, consisted in leaving the private space and moving into the public space, and in speaking in name of their peers about issues related to the group:

“The programs of Seed and Enterprises helped us a lot, they gave us workshops, courses, talks in Tuxtla [ ] and with it, I began to step out of my house with more confidence” (Arsenia 39 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 1st stage of MES).

“I was the one, who made the payments for my group and took the papers all the way to Tuxtla each month, and I would tell the Banmujer professionals about my peers’ concerns; I started going by myself. Maybe because of that, and because I took advantage of what they taught us in the workshops, they even chose me and then I would lead the workshops here in the neighborhood” (Ofelia, 65 years, Colonia Emiliano Zapata, Tuxtla, 2014, 1st stage of MES).

During the second stage of MES, the trainings were increasingly more occasional and the themes addressed in the workshops were focused more on the prevention of violence towards women and girls, reproductive health and domestic violence than in promoting empowerment from their productive project as in the first stage, according to what women public servants and beneficiaries expressed:

“Although there were many changes in staff in the Banmujer structure and resource cuts during the six-year-period of 2006-2012, in the area of training we were very clear about our work. We continued performing workshops, but we began to find many stones that were challenges, [ ]; for example, the themes that we had to work with were not the same, we didn’t have support to go to the communities to supervise, monitor and accompany them in the processes. We had to trust in the training that the community trainers gave; we brought them increasingly less to Tuxtla for training” (Sofía, Head of the Training Department of the Director’s Office of Non-Financial Services from BANMUJER (2000-2009), first and second period, Tuxtla, 2014).

“The talks that they gave us over there in the ministry in Tuxtla were about the problems that there are in the family, everything that us women suffer when our husband drinks or beats us, also about how to manage our business and those things, but less often than when we started in La Semillita” (Ada, 43 years, ejido Julián Grajales, Chiapa de Corzo, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

Lastly, the following fragments of interviews with one public servant and one beneficiary express the situation of training in the present period:

“Right now nobody is interested in training; to begin with, there are no resources for that, what’s more, there’s almost no money for USPC, much less for MES; it’s not like before when women in the communities were supported. In 2013 only groups in the metropolitan area were backed… There are few resources and nothing for training, the training staff was even let go gradually, it’s not like before…” (Rocío, Head of the Department of microfinancing programs of the Deputy Secretary’s Office of Social Economy-Banmujer of the SEDEM, (2003-2014), Tuxtla, 2013, Third period).

“They called us because they were going to give us courses, but we only went to spend our money on transport because they didn’t teach us anything. There was a person who was teaching how to embroider; I don’t know what kind of embroidery. Since I don’t even like doing that, I didn’t even see it [ ]; we came in one way and went out the other” (Sofía, 39 years, Col. Plan Chiapas, Chiapa de Corzo, 2014, 3rd stage of MES).

In sum, during the first period there was institutional interest in allotting resources for training in gender issues; in the second, the themes were directed mostly towards domestic violence; and in the last, interest was lost on this issue, even for the beneficiaries, as the last testimony shows.

Characteristics of empowerment

Personal dimension

Performing activities outside the household as part of the credit assigned by MES is an element that contributes to strengthening the empowerment in this dimension. In some cases the credit allowed some beneficiaries to end the isolation that they were in, developing new knowledge and thus increasing their abilities to express ideas or dominate other spaces; being part of a group and participating in activities related to it are elements that have helped to foster characteristics of empowerment in the women:

“With the credit that they gave us I did well, I became very involved, I liked having my job and being busy. I was the one in charge of making the payments for my group every month and I had to leave here, grab my transport to go to Tuxtla, and from there I would go to the tax office to make my payment” (Meche, 64 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 1st stage of MES).

“I went out a lot when I had my group. I remember once that we celebrated Woman’s day and they took me all the way to Tuxtla; there, at the fair’s palapa I went to listen to Margarita, la Diosa de la Cumbia. [ ] We would go to Tuxtla, they would take us to wherever there were events, they gave us food, we would listen to the talks that they offered, and sometimes we even sang and danced, like the day when Margarita arrived [ ]. When I returned to my house I was so happy, all laughs and laughs, even dancing with my broom when I remembered that time” (Ada, 43 years, Julián Grajales, Chiapa de Corzo, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

“At the beginning I didn’t even know that I could talk in front of everyone, but then I realized that I could and I liked it; I felt like another person and I would even feel that my voice came out stronger… I liked going to the workshops that Banmujer gave us; because of everything that was said there, I went into it with a lot of fears, quite insecure, and I left there feeling like another person because I began to have confidence in myself” (Alba, 38 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 1st stage of MES).

These testimonies express the possibility of negotiating the outings explicitly or not with the spouse, giving themselves permission to leave their routines of domestic work briefly, enjoying it and laughing, establishing interactions with other women and with institutions. All this enriches their experience, contributes to their personal growth and, although these are questions that could turn out to be very basic, in their context they stand out because they are not part of their daily learning. The last testimony exemplifies the empowerment in the sense described by García and Zapata (2012), since for Alba to listen to her own voice when addressing others entails a personal process that allows her to feel an inner strength to speak in public, which doubtless contributes to the development of her self-esteem and self-confidence, another aspect that contributes to increasing confidence and recognition because being subjects of credit makes them feel responsible. According to the women, the issues that obstructed this type of empowerment are machismo of the spouse or father, lack of time control, care and obligations towards children, health problems, and poverty and masculine control of income which, compared to what was reported by Hidalgo (2002), was not difficult to detect because they expressed it freely and without any problem:

“The formation that they instilled in us at home was very traditional; men don’t go into the kitchen and my father needs to be served everything. [ ] When I talk with my family about wanting to study a career, my father starts to tell me: why would you want to study, you don’t need to, your place is at home; you don’t need anything else and a long sermon. [ ] I believe that it was a miracle how our enterprise was born; to begin with, my mom and all of us had to face many obstacles, starting with my father who, in addition to being a pessimist, gave us an education, as they say, that is very machista” (Alba, 38 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 3rd stage of MES).

Becoming aware of their situation and the relationships of oppression that they grew up with, and have undergone, was possible thanks to the knowledge of their rights which, in many cases, was made possible by the gender training offered by MES. As can be seen in the testimonies, some women were allowed to assume a new attitude to face life; the recount by Alba, for example, shows growing awareness from recognizing the obstacles, questioning them, and mustering an inner strength to face them and have clarity about her aspirations. It also illustrates how machismo can be an important inhibitor that devalues their capacity to gain access, use and control resources.

Close relations dimension

In the words of the women beneficiaries there are no great changes in the relationships with their spouse, or in the power dynamics in their households, due fundamentally to the fact that there is still machismo present, and to the dependency of the woman and the control of income by the man, as we will see in the next testimonies:

“I kill myself working, but it’s as if nothing happens because he still drinks a lot. I came from the ranch to Chanona so he would stop drinking, but here it got worse; he no longer helps, not even with my children’s expenses” (Melina, 44 years, Dr. Domingo Chanona, Villaflores, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

“No, I don’t have money of my own, that you can really say is mine; what I received from the credit, well, I gave it all to my son’s father and he said he used it for his business, but I don’t know. He is the one who buys the food; sometimes he takes me on Sunday to buy things for the house, the child’s milk, and everything we are going to need, but he pays for it and never gives me anything [ ], sometimes I feel like buying myself something, but I don’t have a way to do it, sometimes my mom gives me some money, but very seldom” (Alma, 25 years, Evolución neighborhoods, Tuxtla, 3rd stage of MES).

The first testimony shows a tacit acceptance and certain resignation to machismo and alcoholism; in the second one, letting the husband take care of everything the family needs expresses the recognition of a superior masculine power. In contrast, we find other cases that show us that there are women who receive help and have processes and advances in the ability to dialogue with their couple and reach agreements:

“Now that my daughters are older, my husband has let me work; he has realized that I took care of the girls and that I have to do something. When they were young I told him I wanted to learn beauty, I convinced him and studied during the afternoons; he would stay with the girls while I went to classes, it was some days in the afternoon only, two hours, not a lot, but he would stay with them. Some time ago I opened my stationary shop and he helped me with money” (Juana, 35 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

“Only my husband would go to Tuxtla; before I used to ask for permission for everything, and he always said yes, but there was no way I could go by myself to Chiapa, and I couldn’t even leave the house without him [ ], but with so much talk by the professionals I realized that I also have the right to go come and go, to share with my group of semilleras (we still call ourselves like this because we have been together since “la semillita”) and I stopped asking him for permission” (Ada, 43 years, Julián Grajales, Chiapa de Corzo, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

Alma’s testimony, a young woman and dependent on her husband, shows that she occasionally receives financial support from her mother, while in the case of Juana this support is not only financial, but also in child rearing. Although she developed a capacity to negotiate with her spouse, in her narrative certain guilt is perceived for separating herself from her daughters as a product of internalized oppression that she assimilated socio-culturally and which is reproduced in the same way. Guilt is one of the most common emotions that weaken feminine self-esteem and which explain the ups and downs in the process of empowerment. From this that it is not something linear, but rather a long-term struggle where the most important battle takes place inside the person when she becomes aware of the ties and limitations that she has and thus manages to perform small changes and establish other types of relationships.

Collective dimension

Around this dimension of empowerment, the women beneficiaries point to the role of self-organization, the development of leadership, the increase in the capacity of decision making, and the training for conflict resolution that they have developed from having MES financing:

“I put together my group and I even formed another one, organized them, told them what they have to do, how we were going to do it [ ], I would move 30 women; it was a big group of women! They all listened to me [ ] and they all set up their businesses” (Ada, 43 years, Julián Grajales, Chiapa de Corzo, 2014, 2nd stage of MES).

“With all the courses that I went to in Banmujer I learned to calm my family when they all argued because we had a lot of problems that broke our business; I would talk to them, center them, get them to dialogue, we would all sit at the dining room table and I would tell them to reflect upon what was happening to us without blaming anyone, we were all to blame because we were not prepared” (Alba, 38 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 1st stage of MES).

According to what was expressed by the women, the aspects that hinder this dimension of empowerment are primarily the lack of technical support, business knowledge, and group cohesion, as well as the envy and conflicts between the beneficiaries:

“We had problems inside the business and the group dissolved. The organization failed, we began to sell in many stores at the same time (Irapuato, Hermosillo, we would send our mole all the way to McAllen, Texas), but we didn’t have control over our inventories, we had provisions in the Soriana stores, but we couldn’t verify our product physically. The store managers would only pay what was in existence, even though our inventories said we had more. We were ignorant of the administrative, financial part, and we also failed at organization as a group” (Alba, 38 years, Berriozábal, 2014, 1st stage of MES)

“The group ended because conflicts began [ ] some were doing well in their business and others did not see their profits, the envy began, the ones who didn’t sell stopped paying, others didn’t want to return the money and they started leaving” (Elodia, 44 years, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 2014, 3rd stage of MES).

To finish this section, it should be mentioned that Alba is the only beneficiary from MES who shows characteristics of empowerment in the three dimensions suggested by Rowlands, albeit with advances and setbacks in all of them.


We find that, in general, the empowerment of the women beneficiaries of MES is expressed when they move from the private to the public sphere to carry out activities outside the home and manage to set up a small business that provides them income or allows them to improve the one they already had, according to their perceptions, making them feel independent and satisfied to manage their own money. In this area, our results agree with those by Castro (2010); Tuñón et al. (2007); Cardero (2008); Zapata et al. (2003, 2004): even when MES microcredits are improving their capacity to spend and the level of consumption in their households, the activities that women carry out and the type of businesses that they install tend to reproduce the culturally assigned labors. This corroborates what was expressed by García et al. (2012), Hidalgo (2002) and Mendieta et al. (2009).

According to what was stated in the interviews, we observe that there are achievements in the area of personal empowerment that can be attributed to the training received by women in the first and second period of MES, as well as leadership training. The development of self-confidence is clear in their narratives, as well as the increase in self-esteem, the development of a sense of being, and the development of individual capacity, while the changes that they reported as most significant are the ability to obtain and control resources. It should be highlighted that when assigning credits to the women beneficiaries and offering some of them training in gender themes, MES contributed to self-confidence, to making them feel responsible and capable, to an increase in the capacity to express ideas and opinions, to the feeling that things are possible, and to the development of knowledge that allows them today to understand and assume their daily life from a different perspective and to establish a other types of relationships, as Rowlands (1997), Hidalgo (2002) and Mendieta et al. (2009) point out.

In contrast to what Rowlands states regarding the scope of close relationships being the one where there are more difficulties for empowerment, in our study we find clear achievements and advances in five beneficiaries, trained during the first period and the beginning of the second, whose experiences show that the themes addressed and the institutional strategies to carry out workshops and training had positive impacts in the women’s lives. In their recounts, rather than nice memories and pleasant experiences as beneficiaries, they show how they traced significant goals and how, according to their personal trajectories, they reached them or developed abilities which gradually allowed greater control over their lives and their decisions. Thus, in general, the women’s testimonies showed change, growth and greater autonomy.

Where we find least results is in the development of characteristics of empowerment in the area of collective empowerment, due in part to the fact that although the program fosters the formation of “solidary groups”, each woman beneficiary uses the credit individually, and with the exception of family businesses, they do not establish networks with their group or with others. The experience from the first and second stage of MES showed that the training and workshops offered in different spaces from the localities where the women beneficiaries favor the participation in groups, the exchange of experiences, and the sharing of problems with other women, aspects which could strengthen self-organization and management if they continue to be implemented.

Although MES was an original program because it offered microcredits to poor women excluded from the traditional finance sector and because it promoted the empowerment of the women beneficiaries through an unprecedented training proposal in the country, which characterized its first stage, unfortunately it had the same fate as many other government programs that lack sustainability and depend on the ups and downs and instability of the state policy. The results that we present in this document show that the training processes of the first and second period of the program contributed to detonating characteristics of empowerment in some of the beneficiaries and that this is expressed in them differently according to their personal trajectories.

The testimonies of the women beneficiaries presented here show that the empowerment is nuanced and that women have in common the desire to move forward and change their family situation, wish that sometimes can become a reality thanks to the allotment of the MES microfinancing, but which, since the program does not have a training scheme supported by the gender theme, misses the chance of serving as a social transformation tool that takes into account the power relations present in the situation and condition of women.


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3Studies that take up again the criterion of control group are those by Arellano et al., (2006) and Pérez Fernández et al. (2003). Another criterion used in this type of studies is the seniority of the partners, highlighting whether they are of recent inclusion (one cycle) or have two or more cycles with microfinancing (Zapata et al., 2004; Delalande and Paquette, 2007).

Received: February 2017; Accepted: March 2017

* Author for correspondence: Esperanza Tuñón-Pablos.

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