Gender-based Violence (GBV) TIG

Understanding gender-based structural violence in microfinancialization: reflections from Ibadan 

By Olubukola Olayiwola


GBV 1.jpgConducting my dissertation fieldwork (2018) among women borrowers in the informal economic sector in Ibadan (Nigeria) has left me with some opportunity for reflection about understanding gender-based structural violence in their lived experiences. To provide some background, these women’s stories stem from their involvement in microlending, particularly as borrowers of   microcredit loans. While I have discussed some of the findings from my research in conferences, guest lectures, published articles, and book manuscripts, recent personal encounters propelled me to reflect on these gendered dynamics of borrowing, repayment and financial mobilization in a new light. Precisely, on the 2nd of March 2022 at 10:49 am and the 4th of March 2022 at 10:07 am I received WhatsApp messages with portrait photographs of two individuals. One of the messages reads as follow: 

TREAT AS URGENT: This is to inform the general PUBLIC THAT ABC (name withheld) [with] phone: 234567890 & 0123456789 (anonymous). THIS PERSON has PROVEN to be a RUTHLESS/CHRONIC and UNREMORSEFUL DEBTOR who goes about COLLECTING MONEY from different companies. This is person ABSCONDED with our company’s money (FASTMONY) and has refused to pay (65,680 Naira [158 USD]) nor pick our calls. THIS PERSON HAS PROVEN THAT WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, SHE CAN’T BE TRUSTED. Be informed that this person HAS BEEN DECLARED PARIAH. Pls., contact us if you have any information about this person as soon as possible, else the company will proceed to the next action, because this person provided us with all your details and if you are not aware of this fund you can as well call the person to delete your information in the app, because soon the person pictures alongside your own pictures will be posted on all social media in the next FEW HOURS… FASTMONEY MEDIA TEAM WARNING. 

I do not recall ever coming across the individuals whose photographs appear in these messages while conducting fieldwork, but I suppose the intention is to shame them by notifying their relatives and friends who could help them in making repayments. Receiving such messages attests to the fact that shaming loan defaulters by any means possible is a reality in this context. These messages remind me of related issues I captured in my study. Across the ancient city of Ibadan are large outdoor markets where traders sell all sorts of items both in wholesale and retail quantities. Notable markets in Ibadan include Agbeni, Bodija, Aleshinloye, Ogunpa, Oja-Oba, and Bola-Ige International market. Also, there are branches of various microfinance banks located close to these marketplaces. Microcredit loans generally refer to a relatively small amount of money with social collateral provided for women and small business owners mostly by microfinance banks. Social collateral is embedded in social bonds/relationships among borrowers who constitute a lending group. This social capital contrasts with physical collateral such as land, buildings and movable properties that conventional banks take from their borrowers. Today, microlending schemes have become so popular in Nigeria such that governments at all levels consider microlending schemes a major way of achieving financial inclusion, and thereby combatting problems of poverty. 

The concept of microfinancialization explains women borrowers’ strategies of ensuring that funds are available for their businesses. I argue that accessing microcredit loans for women is not as concerning as the issues of loan repaymenton the part of borrowers and the issues of loan recovery on the part of the lenders. In addition to the WhatsApp messages presented above the quote from a key-informant below constitutes the basis of my reflection:

Women call it [a microfinance bank loan] “owo komulelanta” (“Placing our breasts on a hot kerosene lantern”) because of what they go through whenever they default on their weekly repayment: They take some of them to the market area in public, placing a basket on their hands and placards on their necks to beg for money.

(Source: Fieldwork 2018)

The Yoruba phrase “owo komulelanta” has assumed everyday use among women borrowers and traders in Ibadan. This narrative alludes to the experience of gender-based structural violence (GBSV) impinged on borrowers by the loan officers. In defining GBSV, I, first of all, acknowledge John Galtung’s explanation that violence could manifest in form of visible subject-object relation. However, when violence cannot be linked directly to this form of intended/not intended relation, then it is considered structural or indirect, hence, the idea of structural violence (Galtung 1969; see also, Dilts et al. 2012). Then, I maintain Paul Farmer’s position that anthropologists and other scholars who are interested in understanding “modern social life” [and the dynamics of GBSV] (2004, p. 307) must consider “the large-scale social and economic structures” (2009, p. 11) in which they are embedded. In my analysis of the lived experiences of women borrowers and microfinancialization, I refer to GBSV as a situation whereby loan defaulters, usually women, are subjected to stringent conditions associated with shaming practices, seizure of trade items and personal belongings etc. These stringent conditions are embedded in microfinance banks’ loan officers’ strategy of “loan drive” (Olayiwola, 2020). The loan drive, I describe as a collection of strategies deployed by loan officers in pursuit of loan recovery. According to the study participants, loan drive is often carried out in public places (marketplaces) and it involves practices such as placement of placard on defaulter’s chest; seizure of trade items and/or household appliances; and detaining/locking up of defaulters in MFBs’ offices.

The deployment of the strategy of loan drive propels loan defaulters to find any means possible in making repayments. I, therefore, define GBSV as primarily motivated and reproduced by the inescapable strive for economic survival of the initiators (men and women employees of MFBs) and recipients (women) of such violence. I argue that GBSV presents a situation whereby an initiator and a recipient of violence are potential victims of socioeconomic ruptures in the system. I argue that borrowers’ lived experiences provide intersections where gender-based violence and structural violence conjoin and reproduce limitations for women borrowers in enhancing their livelihood sustenance. The process of obtaining microcredit loans and the completion of loan cycles, I contend, mainstream microfinancialization into the everyday lives of women borrowers such that the condition of GBSV become normalized as individual borrowers and loan officers devise ways of dealing with the situation. For example, the WhatsApp message discussed above perhaps attests to one of the strategies devised by loan officers to leverage borrowers social networks for debt recovery. Also, according to a borrower in focus groups discussion, “women loan officers are often accompanied by men loan officer whenever they want to trace a loan defaulter.” When I asked them if they think female loan officers cannot conduct loan drive by themselves, their responses reflect gendered stereotypes such that female loan officers are more vocal and actively throwing abusive utterances at loan defaulters, while their male counterparts act as bodyguards.   

Gender-based structural violence

In understanding microfinancialization in the lives of women entrepreneurs in Ibadan, a significant aspect that cannot be overemphasized is the loan drive. As already mentioned, the loan drive I describe as a collection of strategies deployed by loan officers in pursuit of loan recovery. The loan drive goes hand-in-hand with observed shaming practices (use of abusive utterances, seizure of trade items, forceful closure of defaulters’ shops, harassing defaulters’ friends and family etc.) and impacts borrowers and lenders (particularly MFB loan officers) but with varied consequences depending on the nature of power relations. This observation provides relevance for intersectionality frameworks (Crenshaw 1989; Hunting 2014; Itazabal and Huerta 2016) in identifying how individuals are affected in lending depending on their positionality (both the obvious and obstruse privileges and denials).

Generally, many of the loan officers who participated in the study commented on their disapproval for chronic defaulters. They consider borrowers who are potential chronic defaulters as not only threats to their job and employers, but also to their survival. For instance, Auntie-Lola, a loan officer said to me: “It is part of the business risk… I am not the type who sits in the office 24/7. If someone did not pay up and they call me to the scene, I will try to know when the person will be paying once the person isn’t a chronic defaulter.” These individuals refer to the loan drive as one of the major risks they take as loan officers besides issuing a loan itself. They see issuing of a microcredit loan as compulsion and the kind of risk that accompanies it as inevitable. In their attempts to deal with problem of loan default the officers deploy the strategy of loan drive, which in itself poses a risk.

Out of my curiosity I wanted to know how loan officers determine a chronic defaulter among borrowers. Auntie-Lola talked about how she joined the microfinance bank as loan officer in 2012 having waited for over five years without a job. She completed her Higher National Diploma (HND) in Banking and Finance in 2006 from one of the reputable polytechnics in Nigeria. Like many others, she explained why she needs to protect her job because unemployment/underemployment is one of the major problems in Nigeria. In providing explanations for my curiosity, Auntie-Lola provided a scenario: 

For instance, if a person is supposed to pay ₦5,000 [US$14.29] every week; …week one she didn’t pay, week two she came with ₦3,000 [US$8.57], week three she came with ₦2,000 [($5.71], week four you don’t even see her so in a month…and where you are supposed to have paid ₦20,000 [US$57.14], you haveonly paid ₦5,000 [US$14.29], having ₦15,000 [US$(43] as outstanding. So, that kind of customer is a chronic defaulter.

In addition, another loan officer, Ibiyemi, with over five years of experience, pointed out that some borrowers will run away, and situations sometimes demand different tactics in dealing with customers. In her words: “so we have had different issues with clients, and we use different tactics on them… That is a human being for you. It will take us only time, energy, and stress.”  And Kolade, who works in the risk management department in a branch of MFB, confirmed in his words: “sometimes we go out in a team to recover our outstanding loans. This practice is called “loan drive.” Comments from Auntie-Lola, Ibiyemi, and Kolade provide insights as to why the strategy of loan drive remains sacrosanct to the process of microfinancialization.

Concluding thoughts

Where scholars have looked at problems associated with gender-based violence and microfinance, the focus has been on women borrowers and their intimate partners, and how their relationships factor into initiation, maintenance, and expansion of new ventures (Shahriar and Shepherd 2019; Dalal et. al. 2013).  Arguably, such analyses lean towards an explanation of the kind of economic cum domestic violence resulting from households’ resource mobilization and control (in this case microcredit loans) between spouses (women and men). For instance, in a few cases scholars critique the implementation of microcredit and the possibility of domestic violence among borrowers (Mallick 2002), as well as loan officers’ gender and repayment rates (van den Berg et. al. 2015). However, how do we account for issues of high-handedness and harassment that borrowers of microcredit loans often suffer? More importantly, what about the loans officers who deploy strategies of loan drive to ensure livelihood sustenance and job security? How do we understand the socioeconomic and political forces in conjunction with cultural values that are beyond individuals in this context? Here is where the concept of GBSV remains a useful framework to tease apart these problematics. 

Of course, issues discussed here remain important for applied anthropology particularly as our world becomes more inclined towards neoliberal capitalist ideologies in solving human problems. I argue that reducing solutions of problems of poverty to language of finance—for example, financial inclusion, microfinance etc.—no doubt will lead to issues of GBSV. Based upon the lived experiences of my interlocutors it is imperative to ask what happens when a borrower cannot fulfill the terms of loan repayment? What happens when a loan officer cannot keep their portfolio tidy and debt-free? How effective is moral hazard put in place perhaps to protect MFBs, loan officers, and borrowers? As applied cultural anthropologists we ask, to what extent have these approaches worked? What are the relevant ways of mitigating GBSV? 

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Bukky Olayiwola, a Wadsworth International Fellow, (Wenner-Gren Foundation) has a bachelor’s and masters degrees in anthropology (U of Ibadan) and a PhD in applied anthropology (U of South Florida). As an applied anthropologist his research concentrates on critically analyzing microfinancialization, the informal economic sector, women entrepreneurs, and gender issues with a regional focus on West Africa. His dissertation explores the lived experiences of women entrepreneurs and borrowers - petty commodity producers and traders in Ibadan, Nigeria, and their involvement in government-sponsored and private sector microfinance schemes. Using ethnographic methods, as point of entry Bukky interrogated a popular local concept expressed in the Yoruba language, “owo komulelanta” (“Putting our breasts on a hot kerosene lantern”), that women borrowers use in representing their lived experiences as well as describing their feelings of risk anxiety as a result of resorting to microfinance loans. He teaches Global Perspectives of Financialization and Acquisition of Knowledge in the Judy Genshaft Honors College, USF. Bukky is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Richmond. He has publications in Research in Economic Anthropology and World Development and presently working on a book contract.

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