FinDev Blog

First, Do No Harm

How can we incorporate gender norms into our client protection principles?
Tailor and microentrepreneur in Ghana. Photo by Kristin Weidner, 2017 CGAP Photo Contest.

When becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the well-known obligations of this oath is: First, do no harm. “I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.” In their daily practice, physicians must constantly debate this “do no harm” principle as they evaluate whether the benefits of a particular medicine or treatment outweigh the risks.

The early pioneers of microfinance did not have a similar “do no harm” principle to follow, yet they probably saw the benefits of introducing credit to poor women as outweighing the risks. As the sector has matured, awareness of the risks involved for clients has grown, and client protection principles, such as those developed by the Smart Campaign, have been introduced around issues such as interest rate and product transparency, fair pricing and appropriate product design. A Hippocratic Oath of sorts for the financial inclusion sector.

But where do gender-based risks fit into these principles?

While the financial services sector acknowledges that men and women have different needs that should be taken into account in product design, there is a significant gap in client protection standards which address social norms and issues such as women’s control over assets, household decision-making on use of financial services, sexual harassment (by field agents or financial service provider staff or others) or gender-based violence (GBV).

Recently, Grameen Foundation joined a consortium of organizations to help launch the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) program to advance the status of women and girls worldwide. Led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), along with other key partners such as the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and Search for Common Ground, we’re asking questions about how to address GBV within women’s empowerment initiatives, and how to advance women’s roles in peacebuilding, mediation, and reform processes. 

Some initial questions we’ve asked ourselves are:

  1. Do we fully understand the potential risks women face within women’s economic empowerment (WEE) initiatives, including the unintended consequence of increasing child labor?
  2. Should WEE initiatives (and specifically those managed by financial service providers) play a direct role in addressing GBV, or do they simply need to ensure they fully understand client needs, constraints, and possible risks when designing financial services? In other words, are they successful in mitigating risks as long as they take a client-centric approach to product design and delivery?
  3. Are there existing “do no harm” principles related to GBV within WEE initiatives?

We don’t have answers to these questions yet, but what we do know is that we need “do no harm” principles that cover issues ranging from sexual harassment and GBV to child labor, because they do not yet exist—at least not in a way that are directly relevant to financial service providers (FSPs). Here are some of our initial learnings so far as we explore these questions.

Women’s economic empowerment is not just about women

It’s also about the relationships women have, such as with their spouses, in-laws, and children. When women gain access to financial services and economic empowerment, these relationships can be affected – and not always positively. National statistics show that at least 30 percent of women experience gender-based violence in most of the countries where we work. Financial stress can lead to an increase in GBV, and in a vicious cycle, GBV also causes financial stress, due to increases in injury-related health expenses, missed work days, and economic abuse such as perpetrators not allowing women to work or saddling them with debt.


Addressing a woman’s needs, without accounting for her husband’s, is likely one of the reasons why some of our efforts to support women’s empowerment fall short.


In our savings group work in West Africa, we have also seen that when men don’t have access to financial services, they can impede their wives’ access to services until they feel they can equally benefit.

Addressing a woman’s needs, without accounting for her husband’s, is likely one of the reasons why some of our efforts to support women’s empowerment fall short. All too often, men and women are seen as independent economic actors, and our products and services do not directly account for the relationship they fall back into at the end of the day, around a shared dinner table.

We need to look beneath the surface of our own research on impact results

In two recent studies, one in Burkina Faso and one in India, we’ve seen women indicate they have more access to financial services compared to their husbands. While on the one hand, this may indicate financial empowerment, on the other hand, this raises concerns. Does this make her more vulnerable because she may be carrying the debt-load for her household? Does her husband use her to take loans for his businesses, leaving her with little investment for her own growth? Or is she burdened with the responsibility for income generation?

In a recent study conducted in Burkina Faso, women reported an increase in “fear of one’s spouse,” which initially sparked a concern that our intervention may have increased potential cases of GBV. But we also noted that households were in more financial stress during our endline study than when we first interviewed them, due to a recent drought and delayed harvest. While we feel that this economic downturn was likely the culprit–and not women’s access to agricultural credit, extension support, and savings group support –how we can be completely sure if we don’t ask questions about domestic violence itself?

Acknowledging the problem is key

As they say in many support groups, admitting there is a problem is the critical first step on a path of recovery. We acknowledge that we don’t know whether we cause harm, because we’ve yet to fully accept that it is possible to cause harm to some people through financial inclusion.

I look forward to the day when we’re working from shared do no harm standards that guide and improve our practice. Growing bodies of research caution us to avoid overestimating the impact we can have on women and their families, as well as to avoid underestimating the harm we can cause. The first step we have to take is to acknowledge that both are possible.


As we continue to learn about this topic, we invite you to share your lessons and practices with the Social Norms Working Group of the Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice. What are good practices among FSPs for mitigating risks related to gender-based violence? How many FSPs train their staff on gender norms? How many address these norms among their own staff (such as pay equity, workplace sexual harassment, etc.)? These are questions we need to answer and we would love to hear from you. Please help us to deepen the work of women’s economic empowerment. You can join the discussion here.

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