Access to finance enables women to improve their financial independence and economic empowerment. For instance, evidence shows that direct wage payment into women's accounts increases their financial control, household decision-making power, and savings, while reducing borrowing.
In recent years, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, mobile money account ownership has expanded among women in developing countries. Nonetheless, constraints such as a lack of mobile phones, distance from a bank branch, and poor financial literacy continue to hamper women's participation in formal financial systems.
Despite the short-term gains prompted by the pandemic, women are still at risk of long-term exclusion from formal financial systems.
These issues were discussed in a webinar titled "Expanding Women's Financial Inclusion: Findex Gender Note 2021", hosted by the Brac Institute of Governance and Development in partnership with The World Bank. World Bank Lead Economist and Global Findex founder Leora Klapper presented key findings from the Women and Financial Inclusion report, which examines gender-based trends from the Findex Database 2021.
Among others, Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women's World Banking, and Momina Aijazuddin, Regional Industry Head of the MCT Financial Sector at the International Finance Corporation, presented key barriers to and opportunities for women's financial inclusion.
The World Bank report reveals no gap in access to financial services between men and women in high-income economies and a narrowing gap in developing economies. For the first time in the past decade, the gender gap in access to financial services in developing economies dropped to four percentage points. Iskenderian noted optimistically that, "as a result, we have reached the highest level of women included in the formal financial system ever."
Similarly, the gender gap in account ownership in these contexts fell from nine percentage points (where it stalled for many years) to six percentage points. In 2021, 74% of men had an account, compared to 68% of women, while in 2011, 46% of men had an account, compared to just 37% of women. Government allowances and salary payments issued via mobile money during the Covid-19 pandemic may have catalysed account ownership growth.
Despite recent improvements in women's financial inclusion, many impediments persist.
One major obstacle is access to mobile phones. This gap is especially prominent in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where women are 22 percentage points and nine percentage points, respectively, less likely than men to have a mobile phone. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, unbanked women are seven percentage points more likely than unbanked men to cite the lack of a mobile phone as a significant setback for not having a mobile money account.
Key barriers that prevent women from owning a phone include affordability, literacy, digital skills, safety and security, and lack of an identification card, particularly in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa. Covid-driven digital usage, especially for payments, may have sped up financial inclusion for the short term, but according to Iskenderian, "unequal access to technology opens up longer-term risks of exclusion."
Moreover, women's lack of financial knowledge and confidence may put them at greater risk of financial abuse. For example, unbanked women in developing countries are 10 percentage points more likely than men to need help with their accounts. Klapper noted that "A strong and enforced consumer protection framework [is required along with] ongoing financial education and support for women's financial inclusion."
Another common barrier across geographies is a lack of trust in unfamiliar financial systems.
During the Russia-Ukraine war, Women's World Banking found that despite high rates of account and debit card ownership among Ukrainian women, most carried their money in cash when they relocated to another country. They took this risk due to fear that they would be unable to access their funds digitally overseas. Many of these women suffered as a result. Iskenderian cited that "Their money was stolen, largely by host families. There is also evidence of trafficking, and often they were offered lower exchange rates for Ukrainian currency."
Momina Aijazuddin cited a similar trend in Bangladesh, noting, "[When Digital Financial Services was introduced nationally], Bangladeshi women did not want to go to agents. They did not want to give out their personal numbers. They thought agents would message them or bother them." These examples emphasise the need for financial inclusion programmes to build awareness regarding the privacy and security of systems in order to earn women's trust.
While the spread of mobile money accounts has created new opportunities to better serve women excluded from the formal financial system, this process is not static. It is important to note, as Iskenderian said, that "Globally, one-third of women are more likely to have an inactive account than men." Hence, greater effort is required to keep women in the system because, according to Iskenderian, " women [in developing countries] are more susceptible to social, cultural, and relationship challenges that complicate their economic and financial sector engagement."
Despite these pervasive barriers, speakers identified a way forward: "To encourage the financial inclusion of women, we need to move away from product-centric design and adopt a more customer-centric approach that focuses on the needs of women clients. We must bring together policymakers and service providers to design more gender-inclusive financial products."
In conclusion, despite the shrinking gender gap in access to financial services, barriers to full financial inclusion for women in developing countries persist. There is an urgent need to introduce women-centric products that build privacy and trust and enable women to save, borrow, and meaningfully participate in the digital financial ecosystem. These efforts may improve women's financial access and eventually advance women's economic empowerment.
Raihana Sayeeda Kamal is the Research Communications Manager at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.
This oped was originally published in BRAC Institute of Governance and Development website.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.