Bangladesh has showcased impressive progress in reducing the overall gender gap among the fast-developing nations across the globe.
According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2023, a report by the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh has leapt up 12 ranks, moving from 71st to 59th position in just one year, from 2022 to 2023, in reducing the gender gap among 146 nations. This report focuses on assessing gender gaps between women and men across economic, educational, health, and political outcomes.
Bangladesh is currently ranked 7th globally in terms of the 'Political Empowerment' subindex. This achievement indicates that women in Bangladesh are steadily approaching the pinnacle of political empowerment in the coming years. It is a unique example for any country in contemporary history that female prime ministers have been leading Bangladesh for 27 consecutive years. Iceland and Bangladesh are the only countries where women have held the highest political position in a country for a greater number of years than men.
Women now have more access to education, healthcare, and more. The women's literacy rate is 72.82%, which is close to their male counterparts with a 76.56% literacy rate. The maternal mortality rate has seen a 70% decline from 1990 to 2013 and continues to decline successfully.
Despite all these indicators of progress, there is a gap in gender parity when it comes to economic outcomes. Unfortunately, Bangladesh's 'Economic Participation and Opportunity' subindex performance is one of the lowest globally (139th out of 147 countries).
Financial inclusion of women could be a pathway to ensuring their economic participation. However, connecting the dots between financial inclusion and economic empowerment is crucial. Financial inclusion primarily depends on the availability of financial products and services, such as payments, transactions, savings, credit, and insurance, that are offered to people and businesses sustainably and ethically.
Evidence suggests that women who use financial services have more opportunities to work and exercise agency because they can find jobs, create their own enterprises, and have more bargaining power inside their own households. However, since 2017, Bangladesh has remained one of the top five economies that host the world's most unbanked population, according to Global Findex 2021. It is alarming that less than half (43%) of women in Bangladesh have bank accounts, and despite having accounts, 4.3 million women have not used their accounts in the last 12 months.
Consequently, the gender gap in owning bank accounts still stands at 20%, one of the largest in the world. Achieving women's inclusion in the financial ecosystem seems to be an arduous milestone for Bangladesh.
One may simply wonder if women are not interested in opening bank accounts. A real-life experience from a woman's perspective can shed light on the context.
Anwara (28) lives in Atgaon, a remote area of Sunamganj district in Bangladesh. She has recently started her own small online business and felt the need to keep her savings in a bank account. However, upon her visit to a nearby bank, she found the process of opening a bank account to be very stressful and tedious.
The first time she visited the bank, she saw everyone waiting in a long queue to get services. After standing in the queue for a while, she was given a thick form with many pages that had to be hand-filled, along with a list of required documents that had to be attached to the filled-up form. She took the form home to gather all the documents and found out that the bank also required her to be introduced by someone who already had an account with that bank.
So, she can't just visit her nearest bank to open accounts; rather, she could only open an account in a bank where a family member or friend could endorse her. Alongside her NID, passport photo, and residential evidence, the bank also required legal income documents such as an appointment letter, trade licence, job ID, and so on.
A young student earning through tutoring, a housewife saving up, or, in Anwara's case, a microentrepreneur, does not have such solid income documents. This whole ordeal has made accessing a bank account difficult for Anwara and many other women like her without a full-time job or a well-established business.
Opening a bank account requires multiple visits, long waiting periods to receive services, the submission of numerous documents, and the need for endorsement from an individual with a proven financial history. These factors make it extremely challenging to open an account, especially for rural women.
Overall, Anwara's experiences highlight the prevailing non-cooperative attitude of banks towards women. The lack of female-friendly bank services and products creates difficulties for women in accessing one of the fundamentals of financial inclusion, namely owning a bank account.
So, what steps has the Bangladesh Government taken to promote the financial inclusion of women? The answer to that question lies in the intervention of Aspire to Innovate (a2i), a catalyst for digital transformation in Bangladesh that aims to transform the nation into a Smart Bangladesh.
With this mission in mind, in 2022, a2i formulated the Sathi Network, a women-led agent network that aims to accelerate the financial inclusion of rural and marginalised women by promoting women's entrepreneurship, enhancing women's financial literacy and most importantly, providing access to financial services.
The network, which currently comprises over 300 women agents, focuses on deepening the levels of financial engagement of unbanked and underserved marginalised women. All members of the network have received multiple capacity development training. The Sathi Network has partnered with financial service providers (banks and mobile financial services), acting as agents and offering financial services to marginalised women. So far, over 1,60,000 (one lakh sixty thousand) marginalised women have opened their bank accounts through women agents of the Sathi Network.
Having accounts on these financial service platforms allows women to have day-to-day control over their finances and assets from any location. Additionally, the Sathi Network is actively encouraging rural women to utilise financial services through yard meetings and organising a number of financial and digital literacy campaigns.
These initiatives have already reached over 1,00,000 marginalised women. Marginalised women who received financial literacy knowledge through the Sathi Network have gained more autonomy to make decisions regarding their assets.
Financial transactions have become intuitive and stress-free for women across the diverse spectrum of society as they are now aware of their financial rights and obligations.
a2i understands that women's inclusion in the financial ecosystem will be the foundation for an inclusive, Smart Bangladesh where women have equal opportunities to thrive and contribute to the country's prosperity.
Therefore, women's financial inclusion will be a strategic investment in the long run that will act as a catalyst for economic growth, poverty reduction, entrepreneurship, job creation, and the overall social well-being of women in Bangladesh.
Nahid Sharmin is a Gender Analyst at a2i. Rubaiyat Sharmin is a Young Professional at a2i. Iqbal Hossain Sohel is a Service Implementation Expert at a2i.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.