What can be done to make financial inclusion initiatives better suit the needs of women? Today, we’ll seek the answers along with the global change-makers
There are around 1.7 billion unbanked people in the world, 55% of them are women. The average gap between male and female account owners is 7% globally. However, for some regions, the difference is more significant. Women who live in poor and marginalised communities face most difficulties in obtaining access to any formal financial services.
This year, the world awaits the Global Findex 2020 results which will show how the efforts to raise financial inclusion levels have progressed throughout the last three years. However, the average gender gap in financial inclusion levels has not changed much since 2011 despite the significant growth of new bank accounts created.
Different communities have limited female economic and financial opportunities depriving women of essential rights and privileges needed to open a bank account or get a loan. The most common obstacles to female use of banking services are:
- Legal restrictions. The Women, Business and the Law report (2018) found that 167 countries have at least one law that restricts women’s access to jobs, property, justice, and credit. Besides, women in 104 countries are legally prevented from working in the same way as men and owning a business. In most countries, women in rural areas who work for wages are more likely than men to hold seasonal, part-time, and low-wage jobs. In 18 countries women still need their husband’s permission to even get a job. In some countries like Pakistan, bank accounts might be opened in the name of a woman, but the decision-making on how to use those funds often lies with a male relative. Equatorial Guinea requires a woman to have her husband’s permission to sign any contract.
- ID and documentation. According to a recently released G20 paper, Advancing Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion, one in five unbanked women globally cite lack of a formal ID as a reason they do not have a formal bank account. In 2018, an estimated one billion people around the globe lacked formal identification documents. 81% of those people lived in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with a large gender gap in low-income countries – where over 45% of women lack a foundational ID, compared to 30% of men. In countries like India, women often rely on husbands or male relatives to obtain the ID and other legal documents. In many other countries, women are legally dependent on a man to obtain their identity credentials (e.g. Afghanistan, Benin, Cameroon, Oman, Pakistan). Without an ID and supporting documents, women can’t access basic services like access to finance or mobile phone service, not to mention important economic opportunities, such as formal employment or owning a registered business.
- Collateral.80% of women-owned businesses with credit needs are either unserved or underserved. Mostly, it happens because female business owners don’t own any land or houses that the banks require as collateral. All the family’s property is traditionally registered in the name of male members. Less than 20% of the world’s landholders were women a decade ago.
- Lack of access. In poorer countries, the majority of the unbanked population live in remote rural areas that have no bank branches. Men are more likely than women to embark on a journey to the neighboring town to apply for a bank account. Some women are not even allowed to travel unaccompanied. For such regions, mobile banking services are a viable solution. However, women who have no IDs can’t even get the mobile phone contract needed.
- Illiteracy. Due to the lack of equal education opportunities, the literacy rate is lower in the female population. In 2012, women made up more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population. Rural girls are twice as likely as urban girls to be out of school. Besides, the lack of a birth certificate for girls leads to more problems enrolling in school. Only 83% of women across the globe are literate now compared to almost 90% of males. The statistics for young people (aged 15-24) is a bit better, but the advantage is still on the male side (90.5% vs 92.8% respectively). Illiterate females can’t get access to banking services, as they’re unable to fill out the application forms or read legal terms. Some women can’t even sign their name which is needed to get the simplest bank card. Lack of financial education can also limit women from gaining access to and benefitting from financial services, even if they can read and write.
- Social norms. Women are often not expected or encouraged to have financial independence in their local communities. Sometimes they have mobility constraints put by their husbands that prevent them from leaving the home to open a bank account in a bricks-and-mortar financial institution, especially if it’s situated far from home. Bodily privacy is also particularly important in terms of enrollment for women from particular cultures. They may prefer or be required to be registered by a woman, rather than a man, especially if the bank needs to take a photo or fingerprints for getting a particular product.
- Lack of understanding. In most cases, bank service providers can’t reach out directly to underserved women as they are represented by male intermediaries. Thus, they fail to cater to their true needs or understand critical issues. Although programs targeted at bringing women into the financial system keep expanding, “financial products are not designed with the needs and constraints of low-income women in mind, because little is known by financial institutions about these customers,” says Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking. Financially excluded women are informationally disadvantaged with smaller and less diverse networks too. Hence, they also lack an understanding of particular banking offers. Many accounts opened in female names are never used or used by males instead.
What can be done
The path to equal financial inclusion is long. There are a few crucial milestones that need to be reached in order to make that work.
- Increase access to mobile services. Women are 20% less likely to use mobile internet than men and 8% less likely to own a mobile phone at all. That prevents them from using fintech solutions that simplify account opening procedures.
- Educate. Both general access to education and specific financial literacy levels need to be improved against women so that they can not only formally open an account but also use it for their own benefit. Banks that deal with small-business female owners in low-income countries may provide additional leadership advice next to financial consultations.
- Improve legal practices. Unless full economic equality is legally supported, females will face obstacles in gaining access to basic financial services. Thus, banks and financial institutions need to cooperate with national authorities, activist groups, and global decision-makers to make a change in female legal statuses.
- Encourage identification. Governments of those countries where the lack of IDs particularly hinders access to banking must take all the necessary measures to provide formal identification to all citizens. Fintechs can help with digitising IDs and biometrics enhancement to enable both privacy and security of funds owned as well as simplifying registration procedures.
- Target specific female groups. Household surveys and feedback received directly from the target unbanked population will help to customise banking products to their peculiar needs.