IT’S 2018, but listening to the radio while driving home from the office, the advertisements sound like they are from a century ago. A sales pitch for a new service from a well-known bank concludes with a wife asking her husband to withdraw extra money for her so she can go shopping.
Unfortunately, bank commercials in Pakistan still depict women as frivolous creatures whose financial services needs only go as far as asking their husbands for cash and credit cards for shopping. Aside from demeaning and infantilising women, this betrays the fact that financial services institutions in Pakistan overlook women as a potential customer segment and fail to understand their needs.
Pakistan routinely performs abysmally in global reports and indices related to women’s rights and empowerment. While most of these studies pay attention to critical indicators such as health, education and economic opportunity, a key factor that has recently been brought to the fore is financial inclusion — access to useful and affordable financial products and services for all adult women.
The state of financial inclusion of women in Pakistan is shocking. In 2017, only seven per cent of women had a financial services account, according to the World Bank Global Findex report. Compare this to 36pc in Bangladesh, 77pc in India and 58pc in Saudi Arabia. The only country that performed worse than Pakistan was South Sudan.
Financial empowerment is key to bridging the gender gap.
Financial empowerment of women is key to bridging the gender gap. Having an account in her name, sole access to her funds and the ability to safely store her money can greatly increase a woman’s agency and control over her finances, as well as reduce the risk of family members appropriating her money. Giving women financial autonomy will increase their status as active economic actors and also increase their bargaining power within the household. The status quo, where women are dependent on their male family members’ financial accounts or deal solely in cash, leaves them financially dependent and insecure.
Increasing their access to financial services not only empowers women but also improves other critical development indicators such as food security, health and literacy levels. Studies world over have shown that when women are given control of finances they are more likely than men to spend the money on the needs of their children and the well-being of the household. Social protection programmes such as the BISP have adopted this insight by giving cash transfers to women rather than to men.
For these benefits to be realised, women need access to a broad range of financial services, including savings, credit, insurance and transfers. Going beyond the ability to save and spend money as they choose, female entrepreneurs require credit to establish and grow their businesses. Equitable financial access can enable a vibrant and gender-inclusive SME ecosystem.
So why is Pakistan falling woefully behind in financial inclusion for women? Attitudinal and cultural norms play a significant role as men are considered the financial managers of households and financial services are not seen as relevant or appropriate for female family members. Lack of mobility — a factor that limits women’s access to many basic services — is a related hurdle as women are less likely to visit a bank branch due to societal norms or household responsibilities. Bank branches tend to be dominated by men and are often unwelcoming environments, even for financially savvy women.
Women are also less likely to meet basic requirements for financial account ownership, including CNICs, and they fall behind in financial literacy, lacking knowledge of the full range of financial services available and their relevance to their lives.
While digital finance was seen as a boon for financial inclusion, it has not yet made enough progress towards closing the gender gap. Digital solutions can reinforce existing biases and inequalities as many of the barriers that limit female access to financial services persist in digital finance. Technological advancements across industries have the potential to solve development problems, but it is important to consider that women are slower to adopt technology than men. According to GSMA (an association of mobile operators) surveys, women in Pakistan are 45pc less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 63pc less likely to use mobile internet.
The case of financial inclusion in Pakistan illustrates that men and women have different needs and constraints. Development policies cannot be effective unless they include gender-specific solutions and approaches. As long as half the population is excluded from the conversation, we cannot hope to make significant gains as a nation. Gender-inclusive growth can only be achieved through gender-inclusive policymaking, and a first step towards this should be the immediate appointment of women to the all-male Economic Advisory Committee.
The writer works in digital financial services at Karandaaz.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2018