Expert View: ‘Any Good Financial Inclusion Policy Must Address Gender’

September 14, 2015

A discussion with Bill Maurer and the team at U.C. Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion about the challenges and opportunities of pursuing financial inclusion for women

Women worldwide are disproportionately financially excluded, despite the many economic roles they play in their households and communities. In fact, women are 20 percent less likely to have an account at a formal banking institution than their male counterparts, despite making up more than 40 percent of the world’s workforce.

Inclusion Hub recently sat down with Maurer and his team, Dr. Taylor Nelms (U.C. Irvine), Dr. Mrinalini Tankha (U.C. Irvine), Dr. Ursula Dalinghaus (U.C. Irvine), Dr. Ndunge Kiiti (Houghton College) and Jenny Fan, to discuss some of the obstacles and solutions to expanding women’s access to financial services worldwide.

Inclusion Hub: Starting with microfinance, some of the sector’s largest borrowers are women. Microfinance can bring about social and economic change in women’s lives, and in their communities. With this is mind, how can we best meet the unique needs of women, and turn loans into value, rather than seeing them just as consumption?

Maurer: One very important point is that we need to understand what constitutes value in the first place for women – and for men, too – before we label some spending as “mere” consumption, waste or non-long-term value generating. A good case in point is expenses for social celebrations or ceremonies. These are often seen by development professionals as wasteful uses of money. However, they are often crucial for generating the social capital and extensive social networks that people depend on in times of need. The best development policy lays the groundwork for people to make their own decisions about their well-being, rather than dictating the terms of that well-being in advance based on our own preconceptions of what’s really valuable or what is a real long-term investment in people’s livelihoods. It’s a cliche, but you have to start by asking women what they really want, what they wish they could do or have and how they themselves think about what it would take to make change to enhance their wellness.

That said, once we do understand the value structure of borrowers in any particular context, we can see if there are ways we can help people build accountability mechanisms so that women can achieve their goals. Ndungi Kiiti’s research with women’s groups in Kenya shows how helping sustain women’s social networks – even through things like “wasteful” consumptive spending – can ultimately lead them to other, more sustainable uses of their money, through education and training, as well as social pressure from the group. Kiiti’s research points to the need to understand whether development policy should strive toward supporting existing structures or creating new ones for accountability.

Inclusion Hub: How do micro-products such as AgTech loans and micro-insurance play a role?

Maurer: These things can play a big role in smoothing income during and after shocks or environment-related impacts on production, such as for ag loans, and can help people cope with unexpected losses or hits to their savings or income, such as health emergencies. AgTech loans can also help women start, expand or change business. But again, this goes back to my first response: We need to understand what women and men really want before leading them down a path that would channel them into certain kinds of enterprise simply because there is a product available to help them get into that enterprise, rather than because it actually is in accord with their value structure or goals.

Inclusion Hub: Looking at financial exclusion more broadly, two complex obstacles to extending financial services to women worldwide are gender norms and legal barriers. How can stakeholders integrate customs and values to overcome these challenges?

Maurer: Regulations, laws and gender norms do not have to be seen as barriers – but they do mean that there need to be wide-ranging conversations with as many stakeholders as possible to address what laws need to be changed or norms need to be overcome, or which ones can actually be leveraged to provide women with what they want. This means, again, engaging women as well as men, and younger people – who will eventually be in leadership positions – as well as older people.

Inclusion Hub: Who should take the lead in mainstreaming gender priorities?

Maurer: Everyone. You can’t have a “good” or “positive” financial inclusion strategy that does not take gender into account. Once you start defining who should take the lead, you limit the conversation. Gender issues can’t just be put into one “box” or one division within an organization; gender priorities have to infuse the whole operation.

Inclusion Hub: What metrics should we use to measure women’s overall economic and social empowerment?

IMTFI: The financial inclusion community has tended to measure empowerment using proxy variables derived from statistical measures. These are necessary but not sufficient. We need to shift the paradigm to include a more nuanced understanding of social relationships and cultural systems, while including the perspectives and voices of women (and men) who are impacted by financial inclusion programs. The people impacted must be at the table, too, in other words. Several IMTFI projects, for instance, discovered the crucial role of elderly women and grandmothers benefiting from financial inclusion measures, and of men, over time, gradually understanding that they themselves benefit, too. But getting to that discovery entailed collecting women’s life histories and careful ethnographic work, for a period of time, to understand the changing relationships that were leading to empowerment. See, for example, the Tigo Money service in Bolivia. The metrics of measurement must include the monetary ecologies that people operate within, as well as the repertoires they have at their disposal to use money and other forms of wealth. Policymakers also should start to develop metrics for measuring empowerment not just at the individual level but at the group or social network level, as well. This is especially important because so many microfinance programs (for example) may end up being used by women to share liability among themselves, which makes assessing an individual’s borrowing challenging.

Inclusion Hub: How has the spread of mobile money and mobile payments changed the way we think about women’s financial inclusion?

Maurer: A big effect of mobile money has been to highlight women’s social networks and their ability to manage wealth separately from men. Women may have more access, but then men may feel more threatened. Women have more choices, more avenues for connection with others as well as for independence. Mobile money also has helped women to activate their relationships and kin ties in ways that can benefit the whole group. All of this points toward the need, again, for broad-based conversations with practitioners as well as those whose lives are being impacted by technological change, to ensure that women’s actual goals are not being overlooked or sidelined.

In the photo: Senegalese women dressed in traditional style wait for French President Francois Hollande and Senegalese President Macky Sall during their visit to historic Goree Island. (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

Published in partnership with News Deeply

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