Can Existing Digital Financial Services in India Bridge the Gender Gap?

The gender gap has been the root of multiple socio-economic and political problems. The Global Gender Gap Report, by the World Economic Forum, delivers the numerical situation of gender equivalency under the following four themes:

  • economic participation and opportunity,
  • educational attainment,
  • health and survival, and
  • political empowerment. 

Since 2006, there has been a stable progress in the index until the recent report of 2017 which shows that the gap has widened. At this rate of change, the WEF estimates it will take 217 years for women’s access to economic opportunity to be on a par with that of men.  Among those 144 countries, India stands at 139th position under the umbrella of economic participation and opportunity and holistically holds 66 percent of the gender gap. Closing the gender economic gaps can accelerate the economy and bridge several societal blocks. The world economic forum believes that if Japan could close 45 percent of its economic gap, it could add an additional USD 550 billion to the GDP of the state. The inclusion of women in the financial sector can boost and have a transformative impact on households and overall economic resilience. Financial inclusion is one of the key accelerators achieving equality in economic participation and opportunity.

Indian Women and Access to Formal Financial Services

Recent research by WWB World Women Banking shows that 62 percent of Indian women are un-or un-banked. Well-intended financial inclusive policies leave us with perplexing promises. In India, people holding accounts at financial institutions has more than doubled since 2011 and by 2017, covering 80 percent of the population. This is the outcome of Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) launched in 2014 to increase account ownership amongst unbanked adults through biometric identification cards. The program requires a single bank account from each household which is more likely to be the male member of the family due to gender norms in the cultural fabric. Financial services being delivered through digital means can play a prominent role in the dimensions of development especially for women.

FinTech: Benefits and Barrier from a Gendered Lens

FinTech helps the government fast-track financial services to its citizens and intends to efficiently elate economic relations. Another study shows that the ownership of smartphones has increased from 5.5 phones per 100 people in 2013 to 26.2 phones per hundred in 2018, with India adding more than 280 million smartphone users over that period. However, these numbers do not provide us with gender-disaggregated data and the impact of the initiative is hard to be conclusive in the context of women’s inclusion in the digital financial arena. 

Recently the Indian government has launched several policies shedding light on financial inclusion like basic bank account services through PMJDY, biometric identification, payment banks, and the ”less cash” economy which ignites tools like instant payment systems, pre-paid instruments, such as Unified Payments Interface (UPI), and mobile wallets such as PayTM, GPay, and others are becoming more popular. Over 100 million UPI Quick Responses (QRs) have been developed in the last five years, with BHIM UPI processing 22 billion transactions totaling INR 41,000 billion in 2020-21. This has aided in the adoption of mobile banking services in one of the most cash-dependent countries on the planet. These policies were tailored to bridge the gender digital financial divide through mobile networks.

The services tag along with multiple benefits and development drivers like answers to concerns of mobility, time management, convenience, and good access to quick digital services. These initiatives are definitely a game changer, but what we need to look at is the lack of gender identification in delivering these services, which in return puts the purpose and the effectiveness at question. There is a high need to view the financial service delivery strategy through a gendered lens to understand the complex climate of social and gender norms that tailors the behavioural pattern of Indian rural women towards formal financial space. Low-income women in India pool and borrow money regularly through informal means and modes. Women’s world banking research shows that 10 times more women than men in India belong to informal savings groups (not linked to a bank), demonstrating the great value that women place on setting money aside. Digital financial services are a proven way to improve women’s empowerment and strengthen economic resilience among the community. Most women from the low and middle-income category do not use mobile phones either because of affordability issues or strict gender laws curtailing their access. 

Women who do have access to mobile phones do not always use them to make digital financial transactions. Reasons include lack of trust in agents and operators; poor network quality and coverage; and low technical and financial literacy or confidence.  Digital financial services fail to carter unique needs that the gender requires. The women customers view the digital space as less secure, also prone to more junk calls and this reduces the trust in the financial services. Most digital services are not inclusive of regional languages which makes them dependent on an agent to translate and again leaves them in the loop of saving money through informal sectors. 

Delivery Dimensions and Cultural Behaviour

A women-centred design approach to understanding the needs of unbanked women in India can tap into developing, evaluating, and enhancing solutions to enable low-income women better engage with financial services and products using behavioural and women-centred strategies. Instead of approaching women via the limited lens of microcredit or group loans, businesses must engage them as individual clients with diverse financial requirements. Traditionally, women were managing finances within the household with dedicated discipline in budgeting and allocation of finances, but the ultimate power of ownership was held with their male counterparts. Today, educating Indian women on handling finances will not be a new concept to them, but rightly channeling their resources to promote independence and self-reliance is the key area that should be altered in the area of awareness. To identify how women interact with money, we will need to relook at the cultural architecture and build women-centric products and services. Most women feel hesitant to use digital financial applications due to a lack of fintech confidence and believe in the idea that the male members of the family are consistent users of digital transactions and they’d acquire a piece of better knowledge in terms of digital financial services. And some also find it intimidating to visit ATMs or banks without male relatives (sons, husbands, or uncles), or speaking with a male agent makes them feel culturally inappropriate.

The data narrates a relative tale, a case study from Women’s world banking enumerates a gender-centric approach in Pakistan An another close to home example is in Pakistan, where WWB partnered with mobile network operator Jazz with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With their mobile wallet known as Jazz Cash, Jazz saw that only 15 percent of their customers were women; but once women had opened an account, they were avid, profitable users of the product. The firm quickly realized that its customer acquisition techniques ran counter to social and cultural norms. In Pakistan, for example, the most prevalent method of creating an account is through agents, and 95 percent of these agents are men, according to the consumer data. Furthermore, in order to register an account, the consumer must give the agent her telephone number, a procedure that many Pakistani women and their families found highly offensive. WWB is now working with Jazz to identify alternative, culturally appropriate ways to get new women clients on board, including building referral networks among women and training women agents. 

 Another requirement is that mobile-based financial inclusion initiatives be tailored with a gender lens. Women are now underserved by financial institutions, which regard them as high-cost consumers with the low transaction and deposit values Financial service providers can create new ways of capturing credit history and design products that suit women’s needs. This could be pursued as a way to offer products and services that are accessible and cheap to women in order to help India’s financial sector grow. All of these efforts can be benefited from the technical and financial support of international donors.

Conclusion

The gender gap will only allow the society’s social fabric to stumble and the economy to stagnate. Digital financial services are a significant way to bridge the gap until it’s looked from a gendered standpoint, Indian women are not new to finances or managing money, there is a lot to learn from traditional methods of saving and household financing, but why are most women from the lower- or middle-income community still feel the lack of confidence in handling finances? The hesitance can make major alters in accessing formal financial services, The Indian state is tailored with several stitches of cultural fabric and gender norms that acts as a driving force in the domain of decision making. To burst the bubble financial products should be devised using a women-centric approach with more reliable data relating to the subject. Indian women and their relationship with finances is not a new concept that has to be coined but an existing domain that needs to be discovered. 

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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