Financial Inclusion for Women’s Economic Empowerment

Women and Microfinance: Harnessing Financial Inclusion for Women’s Economic Empowerment

by Fatima Iqbal, WAM UK Communications & Membership Manager

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Panellists, steering committee members and advisors for WAM UK

The historic setting of the Houses of Parliament set the scene for the WAM UK and All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) event celebrating International Women’s Day 2013. Over 50 people arrived to hear Annette Brooke MP and three speakers take part in a panel discussion on financial inclusion for women’s economic empowerment.

Ms. Brooke, who was chairing the discussion, introduced the event and stated the importance of women in economic development and the need to promote financial inclusion for women and make it more sustainable. She shared some interesting statistics – women today take part in around 60% of the world’s work and own less than 1% of property. Microfinance has been seen as an important tool in promoting financial inclusion for women and has proven successful – women in microfinance have high rates of repayment on loans, they work well together in communities and usually use any extra income to educate their children.

First panellist, Dr. Susan Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Bath, outlined the importance of services that enable income, asset accumulation, life cycle events and shocks and risks for women’s economic empowerment. Women need access to better financial services that are convenient, flexible and reliable to enhance financial inclusion. The current role of women as carers, homeworkers and community managers prevents this inclusion and women also have many risks to battle including childbirth, HIV/AIDS, food security, risks of divorce and domestic violence.  More is needed to be done to achieve women’s economic empowerment and gender equality and financial products should be tailored for women.  Dr. Johnson provided a detailed background on women’s role in financial inclusion and the next two speakers described how financial inclusion was empowering women in developing countries.

Second panellist, Jaymini Ichharam, Programme Manager of Opportunity International UK, engaged the audience by describing a young woman from Malawi – Grace is a small-scale rural farmer with three children and no collateral. A major hurdle in Malawi and other developing countries is that poor women have no collateral, no legal identity and no safety net. Opportunity International established Opportunity Bank of Malawi (OBM), a commercialised microfinance bank that provides services to poor communities. OBM uses new and creative techniques, such as biometric ATMs and mobile bank vans, to make it easier and safer for women to access financial services. Ms. Ichharam then gave us an update on how Grace is doing now with the help of OBM – she has access to capital, she has a savings account and she can send all of her children to school.

Third panellist, Nicole Stubbs, CEO of First Access, emptied out all the contents in her wallet to show the different credit/debit and travel cards she was carrying. In most developed countries everyone has ID, however, in most developing countries, this isn’t the case – around 2.5 billion people in the world aren’t on the financial information grid and therefore don’t have an identity. A major issue in developing countries is that large parts of the population are un-banked, and therefore do not have a financial profile. This is problematic when people want to apply to loans and access capital. First Access is creating the world’s first system of instant personal profiles to enable access to financial services and other products. Although most people in developing countries don’t have access to a bank account, they do own a mobile phone, and this is the portal that First Access is going to use to create their system. Their goal is to reduce the cost of lending and borrowing and use mobile phone data to evaluate clients for loans. Technology is playing an important role in enhancing financial inclusion for women.

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Panellists from left to right – Nicole Stubbs (First Access), Dr. Susan Johnson (University of Bath), Jaymini Ichharam (Opportunity International), Annette Brooke MP

Finally, the floor was open to an engaging Q&A session led by Stephen Lloyd MP and the audience was curious to learn more – Is financial education training at OBM mandatory? How do women deal with their partners when they start generating income? Has there been any domestic violence with the use of new technology? How did the use of mobile phone data begin in First Access?

We had a great evening with our speakers and it was a good opportunity to celebrate how far women have come in their role in financial inclusion; however, there is still a lot more work to be done in empowering women worldwide.

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