women’s empowerment

Financial Education for Girls – successes and learnings from Credit Suisse, Aflatoun International and Plan International

by Kim Croucher, WAM UK Steering Committee – with contribution from Eva Halper (Credit Suisse), Aukje te Kaat (Aflatoun International) and Clare Daly (Plan International)

On 13th September, WAM were hosted by Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative to hear about their programme providing financial education to girls as a means to their future economic empowerment. Credit Suisse is supporting Aflatoun International and Plan International who, working in partnership, have designed and are implementing financial education and life skills programmes in Brazil, China, India and Rwanda. The evening was a really interesting insight into their findings in developing financial education for girls and their varying experiences in different country contexts.

201607-IND-45-scrPhoto: Plan International UK

Why Girl’s Financial Education?

Eva Halper, Head of Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative, explained that the bank carried out research which revealed that although many financial institutions were focusing on financial literacy, and many NGO programmes were addressing the gender issue in education, no-one appeared to be focusing on financial education specifically for girls. This therefore was the impetus behind the decision to address financial education for girls. The programme subsequently launched in 2014 and aims to improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls and encourage them to transition through secondary school. A research project (thought leadership) based on the programme, is a parallel component of the partnership and was the focus of this event.

Many young people aged 14–25 in developing countries are already economically active but without a basic education in the key tenets of finance. This is a barrier to them being able to fully reap the benefits of their own economic activity, and puts them at risk of making decisions that could lead to a lifetime of debt and continued poverty into adulthood. Girls in developing countries often face steep obstacles to access education, not least financial education. Empowering girls means enabling them to manage their own savings and spending and allowing them to take a more informed view of their future options and endeavours – which can transform lives.

 The Most Successful Programmes Deliver Financial Education Alongside other Social Skills Training

Before embarking on programme design, the team produced a policy brief – a systematic review of girls’ economic empowerment programs to determine which interventions are most effective.

Aukje te Kaat from Aflatoun International spoke about the work that went into this and that the team had found limited literature available on the impact of financial education in children in general and in particular research that contained a gender lens. In the end, the team looked at 12 studies where the objectives had been economic empowerment of adolescent girls and crucially included a financial education component.

One of the key findings was that to be truly effective, financial education should not be implemented by itself but rather it should be combined with other interventions, whether this be microfinance, access to savings, vocational education, social education/life skills or sexual and reproductive health education. Evaluations of financial education programmes implemented together with social components – e.g. rights education, life skills education, confidence building – were the most successful.

This finding was in-keeping with Aflatoun’s own approach which is to always incorporate social skills building alongside more tangible skills training in order to transform behaviour (something hard skills alone cannot necessarily achieve). Aukje talked about helping the girls gain self-awareness of their own goals and where they stand in their community, which enables them to plan for the future and make better decisions.

Programme Design Needs to Acknowledge the Importance of the Girls’ Wider Communities and Influences

The team was able to create a global Theory of Change for economic empowerment interventions for adolescent girls, which suggests that holistic thinking in programme design, as well as creating or maintaining enabling environments, is key to ensuring successful outcomes. For example, social norms around the role of girls within a household or community can impact the community’s view about girls’ financial education. The education level of parents has been found to be hugely important: it helps with community buy-in, but if a parent cannot grasp the importance of what their daughter has learnt, they will not support her and she will struggle to implement her new skills and plans.

Another barrier can be related to how easy it is to set up a small enterprise (which is what the young people in this programme are encouraged to do). If there are no financial institutions or financial products it will be difficult for girls to implement their skills in practice.

Findings from Country Programmes –

BRAZIL – Tackling topics such as gender-based violence

  • 25 junior secondary schools (ages 11-14)
  • Pernambuco, Maranhão and Piauí states in northeast Brazil
  • 3-year target: 3,250 girls; 6,500 children

In Brazil, the programme team noticed that it was important that the girl’s father understood the aims of the programme and was fully on-board with these, in order for it to be a successful experience for the girl – perhaps a sign of the gender dynamics in society there.

In all four country programmes financial education is delivered by teachers in schools, but there are also after-school clubs. In Brazil, the training has shifted from being purely teacher-led to a peer-led model. Girls’ clubs have been set up where girls learn about life skills and topics such as gender-based violence. Girls’ clubs have been a great success and the girls really appreciate this as a safe space.

Interestingly, boys in schools in Brazil reported feeling left-out. This prompted a discussion with the audience about the need to bring boys into the programme, but also crucially into conversations on gender parity, particularly gender-based violence. The team agreed and recognised that boys would benefit from financial education but the remit of the programme was to look at the impact on girls’ financial education and so at this stage there are no plans to widen the scope.

CHINA – Creating positive future aspirations and confidence-building

  • 26 middle schools and one vocational school (ages 12-17)
  • 18 townships in Guangnan County, China
  • 75% left-behind and 61% ethnic minority children
  • 3-year target: 11,541 girls; 26,800 children

In China, the programme is implemented in rural areas where there are a high number of ‘left-behind’ children of migrant workers who are often looked after by grandparents or in boarding school. The programme has the full support of the regional education authorities and is delivered in schools via weekly financial education classes.

Apart from financial education skills, the programme provides elements of career guidance and counseling. The aim is to foster more optimistic ideas amongst the girls about their future opportunities – where many may see their paths destined to be the same as their parents. However, prospects for migrant workers are bleak and quality of life poor. The programme attempts to encourage the girls to look at alternative ways to engage in economic activity – potentially localized entrepreneurial activity – which would help to prevent these rural areas from becoming deserted. Financial and life skills also help safe-guard the girls’ rights since as migrant workers they typically find they have limited protection or safety nets when they move to cities to work.

The programme team found that confidence building was key to help girls become more aware of their opportunities, choices and dreams. Given the culture in China of high expectations for academic performance, there is less emphasis on life skills and emotional wellbeing. The programme team reported some encouraging examples where girls enjoyed an increased sense of confidence and well-being as part of the programme’s work.

INDIA – Community perceptions are key but the programme is creating role models

  • Ages 7-18 in Government schools and educational camps
  • Bikaner district, Rajasthan
  • 3-year target: 82,300 girls; 154,570 children

In India, the programme has been integrated into the national teacher training system and the national curriculum. It therefore benefits from a significant level of government support

The main finding in India was that community perceptions can be a huge barrier to the girls using the skills they acquire in a real-life context. Even if a girl’s parents approve of her taking part in the programme, this did not mean they were then comfortable with her using the skills to engage in economic activity outside the home or direct community. This is due to how a women’s role in society is viewed: a girl engaging in home-based entrepreneurial activity (e.g. sewing or knitting from home) is acceptable, but to travel to another village or region to work in a commercial organisation, is not. However, role models – prior beneficiaries of the programme – have been effective as advocates in trying to reverse these perceptions.

RWANDA – Encouraging developments in integrated girls & boys after-school clubs

  • Students aged 12 -15 years
  • Bugesera and Nyaruguru districts
  • 3-year target: 3,200 girls; 4,200 children

In Rwanda, the programme leveraged one of Plan International Rwanda’s existing programmatic expertise: Boys4Change clubs that explore themes of masculinity and leadership and the role of girls and boys in society. The formal teaching component – financial education for girls – is delivered in schools, but the after-school clubs have become integrated whereby both boys and girls take part. They also engage in income-generating activities (such as keeping and rearing of animals like goats and chickens).

The programme team in Rwanda has seen really great developments whereby boys have become much more understanding of the pressures on girls to carry-out domestic/house work which often results in the girls having limited time to study or become entrepreneurial. In some cases, boys have offered to share the burden of tasks normally done by girls to give their female peers more time to achieve their goals. This raised the question of why a similar model of integrated clubs and/or boys’ education in gender equality and male leadership in this context is not more widely pursued in the other country programmes. The programme leaders are considering this for future phases.

In Rwanda, efforts are made to engage with parents to ensure they are aware of the topics the students are being exposed to. The students launch campaigns to which parents are always invited and there is a lot of dialogue with them. The result is that parents and teachers have started their own savings clubs in many cases.

P1030291Photo: Plan International UK

Delivery Through Schools Helps to Ensure the Programmes’ Long-Term Sustainability

There was a good deal of discussion with the audience during the evening – one important question was around sustainability. Credit Suisse cannot support the continuation of the programme indefinitely nor its replication to other regions/countries. Eva made the point that this is why the decision was made to deliver the content in a school setting. Schools provide a structure for delivery where attendance and participation is ensured (at least more so than in community projects). By training teachers in the system, this helps sustainability even after programme partners have left (although there is a question over continued and refresher teacher training, which can be a challenge to deliver). A question was raised as to why there was no focus on girls outside of the formal school system. The same answer applied as well as programme delivery capacity.

M&E Statistics Show Encouraging Impact from Programmes So Far

Monitoring and evaluation are also more easily achieved within the formal school system, which helps to collect and deliver data. Both Aflatoun International and Plan International conduct M&E – although their focus has been the monitoring of girls only as that is the current target group. Some key and encouraging statistics include an 18.2% increase in girls’ financial education and life skills (FELS) knowledge globally, with India showing the largest increase at 43.1%. In addition, there has been a 31.5% increase in fathers who ‘strongly agree’ it is important for girls to learn about money and financial skills globally.

However, it was also recognized that the impact of work such as financial and life skills training (aimed at future economic empowerment) can only be expected to come to full fruition much later in the girl’s life and by that time many other variables will have also influenced outcomes – so measurement of outcomes and evaluation is not easy in this area.

201607-IND-42-scrPhoto: Plan International UK

Future Plans

The next phase will see the addition of a new partner to the programme, Room to Read in Tanzania and Sri Lanka. Any further research will need to incorporate experiences from these contexts also. And this will be examined together with the many questions that the current research has thrown up. For example, how these programmes influence girls and boys differently. In specific country contexts different questions are being asked. For example in India, programme leaders want to look at which social norms act as the largest barrier to a girls’ acquisition of life and financial skills; whereas in Rwanda, the question arising is how the work on gender norms with girls and boys impacts on girls economic empowerment.

We understand that the project will be announcing results of its second phase of research in the next few years – we wait with interest to learn more about this when it is published and we may invite Credit Suisse, Aflatoun International and Plan International to return and tell us more of their fascinating findings then.

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Working with women refugees in Northern Iraq

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Mandana Hendessi, Iraq Country Director for Women for Women International, will be speaking at a dinner hosted by WAM UK on Tuesday 2nd May 2017 in London.

She will be talking about the work that Women for Women International (WfWi) and its partners are doing in and around refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq where they are providing life and business skills training to women refugees, as well as psycho-social support and crucially, a safe space for women to gather, share experiences and support each other. Tickets to the event are available here.

Warvin Foundation - Dohuk

Ahead of the event, we asked Mandana to tell us a little of the work that is going on and why it has been important for Women for Women International to engage in this issue.

What impact is the project having on women refugees in areas like Northern Iraq?

We have reached out to 600 Syrian refugee women living both inside and outside camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since November 2014. We have provided psycho-social support, livelihood training, women’s rights and gender-based violence awareness and prevention and access to justice. We have also provided training in business and leadership skills for the women. As a result of our training and support, we have seen the women improve their self-confidence, which enables them to be more involved in decision-making in the household as well as in the community. It empowers them to build and develop support networks in the community, connect to essential services, as well as become more confident in reporting harassment, abuse and violence to authorities. Importantly they are improving their income generation.

Why has WfWi chosen to work in this specific area?

When the war in Syria intensified in 2012, we were concerned about Syrian women and tried to find ways of supporting them but found it impossible to work in Syria itself as the security there deteriorated very rapidly. So we decided to support Syrian refugee women in neighbouring countries. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was chosen because of the large influx of Syrian refugees there and the relative security it provided to work with the women through local partners.

What is it like for women living in the camps and surrounding areas?

Whilst living in a camp can provide some security and protection for women, it takes away their individuality, reducing them to a number. However, women who live outside camps are often more vulnerable to harassment and abuse by local men. They are often caring for their families on their own. Furthermore, they are more likely to be poorer, having to make ends meet on very low income.

The biggest threat to Syrian women in Kurdistan Region of Iraq is gender-based violence, which impedes their chances of finding gainful employment. Many of our beneficiaries have recounted experiences to us of when they have searched for jobs and were told by prospective employers that they would get a job if they had sex with them. Other women say they do not set foot outside the home because they fear abuse and harassment by local men ranging from taxi drivers to doctors.

What would happen to some of these women and their families if they didn’t receive support?

I can think of a few obvious possibilities: chronic physical and mental ill-health, heightened risk of violence, poor hygiene and nutrition, losing hope and inspiration – to sum up, the slow and painful death of a generation.

What are the prospects for people living in the camps?

Living in a camp should just be an emergency measure. It’s cruel and inhumane to expect people to live in a camp for years with no prospect of integration into the wider host country. We cannot subject people to such a restricted and soul-less existence for so long! The host countries have to find creative measures of integrating refugee and displaced families into the community. This is essential – refugee and displaced women have so much to offer not just to their own communities, but also to the host community, enriching the local culture.

Of course one would hope that the conflict in Syria and Iraq ends soon, that infrastructure is reconstructed, peace and reconciliation achieved so that Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqi women and their families are able to return home – but some may bond with their places of exile and with people who have embraced them; they settle into new jobs and new ways of living. They need to be allowed to exercise choices about where they want to settle – where they feel secure and comfortable.

 Is the situation getting worse in these areas/camps?

The current situation is desperate – I can’t think of a situation that could be worse than this! For the long-term, we need to work for peace and justice for all in the region; meanwhile, we need to run programmes for refugees and displaced women that aim to nurture their resilience and talents, helping them to rebuild their lives wherever they are and live more fulfilled lives with their families.

 

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Mandana Hendessi is an international development professional with over 25 years’ experience in management, consulting, designing and developing programmes for civil society organisations, governments, International NGOs, and the UN, covering a diversity of socio-economic and human rights issues.

Nearly all of her international experience has been in conflict-affected contexts. For example, in Iraq, Mandana supported the nascent women’s movement to secure a 25% quota for women’s representation in the parliament (2004). In the West Bank, she provided technical assistance to Palestinian women’s enterprises on a range of issues from market research to business planning (2007). In Afghanistan, as the Head of Mission for Medica Mondiale, an international NGO, she led on the development of psycho-social counseling and legal aid for Afghan women who have experienced gender-based violence, promoting access to justice for women who came into conflict with the law.

Prior to joining WfWI in February 2015, Mandana most recently directed the Afghanistan Program at Global Rights, where she engaged young Afghans to support and promote democratic values, the rule of law, and the rights of women.

Since 1993, Women for Women International has helped more than 447,000 marginalised women in countries affected by war and conflict. They serve women in 8 countries including Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Iraq, offering support, tools, and access to life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.

Women for Women International brings women together in a safe space to learn life, business, and vocational skills.  Once enrolled, each woman receives a monthly stipend – a vital support that enables her to participate. Women increase their ability to earn an income with new skills that are in demand. They learn about their legal rights, and they become knowledgeable about health and nutrition. The result: stronger women, stronger families, and stronger communities. The ripple effect is profound.

Key learnings about women & enterprise from the Trust Women Conference 2016

By Miranda Barham, WAM Steering Committee
cherie-blair-panel-at-tw

Cherie Blair moderates Women Entrepreneurs panel at Trust Women Conference, December 2016

  1. “The established way is not necessarily the best. If you want a different outcome, you need to do things differently. You need to be defiant.”

These were wise words from Professor Muhammad Yunus who talked to us about his experience in setting up Grameen Bank. He wanted to set up a bank for the poor, that lent to women. His contemporaries thought it could not be done. Prof Yunus looked at what the banks did that lent to the rich and he decided to do the opposite. Instead of pursuing contemporary banking models, he removed the need for collateral and created a banking system based on mutual trust, accountability, participation and creativity. More than thirty years later, Grameen Bank’s success has defied all those who told him he would not succeed. Not only has he created a successful bank in his home country of Bangladesh, but he has set up projects in 58 countries, including the US when in 2008, he created Grameen America. It now has 19 branches with over 85,000 borrowers. All the borrowers are women and the repayment rate is 99.5%. As Prof Yunus says to all those naysayers, “Trust women.”

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Professor Muhammad Yunus makes the keynote speech on Day 2 of the Trust Women Conference

  1. Cherie Blair, human rights lawyer and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women told us that, “155 countries have a law that impedes women’s economic development.”

Mrs Blair quoted a World Bank report released in 2015 which analysed the legal restrictions to women’s employment in 173 countries. It found that 155 of these countries have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities and in 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

The report goes on to say that lower legal gender equality is associated with fewer girls attending secondary school relative to boys, fewer women working or running businesses, and a wider gender wage gap.

  1. Women lead only 5% of global companies but in the UK, women lead 40% of social enterprises.

While women lead very few companies on a global basis, they are much more highly represented in the UK when it comes to leading social enterprises.

Servane Mouazan, Founder of Ogunte, a firm that offers coaching and services to women in social enterprises and their business support providers, felt that this is because traditionally women’s enterprise has been promoted in areas where women have been serving for some time, as members of the voluntary sector, as unpaid carers, or in roles where women have been ‘relegated’ for centuries – such as the domestic sphere and education. As women started to volunteer and professionalise, they have done so in areas where social enterprise businesses emerged, and hence are more likely to lead them than mainstream commercial businesses.

  1. Only 5% of venture funding goes to women.

Clearly this is a major hurdle for women entrepreneurs seeking funding for new ventures and is at odds with global intelligence network Thomson Reuters’ assertion that ‘companies run by women perform better’. If they perform better, it should be an obvious investment choice, which leads to the next point.

  1. There is a pervasive unconscious bias when it comes to women

The conclusion was that much greater awareness and education is needed to counteract what appears to be a pervasive unconscious bias towards women whether it is in gender stereotyping of the toys girls play with, attitudes at educational institutions or in the workplace.

Siobhan Reddy, co-founder and studio director of Media Molecule, told us that by age 12, women were already discouraged from pursuing a career in technology. Siobhan has made it a priority to seek and hire women in her high-tech business, which in the predominantly male sector of gaming, boasts 30 percent female staff and 26 different cultures. In pursuit of greater female empowerment, she has acted to address the unconscious bias in a whole range of ways from ensuring the inclusion of non-stereotyped female characters in games to discouraging her female colleagues from answering the phone, the door and making tea. No more ‘Polly put the kettle on’ here!

SOCIAL ENTERPRISE AND MICROFINANCE – A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP

by Miranda Barham, WAM UK Steering Committee

jesca-makumbi

WAM UK hosted a very interesting evening with special guest, President & CEO of FINCA, Rupert Scofield.  Rupert shared with us the journey he has been on since starting FINCA in 1984 to today’s challenges of finding social enterprises, running profitable microfinance institutions and running fundraising campaigns.

FINCA started on a quest to identify investible social enterprises to fund and partner and in doing so, discovered that they were already funding a number of these.   Examples of this include over 200 “charter schools” in Uganda, and a community health clinic in Lumbumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rupert explained, “I stumbled upon a charter school on the outskirts of Masaka, Uganda when I went to see some clients who had purchased solar lanterns from Brite Life.   “Do you want to see our school?”  one of the clients asked me.   “You have a school?”   It seemed unlikely; this was a remote community many miles from the nearest paved road.   They took me to meet a former teacher who had left the public school system and, with a series of Finca loans, built seven classrooms and hired other teachers to teach grades K through 6.”

By having the school right in the community, the students avoided the perilous 5 kilometer walk to the nearest public school where they could be preyed upon by pedophiles.   Finca was also financing the other side of the transaction, making loans for school fees to the parents of the children.

In Lumbumbashi, two physicians had left the public healthcare system and, with a series of Finca loans, build a small clinic and a 10-bed hospital.  They were treating the people of the community for the four most common illnesses in rural Africa and charging $2.50 per consultation.  If the patients were destitute, they provided treatment for free.

FINCA is passionate about social enterprise.  Rupert believes that the current trend of social enterprises moving into the vacuums left by a faltering, underfunded public sector services will continue, and eventually social enterprises, small, medium and large, will be the main vector for meeting the basic needs of people living at the bottom of the pyramid.   He explained that an added bonus will be that these social enterprises will collectively employ millions of currently un/underemployed young people, which is a huge and growing time bomb which, if not addressed, will destabilise all developing societies.

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For those of you inspired to take up the social enterprise challenge, Rupert has some words of wisdom, “Find a disadvantaged/oppressed constituency, live amongst them, walk in their shoes until you feel their pain and figure out a way to be useful.”  He recommends working or volunteering for an organisation that works in this space and then with experience gained, striking out on your own.   He says that’s when the real adventure begins.

“If your idea is powerful enough, it will withstand the many mistakes you will make.   Remember that nothing works the first time, so be stubborn and persistent.   Stand up to the skeptics and keep plugging away.   You will find, also, that your passion for your mission will attract fellow travelers.   You also have to pick your head up every now and then and see who is imitating you and possibly doing it better than you are.   The life cycle of new technologies is getting shorter and shorter.   Picking the winners is going to make the difference between success and failure.” And After five decades in the space, Rupert should know.

If you would like to support FINCA’s latest campaign to raise £1 million in support of women taking their first teps in business, please donate here so that FINCA can help them generate the extra income they need to buy food, pay for healthcare, and put their children back into school.

In the last few months, faced with rising levels of conflict and migration, women have been forced to find new sources of income to support themselves and their children. With your help, FINCA can make a difference.

Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment: is it really helping them?

by Kim Croucher, WAM UK Steering Committee

Source: US AID, Flikr Creative Commons

Source: US AID, Flickr Creative Commons

It’s a question that has occurred to many of us who work in women’s financial inclusion and  increasingly  pertinent as the industry has developed and changed; whilst data and research has oftentimes been disappointing in providing a clear link, we ask, is microfinance – as a tool to empower women – really working?

In June, Ernst & Young hosted WAM and the Microfinance Club UK to debate this hot topic – aided by three highly qualified speakers on the subject:

  • Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, the global nonprofit devoted to giving more low-income women access to the financial tools and resources they require to achieve security and prosperity.
  • Sevi Simavi, Chief Executive Officer of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women,a charitable foundation that develops programmes to provide women with the skills, technology, networks and access to capital that they need to become successful small business owners.
  • Justina Alders-Sheya, Senior Manager, EY, specializing in Financial Inclusion & Microfinance and Wealth & Asset Management.

Justina showcased the work that EY has been doing to investigate this topic, to offer better advice to its clients in this space (microfinance institutions and investors).  According to her, there are various broad themes that may help the microfinance industry to understand its impact on women better, but more importantly may help the industry serve women more effectively.

The first is technology, which has the potential to boost financial inclusion for women in a way that was not possible before.  Some of the basic barriers that used to exist for poor women to access finance – safety of carrying cash in public, the ability to travel long distances to reach a bank branch, confidence to walk into a bank and speak to a male member of staff – all this is blown away with mobile banking. Of the 2 billion unbanked individuals in the world today, 1 billion have mobile phones and mobile accounts are now available in 61% of developing markets.  The potential to reach the previously unreachable is huge.

Mainstream financial institutions are entering the space faster than ever and this could enable microfinance to further extend its reach. With this entry may also come increasing regulation, which could mean better customer protection and potentially harmonizing standards across countries and regions.

Impact measurement has been a focus for years, but is still key to understanding whether microfinance is helping women.  Measuring the impact of having access to finance is important, but the answers rely on long-term research. Leading on from this is a topic that is relatively new – but receiving a lot of attention – and that is looking at behavioural insights when lending.

The understanding of psychological, social and cultural influences on decision making and behaviour can really help providers in delivering a service that leads to the best outcomes. But the very reason why it is attracting attention, might lead to the mainstreaming of microfinance – since behavioural insights would make it easier for commercial financial institutions to know how they can offer services to this segment of the market and still make a profit.

Sevi Simavi presented how the Cherie Blair Foundation realized very quickly when they set-up that access to capital was key to empowering female entrepreneurs. When the organisation first started, a lot of women they worked with still kept their cash under the mattress.  Having a bank account is critical from an empowerment perspective, without this, a woman rarely has control over her money – the cash ends up going to husbands or fathers.

In a recent report by the World Bank on Financial Inclusion, it quotes findings that the number of unbanked individuals has fallen by 20% between 2011 and 2014 (that amounts to 62% of adults who have a bank account vs. 51% in 2011) – which reveals some improvement in access to banking services.  However, there continues to be a gender gap in account ownership – the gap varied depending on the region, but overall only 58% of women worldwide are banked vs. 65% of men.

So while there may not yet be the hard evidence to point to the empowerment effect that microfinance is having on women around the world – there is most certainly a need for increasing financial services made available and accessible to women.  But to benefit from these services, Sevi made the interesting point that female entrepreneurs also needed to be given knowledge and capabilities (the ability to manage an account, to know the difference between profit and loss, basic book-keeping skills). Financial literacy training is therefore key.  Here technology can also have a part to play – delivery of training through a mobile phone can be fast, efficient and can reach those who were previously unreachable.

Our main takeaway from Mary Ellen’s speech was the idea that to serve the poor most efficiently, one has to address women,  and this means thinking about the services that women need, because they will be different to men’s.

Empowering women is crucial to serving the poor and developing economies, because women make up a far larger proportion of the poor, because a woman is far more likely to make investments back into her community and her children if she earns money – and one aspect of empowerment is through financial inclusion, so that women are increasingly in control of their money and their own decision making and futures.  Yet women are facing greater financial exclusion in every geography and across every income level.

The key to Mary Ellen’s message was that in order to support women’s empowerment – we need to make financial services better tailored to women.  Her point was that it was becoming clear that women wanted different things to men when it came to financial services.

For example, women want convenience, they greatly value confidentiality, they want more security, they want to trust the organization they are dealing with. Technology can go some way towards addressing these needs – but building trust may mean offering a lot more information to potential female customers because that is what they require to make a decision, it may mean explaining things in a more transparent way and it may mean having female agents.

In Tanzania for example, women are opening bank accounts at the same rate as men, but the main feedback from women there is that it is too easy to spend the money in the accounts – instead they would like restrictions on withdrawing money and incentives to save towards a goal – again a different way of thinking and different needs.

Mary Ellen was also optimistic about digital banking due to the convenience it offers women, the new markets it represents for banks and customer stickiness it offers the mobile operators – many reasons why she thinks digital banking may be a game-changer for financial inclusion.

Given all the talk over the evening about the coming revolution of digital/mobile banking, a question from the audience was put to the panel on whether mobile phones would destroy the support dynamic that can come from more traditional group savings and loan arrangements.  The panel felt there was a way to use mobile phones in microfinance (distributing loans, repayments) that would work either on an individual or group level – so it did not necessarily threaten the group model.  But they added that eventually individuals, especially entrepreneurs, needed loans that were specific to their own needs and so having this ability to tailor a product to individuals is advantageous to all involved.

If the conclusion the room was coming to during the evening was that financial inclusion is really key to women’s economic empowerment – even if the evidence isn’t there to directly link this progression yet – why then is there still a gap?  What about discrimination in this space – did the panel think that this was a more serious hurdle than the microfinance community are currently expressing and does the language around discrimination need to be ramped up in order to change the attitude of providers?  The panel felt there certainly is discrimination – but not always on the part of the players in the industry – it is a wider issue involving governments and communities. The fact that women can’t open a bank account in many countries, or face significantly more hurdles than men do when trying.  In Bangladesh, women need a birth certificate to open a bank account, but many poor women weren’t registered at birth – ID issues are a huge challenge for the poor.  Ownership of property that can act as collateral is another common problem for women, which also makes it more difficult to access capital.

Summing up – do all these developments mean that microfinance can help increase gender equality?  The panel were optimistic.  Sevi put it so well when she said that for all those who work tirelessly in this space and who care about women’s empowerment – it should be about progress and not perfection.