How can the gender finance gap be bridged?

A group of women weed their potato plantation in Muko Sector, Musanze District last year. Sam Ngendahimana.

The issue of more women not having access to financial services has been stunningly persistent, and experts say there’s a need to move from just promises to real impact.

Statistics are quite alarming. Close to one billion women globally have no access to formal financial systems. That is more than half of financially excluded population.


Many governments and other players recognise and admit that this is an issue, and despite repeated promises, it is still persistent. 


Mamadou Biteye, the Vice President for Social Impact at Visa Inc, emphasises that the task of bridging the gender gap in financial inclusion is extremely important.


To drive that task, he says, partnerships are important but that it starts with having evidence based policies. 

Women weeding their potato plantation in Muko Sector ,Musanze District(Sam Ngendahimana) 

“The role of research and academic institutions is very important in informing the establishment of sound policies,” he says. 

One of the partnerships Biteye recommended was for banks to leverage philanthropy capital to design blended financial products.

Biteye highlights an example of Malawi where ‘Opportunity International’ partnered with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to introduce fingerprint based protected accounts, which saw the uptake of the products by women increase massively.

“They realised that 84 per cent of those who took products were women. What made it successful is the privacy and control provided by fingerprint based registration and control,” he says.

Basically, the fingerprint technology enabled bank officials to resist men from dominantly having access to family bank accounts, always.

Policies are indeed important and this is echoed by Robna Helal, the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Egypt, who says they enable a level playing field for all.

In her country, she indicated that they were trying to make sure that women are onboard the financial decision making table.

“What we are trying to do is to have gender inclusive policies. We started with the Central bank as a model for other banks,” she says.

For instance, she adds, there is only 12 per cent female representation on the board level of several banks but the Central bank was encouraging them to increase it to the central bank rate which is 25 per cent.

Helal highlights that they have established mentorship programme for women to actively take part in financial sector. 

The programme provides tailor-made mentorship to women and offers leadership skills.

According to Helal, more than 30 potential future senior leaders have graduated from the programme. She thinks this could have a ripple effect on the way financial decisions are taken.

More to do

Because there are social and cultural issues that affect women’s pace to adopt financial services, Shungu Gwarinda, the acting chief executive of Graca Machel Trust, says creating networks of women could be one way to go about it.

“These networks can be movements for change. We have a specific newtrok called New Faces New Voices, which is a network of women in finance,” she notes.

Research shows that women suffer from imposter syndrome (self doubt) because of social issues, but with such networks Gwarinda believes this can be countered.

Despite those challenges, women are still dominant in informal sectors with more of them running savings and credit groups, locally known as Ibibina.

Gwarinda somehow believes empowering them can enable them to leverage their collective power starting from areas where they have presence. 

In Rwanda, there were 47,369 saving groups with more than one million members as of last year, according to the National Bank of Rwanda.

Close to 80 per cent of the members in these groups are women.

Monique Nsanzabaganwa, the Deputy Governor at the Central bank, suggests that reshaping these groups could lift women.

“We think giving saving groups another shape could bridge the gender finance gap. We are currently digitising them and linking them to financial services providers,” she says.

But to achieve all that, Biteye says it was equally critical to allow financial technology (Fintech) companies to operate.

“Sometimes we are not structured in a way that give us a competitive advantage to reach the bottom of the pyramid. That last mile distribution today are provided by Fintechs, whibch are more agile in nature,” he says.

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