International Women’s Day 2013: Where Are We With Women’s Access to Financial Services?

> Posted by Merene Botsio, Financial Inclusion 2020 Project Coordinator, CFI

Happy International Women’s Day! I am pretty excited today because I get to wear both my gender and financial inclusion lenses. Year-in, year-out, on International Women’s Day I read posts probing universal progress in women’s political participation, engagement in the work place, and advancement in the boardroom, to mention but a few. Now, I wish to examine the state of women’s access to financial services globally.

Thankfully, the Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign recently launched the interactive Mapping the Invisible Market Data Explorer, so it is easy to put graphs together to examine women’s participation. My work is already half done! I won’t claim to be exhaustive in this post. What I offer here are snippets of cross-regional analyses on women’s access to savings, accounts, modes of payment, and other forms of financial activity.

Let’s start!

Not surprisingly, high-income countries have the greatest percentage of women having an account at a formal financial institution, standing at 87.4 percent. The Asia-Pacific region comes in second at 52.1 percent. The bottom two positions are occupied by sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East/North Africa (MENA) at 21.5 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.

Coming from Ghana, where our economy is bolstered by industrious female traders (and I will take this opportunity to salute them for all their hard work), my next instinct is to check how many women worldwide use accounts for business purposes. To describe my reaction to these findings as shocked is an understatement. High-income countries lead again, at 22.1 percent, which to me is quite low. The second position is taken by sub-Saharan Africa, which makes me happy, but the percentage is low enough to almost make me cry – 4 percent. I immediately recall stories I have heard of market women who have lost everything – fiscal and goods – because they kept their cash in a fire-prone market stall instead of putting it in the bank.

Which brings me to the topic of savings. If you ever took a basic economics class you learned about savings and the wonderful formula showing how savings feeds into investment which feeds into… you get the idea. So, how well are women being equipped to weather future storms and in turn grow the GDP of their nations?

If we look at the statistics on women who saved at a financial institution in the past year, the rankings aren’t much different from those on having accounts at formal financial institutions. High-income countries rank first with 42.9 percent, followed by East Asia & Pacific at 28.5 percent; Eastern Europe & Central Asia and MENA come in last at 6.9 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

But there is an interesting twist! Look at the numbers on women who saved using a savings club shown in the graph below. Sub-Saharan Africa dwarfs the other regions at 20 percent, with the nearest group being high-income countries at 5.3 percent. However, the high frequency of savings using a method that is traditional in many African societies shows how certain adaptations in financial inclusion can appeal to women who may not want to put their money in a formal account. Recently I’ve been wondering whether mobile savings could accommodate savings groups, and even extend their reach beyond physical proximity, for example, involving people working in the same trade in different cities.

This leads me to my favorite topic: mobile financial services. Being a techy, I love anything related to mobile phones and the amazing inroads being made in promoting financial inclusion using basic handsets and, increasingly, smartphones.

Predictably, the largest percentages of women who use mobile financial services are in emerging economies, most usually for receiving money and paying bills. According to the latest GSMA mWomen report on women and financial services in emerging markets, women are usually the family members who conduct financial transactions, including paying bills, sending and receiving remittances, and handling government-to-person payments (G2P). As Cherie Blair, the founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, said in an interview with Visa’s Voices of Inclusion, “The mobile phone is not the panacea, but, it is the real entry into a way of giving women financial inclusion.”

In the push for cashless, lighter, more efficient economies, the ideal would be for traditional electronic payments to become the norm. However, the uptake of these has been slow, as the graph below shows.

I think I’ve covered enough ground for now. What are your thoughts? I encourage you to try out our Data Explorer, and to share your thoughts on where women are now in regards to financial services access.

Image credit: The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF)

Have you read?

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Are MFIs Paying Women Employees the Same as Men?

Tech Jobs for Women and Youth in Kenya