Financial Inclusion: Understanding the nuances of women’s lived experiences

Millions of Pakistani women stand on the peripheries of the formal sector; unable to access, use or benefit from financial services and products. Their inclusion and empowerment is contingent upon an extensive understanding of the nuances of their lived experiences.

The State Bank of Pakistan’s recently published Banking on Equality Draft Policy has highlighted the importance of collecting and using gender-disaggregated data to understand the factors that have contributed to the historic exclusion of the country’s female population. On the macro level, we have been able to identify the number of women who have access to bank accounts – active and inactive – and how many banks and other financial institutions have been able to roll out effective initiatives targeting women.

We have also developed a general understanding about the socio-economic realities that have prevented women’s financial inclusion. Restrictions on their mobility, lack of documentation and persisting mistrust towards financial institutions have largely been acknowledged as challenges to product adoption that need to be circumvented through innovative, human-centric design. However, to achieve sustained, inclusive and equitable growth, we need to dismiss the notion that the female populace of the country is a homogenous entity. We need to explore the heterogeneity of their experiences and uncover how they vary according to life cycle, income-levels, intra-household dynamics and religion among other aspects.

The socio-economic realities of a Muslim female from a higher income group will diverge significantly from a non-Muslim female from a lower income group. Religion may also have an impact on economic participation and financial and technological literacy levels; factors that directly influence the demand for financial services. Departing from unitary conceptualizations of households, there is an urgent need to investigate how female-headed households access and use finance differently from male-headed households, and how behavior is impacted by size of the household, asset base, employment and education levels.

These myriad of factors cannot be considered in isolation; instead, the compounded impact they have on lived experiences of women need to be realized to affect change and encourage uptake of financial services and products. The success of microcredit schemes, especially in Bangladesh, can be attributed to their effectiveness in understanding how household income levels, restrictions on mobility, reliance on skill-based work and inability to offer collateral for credit determined the financial behavior of rural women.

The emerging digital ecosystem in Pakistan carries the potential to overcome a number of challenges that have prevented female financial inclusion. Through the collection of gender-disaggregated data we can identify the gaps in the services and products; however, to achieve our milestones, we also need to recognize the gaps in our knowledge so that we are able to empower different female segments.

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