Although phrases, such as ‘women in development’, are mentioned in social discourses far to often in Pakistan, they sound hollow and meaningless in the absence any push toward changing gender roles in the society. Credits, savings, insurances and money transfers will not help improve women’s livelihood because women’s financial inclusion is not just about creating slots for them in the financial market, it is rather about recognising and entitling social and financial structures and resources that help them achieve their livelihood aspirations and ensure wider financial inclusion.
Pakistan is the fifth most populous country with a population of 224.78 million that ranks at 178th position in Gender Development Index (GDI) comprising 181 countries. According to National Gender Development Framework March 2022, only 3 women own cell phone out of every 10 owners in Pakistan; 95 out of 100 women do not own a bank account; and 4 women out of 100 people have taken agriculture loans. To quantify in numbers as per State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) data, there are 21 million active women’s account out of which 9 percent is for SME loan accounts and 23 percent is for microfinance borrowing for women.
Socio-economic development is the main precursor for women’s financial inclusion. Feminist consciousness and the struggle to free women from gender discrimination demands socio-economic and political change in the pre-capitalistic structures of the society. Women’s political and institutional involvement in any society is essential to uproot social norms and value systems that exclude them.
Patriarchal practices and cultural structures change slowly and painfully. To increase women’s financial participation, their position in the family, workplace, and society must be recognised.
According to the March 2021 Global Gender Gap Report found that Pakistan’s gender gap had widened by 0.7 percentage points, to 55.6 percent, making it one of the worst countries for gender parity. Only Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan fared worse. More daunting fact revealed in the report is that gender parity score (0.553) remained the same for the last 15 years (2006-2021). It will take 136 years to close the gap with existing performance rate.
Women’s financial participation is low because only two out of 100 agents are females, and due to socio-religious norms, interacting with males is considered inappropriate in the Pakistani society.
Female financial inclusion in Pakistan is currently conceived as women being able to open a bank account, transfer money, and receive government money through mobile wallet or account. But, because of hurdles that women face in accessing formal financial services and documentation hassles, their inclusion is minimal. To address these impediments, the State Bank started a media UK funded Asaan Mobile Account (AMA) campaign in August to digitally on-board women customers. The AMA has created substantial results. It has created 4 million new accounts and generated 29 million transactions worth Rs140 billion.
But in a society like Pakistan, where fathers do not want their daughters to have national identity cards and women have to endure male oppression to exercise financial freedoms, such superficial analysis and shallow solutions will not work. Women’s financial participation is low because only two out of 100 agents are females, and due to socio-religious norms, interacting with males is considered inappropriate in the Pakistani society.
The processes of modernising women’s roles in the society through legislative reforms have been tried in many societies in the past, but to not much avail. Similarly, extensive efforts through market forces engineering has failed to bring fundamental changes in the status of a majority of women. In Pakistan, women’s position in the family structures has remained static for too long. No contemporary discourse about this much-needed change has developed due to the socio-religious sensitivity of the issue.
Pakistan has not been able to generate a rich socio-political discourse on gender discrimination. The lack of thorough legislative reforms were exacerbates the issue. The financial inclusion is more than the statistical progression of the number of need-based money transfers through digital means. Rather it is about the women’s struggle for empowerment and wellbeing for themselves, their families, and communities.
It’s important to consider gender norms while discussing financial inclusion. Finance remains a man’s playground. Men hold a superior position in relation to women in the socioeconomic and legal structures. For instance, a woman needs her husband’s signature while opening a savings account or applying for a loan and meeting the requirement to inherit. However, norms can and do change.
The financial inclusion is more than the statistical progression of the number of need-based money transfers through digital means. Rather it is about the women’s struggle for empowerment and wellbeing for themselves, their families, and communities.
All the tools of the supply side of the financial inclusion would not be meaningful until women are accepted by men as savers, entrepreneurs, or CEOs of large public private financial Institution. Gender norms need to change to improve women’s financial inclusion and economic empowerment. A change in gender norms, accomplishing higher levels of education, breaking the glass ceiling, and developing a sociopolitical discourse on Women in Development (WID) can be harbingers of change. The freedom to work guarantees that women have access to rights; as per the International Labour Organisation survey only 20.7 percent of workforce is women while men comprises 78.1 percent in Pakistan.
The nexus of financial inclusion and gender equality is part of affluent financial institutions and neoliberal economy. The desire of subprime credit expansion of financial institutions both local and internationally have created smart economics of female inclusion. The agenda is built on circular reasoning of women’s autonomy and access to opportunity.
The State Bank is cognizant of the fact that financial institutions cannot increase women’s financial inclusion without addressing gender imbalance at workforce. It is also accepted that we need female leaders in politics and financial sector to build an argumentative discourse for socio-economic structural change for female financial inclusion.