Crises always affect the most vulnerable, and low-income women are usually in particular impacted. The COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately not different. In this Conversation Antonique KONING, Gender Lead at CGAP, and Mary Ellen ISKENDARIAN, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, talked about COVID-19’s most significant impacts on women around the world, how women have coped, and how the financial inclusion sector can help increase women's resilience.
Iskendarian started off the Conversation by pointing out that the COVID-19 crisis has both demonstrated and worsened existing gender inequalities. She mentioned the largest disparities, starting with how the pandemic has impacted girls’ and women’s education. She additionally stated that the informal financial services and employment sector, in which low-income women are usually overrepresented, is being strongly affected by the pandemic.
Koning then elaborated on women’s coping strategies to deal with the pandemic around the world. Firstly, women heavily rely on informal financial services in terms of borrowing and saving. Iskenderian added that women have long relied on informal saving groups and there is much that formal financial service providers can learn from them. On a positive note, digital solutions expand women’s networks for support in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic is a major driver for the uptake of remote accounts by underbanked women through which governmental emergency funds are transferred. Through the crisis, we’ve seen people rely heavily on banking correspondents to address various customer questions related to digital financial services.
Secondly, Koning emphasised the importance of savings as a strategy to cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on women. According to Iskenderian, savings-related activities like the opening of accounts and usage of accounts have all increased globally. This indicates that women are increasingly aware of the importance of savings for recovery and future resilience. She illustrated this by mentioning a project in partnership with the Indonesian Government’s cash transfer programme. As an emergency response, the Government increased the frequency of payments under one of its social protection schemes. Many women chose to save these additional payments by using existing savings accounts. Koning in this respect highlighted the role that digital financial innovations can play in empowering women to use financial services and overcome social constraints related to financial management. In addressing these issues, the main challenge lies within the lack of digital infrastructure such as mobile telephone ownership, network quality, and digital literacy. Digital financial capacity-building to address the gender digital divide is critical to achieve the full potential of reaching marginalised communities through digital channels.
Iskenderian subsequently presented Women’s World Banking’s approach to engage with other actors, such as financial service providers (FSPs), which are involved in financial inclusion efforts to empower women. WWB’s Network is encouraging FSPs to improve on financial services provision to women by creating or adapting products using women-centred design principles. Regulators should also apply a gender lens when designing policy and should start by requiring FSPs that they supervise to report gender-disaggregated data to adequately address their female clients’ distinct needs. The demand for more and better information about the financial needs of women and women-led businesses is gaining critical mass, in terms of both shared knowledge and resources to promote women’s economic empowerment in the financial inclusion sector, throughout the COVID-pandemic, during recovery, and onwards.
Koning closed the session by reiterating the importance of data, digital innovation, and leveraging the industry’s knowledge to achieve women’s economic empowerment through financial inclusion.