Sophie Romana (left) and Shelley Spencer (right) report
back from the June 8 high level
roundtable organized by NetHope and USAID, which brought together mobile banking and gender champions to reflect on how Digital Financial Services (“DFS”) can galvanize women’s empowerment.
Women’s empowerment is often measured by their access to resources and ability to make decisions over how they are used. Recent evidence shows that DFS delivered through mobile phones deserves solid A's against each metric. This is not just hopeful musing by us as two empowered women with banking apps on our mobile phones. It is the consensus of a cross section of thought leaders with a seat at the table in Washington including USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Better than Cash Alliance and UNCDF, CGAP, and Women for Women International, as well as our own organizations, Oxfam and NetHope. We recently spent a morning reflecting on rigorous academic and implementation research on DFS use by women — all to be published soon — and pathways to close the gender gap in DFS product use.
Oxfam has long known that women play a central role in financing family and community needs. What we are now finding is that DFS tools can enhance their role. To study the impact of DFS on Saving for Change (“SfC”) savings groups in Senegal, Oxfam divided up 210 SfC groups (over 5,000 women) into two cohorts: one who participated in the project and the other as a comparison set. Women who participated in the pilot saved and borrowed more than the comparison groups. The differences are not marginal. There is a significant difference in savings.
Beyond financial transactions, mastering basic operations such as making a phone call, sending a text message, and performing a transaction brought pride to these women and gave them a sense of belonging in a formal financial system.
The technology is simple, the demand is known, so why aren’t DFS more widely used by women in developing economies?
Obstacles still exist. Take a look at Women for Women International’s core empowerment program which includes education and training modules in using financial services: Efforts to use DFS were challenging in the DRC and Rwanda due to the paucity of rural mobile money agents. Furthermore, women felt that a 10 percent transaction fee was too high a cost to pay to access money they had received: They felt that accessing their own money should be free.
Increasingly there are multiple success stories from m-pesa to CARE’s Linking for Change and other popular services. Yet even with this growing body of evidence, we still don’t see massive adoption despite growing cell phone penetration rates, cheaper handsets, better technology, interest from financial institutions and mobile network operators. And the question we tried hard to answer remains – why?
What can we collectively do, as service providers, donors, private sector and civil society actors, and governments to make the promise of DFS come true for millions of underserved women in the world?
Here are some hypotheses about the kinds of actions we could take globally to unleash the feminist potential of DFS:
We don’t know the answers yet, and it may be a combination of all the above and other factors too. What we do know is that joining forces to get the right kinds of DFS into the hands of women could have a big impact on their lives and the lives of their daughters.
This post was originally published on Oxfam's blog. Graphs source: Saving for Change Mobile Banking, First Assessment & Learning Review, March 2016, Oxfam America