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Removing barriers to women’s financial inclusion

Mobile money transfer services have become arguably the single most effective contributor to global financial inclusion initiatives, and, particularly in developing countries, have facilitated access to cheap and reliable financial services for an ever increasing formerly unbanked segment of the population.


Financial inclusion means that individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs — transactions, payments, savings, credit, and insurance  — delivered responsibly and sustainably.

Mobile money transfer services have become arguably the single most effective contributor to global financial inclusion initiatives, and, particularly in developing countries, have facilitated access to cheap and reliable financial services for an ever increasing formerly unbanked segment of the population.

In terms of access to mobile money, Zimbabwe has high levels of financial inclusion, with 7 million EcoCash (mobile money) active users (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, 2020).

The improvement in financial inclusion led to an increase in mobile money usage between 2016 and 2020.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe indicated that digital payments for goods and services increased from 23% in 2016 to 63% in 2020.

However, women are largely excluded from formal financial services notwithstanding that they form the greater part of the population of Zimbabwe of over 14 million and own the majority of Micro Small to Medium Enterprises.

Benefits of financial inclusion for women

In areas where a large proportion of women were previously unbanked, access to financial services has significantly benefited women by enabling them to save and manage household expenditure and improve food security, health care, and the overall welfare of their families, thereby reducing poverty.

In contrast to male earnings, female controlled finances are more likely to be spent on household expenses, such as utilities and food, as well as on child welfare including school tuition and medical care.

Financial security has in turn empowered women and given them a role in the decision-making process in their households.

Additionally, access to useful and secure financial services has the potential to reduce hunger by empowering women and enabling them to improve their food security.

As farmers, agricultural entrepreneurs, and household caretakers, women are at the forefront of household food security and are essential to fighting hunger.

Mobile money and other digital financial services have the potential to help women overcome the challenges they face when accessing and using financial services, particularly those related to mobility, time, safety, and privacy.

Barriers to women’s financial inclusion

Social norms influence nearly every aspect of daily life, including financial services.

They have an adverse impact on financial inclusion for women because they can limit women’s ability to work outside the home, engage with male agents, or even own a phone.

Cultural norms around what is acceptable for a woman to do, where she can go alone, or with whom she can interact can all serve to limit women’s access to formal financial services.

Some common social norms and beliefs include:

Women are primarily viewed as caregivers hence are confined to the home which also limits the scope of financial products they can access.

Beliefs that women are not as financially savvy as men and must rely on their husbands or male relatives to make financial decisions and must therefore use joint bank accounts or their husband’s account.

Women cannot work in certain environments such as bars or restaurants, or in jobs that are typically held by men, and therefore have limited options for earning and saving money outside the house, which in turn makes it difficult for them to use formal financial services.

Misplaced financial inclusion priorities: Policymakers may focus solely on closing the gender gap in account ownership as a means of empowering women, without addressing other important barriers and constraints.

Restrictive regulatory requirements may result in unfavourable terms and conditions for opening accounts, for example, anti-money laundering regulations on customer due diligence requirements to submit approved ID information.

For example, in remote rural villages birth certificates – which are a prerequisite for obtaining an ID– are not normally obtained at birth as a matter of course. Requirements for business registration certificates and business references may also render women ineligible to open accounts and thus gain access to mobile banking services.

Fraud and data privacy risks: Women who rely on agents or male family members to help them to make financial transactions run the risk of exposing themselves to security and fraud risks, and losing the privacy and security of keeping the cash themselves.

Difficulties in identifying excluded women: Household surveys are a key mechanism for identifying people who are outside the banking system, but such surveys are expensive and time consuming.

Additionally, since most women in these areas are not formal wage earners receiving salaries through savings and other accounts, it is not easy to identify them through these channels.

Overcoming barriers  to women’s financial inclusion

Policymakers should consider the removal of social barriers to women’s ownership and control of productive physical and financial assets, including land, housing, technology, deposits, and savings.

These assets are central to economic empowerment because they serve as a store of wealth, enhance resilience in the face of shocks, and increase women’s bargaining power.

When social norms discourage women from using financial services, they shut out a huge potential market for financial service providers.

Regulators should therefore implement measures to influence or shift such social norms, such as the introduction of legislation promoting gender equality and financial literacy campaigns.

Leveraging on salary and social protection payments: Financial regulators and supervisors in countries where large segments of salaried workers receive salaries in cash should work with governments and the private sector (providers) to enable the transfer of these payments to the bank and other financial accounts.

Social protection and health care payments from governments to poor people could also be leveraged for this purpose.

This would be a significant step to expanding financial services to include women and improve their access to finance.

Removing the legal barriers that prevent women from registering a business, opening a bank account or mobile wallet, or owning property is critical.

In this regard, Anti-money laundering regulations that facilitate the removal of restrictive conditions for opening accounts are of critical importance, for example, through the implementation of a risk-based approach to customer due diligence following the Financial Action Task Force Guidance Notes on the risk-based approach to anti-money laundering.

Financial sector players should ensure that marketing campaigns are specifically designed to target women’s financial independence and accountability.

This will deepen women’s engagement with providers and shift perceptions, while broadening the provider’s reach into previously untapped sectors where women may be found, such as agriculture and micro small to medium enterprises.

In conclusion, the importance of women’s access to finance goes beyond financial inclusion and the current global scale of women’s financial exclusion makes it imperative for the policymakers to focus on ways to reduce the current barriers to women’s financial inclusion.

Expanding access to finance for women is however a daunting task with some unique challenges for financial sector players.

Thus, there is a need for understanding the genesis of the barriers to women’s financial inclusion to enable them to take appropriate action to address them and to ensure that policies are implemented successfully so that they reach all women.

  • Ronald Zvendiya is a research and innovation Analyst at Insurance and Pensions Commission (IPEC). The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of IPEC or its affiliates. Contact details: rzvendiya@gmail.com.
  • *These weekly articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe. Email- kadenge.zes@gmail.com and mobile no. +263 772 382 852

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