August 29

Yasmin Bin-Humam / Deena Burjorjee 

Fixing Financial Inclusion’s Gender Gap: Fast-Growing ‘Community of Practice’ Seeks Solutions

Life without formal financial services results in expensive, insecure and inefficient coping strategies, which often fail to meet the broad range of individual financial needs. Yet this is the reality faced by the majority of women in the developing world. In fact, 1 billion women living in the poorest 40 percent of developing-country households remain outside the formal financial system, according to the Global Findex database.

The reasons behind women’s financial exclusion vary by country and region and are rooted in gendered economic norms that shape women’s access to and usage of financial services. It has historically been believed that efforts focused on poor and low-income segments would automatically translate into benefits for women. But a persistent gender gap of 9 percentage points in developing countries in account ownership rates suggests otherwise. As such, donors, researchers, regulators and financial service providers increasingly recognize the need to apply a gender lens in their programming to ensure that women benefit equally from financial inclusion efforts. This includes identifying innovative approaches, product designs and delivery mechanisms that can address the underlying barriers to women’s financial inclusion.

As part of this effort, CGAP recently launched the Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice (COP) to bring together practitioners, funders and policymakers active in this space. Less than one year since its launch, COP membership stands at over 160 organizations – a testament to decision-makers’ strong desire to connect with and learn from each other about women’s financial inclusion. Through COP, CGAP hopes to support an informed dialogue that will improve practices and lead to new solutions that will increase gender-equitable outcomes. Widely accepted “gender neutral” design is being exposed as anything but and members are working to break silos within the financial services and women’s empowerment fields. At the same time members are questioning the assumption that access to financial services invariably results in economic benefits for women, analyzing the distinction between women’s access, control and usage of financial services. COP is actively developing common learning agendas and various platforms for sharing emerging practices and key levers of change. Pressing challenges identified to date include consensus on measurement frameworks for women’s financial inclusion, understanding social norms, identifying scalable innovations, the evolving role of data – as well as the promise and limitations of emerging technology.

It will be important to bear in mind that what has worked in one context will not necessarily work in another. For example, in Kenya, the introduction of mobile money has helped women in the poorest households move from agriculture into business, and increase incomes and employment opportunities. In Pakistan, where only 0.3 percent of women sampled by the recent financial inclusion insights survey have a mobile money account, inclusive digital transformation seems further away. Community members Care, the Grameen Foundation and Women’s World Banking, as well as Oxfam and Women for Women, have been pursuing transformative interventions tailored to country, community and household contexts and are sharing their approaches so that more institutions will engage on the topic of restrictive social norms when promoting women’s financial inclusion.

Community members including the IFC are collaborating to determine the role of agent networks in delivering mobile financial services. Working as agents has the potential not only to empower the women agents, but can also help reach more women with services – though once again this can be very context-specific. GSMA has trained many community members on its newly developed tool to better understand women’s digital customer journey and where they drop out along the way. Financial diaries by community members such as Microfinance Opportunities and CGAP are giving us details about women’s economic lives, and with the proper exposure and interpretation can feed into policy guidance provided by members such as Alliance for Financial Inclusion, as well as into innovative product development.

Finally, to know whether our efforts are having meaningful impact, we will need to agree on what we are measuring and have the data to analyze. COP members have called for greater consensus on how to measure women’s empowerment through financial inclusion. Women’s World Banking Empowerment framework and the Africa Gender Innovation Lab’s methods for measuring agency are among the efforts under way to do this and data sets are being reviewed for completeness and comparability to avoid duplication of efforts. As the community of practice evolves, it will continue to build up consensus around good practices, guidelines and tools to advance women’s financial inclusion in ways that will help to close the gender gap and allow women not only to survive, but to thrive.

CGAP is supported by MetLife, a NextBillion partner.


Yasmin Bin-Humam is a CGAP financial sector specialist.  Deena Burjorjee is a CGAP consultant. 

Photo credit: WorldRemit Comms via Flickr

Base of the Pyramid, financial inclusion, fintech, lending, microfinance, mobile finance