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Reducing gender inequality is a key challenge for developing countries, and women being disproportionately underserved financially is a major component to the yawning gender gap in Pakistan. Research has shown that women economic empowerment is directly linked to their access to income and financial inclusion, which has much broader benefit in terms of contribution to the family’s wellbeing and economic development.

Recently, Kashf Foundation with Saida Waheed Gender Initiative (SWGI) and Mehbub Ul Haq Research Center (MHRC) at LUMS jointly hosted webinar titled ‘Gender, Inequality and Microfinance’ to discuss the reasons behind gender gaps in Pakistan and the implications of possible interventions. The key takeaways from the webinar can be clubbed into two segments: challenges and the way forward.

The panel discussion brought to light some glaring challenges that hinder women’s economic participation in current scenario. Entrenched gender roles making women being considered as secondary workers in the economy; lack of access to the outside world and limited mobility restricting women from accessing services including financial services; lack of access to smart phones and technology; gender wage differential; or tedious banking and financial requirements for access to finance such as the Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements, proof of income, a registered business, and low debt absorption capacity of women led micro-enterprises were some of the key challenges that the experts in their respective fields brought to the table.

In terms of impact-led solutions, the key recommendations included the need for customizable technology, and easy access to digital tools, internet and smartphones. On the regulatory side, facilitation through regulatory sandboxing for allowing non-banks to mobilize saving deposits, increasing women’s saving rate by provisioning a savings account for everyone, allowing roaming agents for MFBs, designing women centric financial products; and collaborations between Non-Banking Microfinance Companies and Microfinance Banks were unanimously acknowledged. While on the social side, recognizing women’s role in the economic sphere and creation of safe digital space for women via clear policy on consumer protection and safeguard were considered pivotal in moving the needle.

In the same vein, the State Bank of Pakistan has recently presented the much-needed targeted policy draft titled “Banking on Equality Policy”, which has received quite a credence as a starting point and framework towards better financial inclusion of women. The draft policy focuses to engender equality in banking and reduce the gender gap in financial inclusion through its five identified pillars: These include enhancing gender diversity in financial institutions and access points; applying a gender lens to products and services with a special focus on gender; creating and placing women champions at all access points; collection and submission of gender segregated data; and policy forums and consultations on gender and finance.

There are some hard facts about financial inclusion of women that the financial sector must not ignore anymore such as serving women is a profitable business; or that women are better agents; women customers are more loyal, and they are better at better at creating linkages and cross selling; or that incomes accruing to women typically benefit not only their families through improved nutrition, health, education, etc. but also reduced domestic violence; or simply that microfinance industry has demonstrated that women are better borrowers and payers. It is important to understand that the gender-neutral view hasn’t been working, and a gender sensitive and a gender-targeted approach must be adopted to address the widening schism of financial inclusion.

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