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Where COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women globally, it was also a tipping point for financial inclusion during the pandemic and digitalization of economies around the world. And undoubtedly, women have woken up to the potential of digitalization with significant changes seen in the last year or so primarily in the developing economies where their financial inclusion remains a grave concern.

In Pakistan too, digitalization efforts in recent times have paved the way for accelerating the pace of financial inclusion, providing the necessary impetus for all stakeholders to enhance gender centricity in digital finance. Tech solutions, fintech startups, digitalization in micro-finance and branchless banking, and efforts by the central bank have been instrumental in igniting growth in the financial inclusion of the underserved and the un-served -including women.

A recent webinar hosted by Kashf Foundation at the Financial Inclusion Week by the Centre for Financial Inclusion highlighted some of the key challenges faced by women in accessing digital financial services along with opportunities for financial inclusion and deepening offered via digital financial services. The discussion also pointed out some of the opportunities and silver linings for digital financial inclusion catalyzed by the Covid pandemic. A key opportunity, as shared by Ms. Antonique Koning - Senior Financial Sector Specialist and Gender Lead at CGAP - was that the pandemic necessitated that financial institutions leapfrog onto digital mediums which created momentum across the world to create use-cases and mainstream digital financial services that also helped gender digital divide and women-specific challenges in accessing technology come to the fore in an unprecedented manner.

It was also highlighted that the increase in the number of digital transactions and the opening of digital wallets across the world generally, and Pakistan specifically, was a great achievement that would enable trickle down and penetration of digital financial services into low income and vulnerable segments of the society through investments into the digital finance ecosystem.

To crack the code of financial inclusion in Pakistan particularly for women, the webinar panelist emphasized women’s transformation with respect to their agency and control over financial resources and decision making and addressing the key obstacles and barriers they face like cultural norms, privacy, literacy, access to hardware and cost.

A noteworthy point was confidentiality and privacy in technology which has not yet been contextualized to South Asian norms and behaviors where there is shared use or control of devices - hence the need for women-centric products and gender intentional approach in policy making.

With the pandemic and resultant efforts catalyzing the whole process of digitalization and financial inclusion several steps ahead, the academics, policy advisers, and practitioners have to grab the opportunity to keep the pace going. The discussion summarized that firstly, understanding, determining, and implementing women-centric solutions such as ending the gender gap in mobile phone ownership, digitizing all government payments, financial institutions mainstreaming gender-sensitive approaches and designing appropriate and affordable financial products for women, incentives for small businesses and women startups to go digital in their banking, etc. must not take a step back. Secondly, creating use-cases for digital financial inclusion and deepening for women by focusing on their financial needs and financial aspirations to demonstrate improved financial outcomes for women is crucial. And lastly, cooperation and consensus on gender intentionality by all players – technology companies, regulators, governments, and financial institutions is a prerequisite to keep the momentum going and growing.

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