Our society has long grappled with the sociocultural dilemma of whether or not women shall be encouraged to take charge of their lives, and actively participate on an equal footing with men.
However, due in part to the proliferation of social and digital technologies, there has been a significant rise in consciousness regarding the urgency of integrating women, along with other marginalized segments in the mainstream socioeconomic system.
At a macro level, gender inclusivity is crucial and therefore, must be prioritized if we are to achieve sustainable economic growth, break free of economic dependency and realize our collective aspirations for a progressive welfare state.
Put simply, we cannot imagine transforming an enormous country of 224 million people into a vanguard of economic prosperity while willfully ostracizing half the population to oblivion. It will take every able hand, including those of women, to meticulously carve out the contours of our common future. And at the micro level, it heralds economic prosperity and financial independence for women.
Access to financial services, including credit, savings, and insurance, is one of the areas that have been identified to be the most critical for women empowerment. While physical banking branches extending necessary financial services were scant, particularly across the rural and semi-urban geographic spread, emergent digital financial technology proved to be a true enabler.
Mobile money services literally and quite magically, shrunk and boxed the entire bank and delivered onto the palm of every individual looking to be connected to the banking system. With nearly 100 million mobile phone users, this is a huge opportunity for Pakistan to extend financial services to the unbanked population, particularly the women segment.
Karandaaz Financial Inclusion Survey (K-FIS) 2022 reports a remarkable increase in the levels of financial inclusion in Pakistan. According to the survey, 30% of Pakistani adults are estimated to be financially included, which is a significant increase from previous years.
This increase in financial inclusion is largely attributed to the substantial increase in the adoption of mobile money wallets, which has especially picked up in the aftermath of COVID-19. In fact, the level of mobile wallet adoption in Pakistan increased from 4% in 2017 to 19% in 2022.
The importance of financial services in transforming individual and societal lives cannot be overstated. Financial inclusion can give women greater control over their financial lives and enable them to make informed decisions, leading to increased confidence and a greater sense of empowerment.
For our common future, it is imperative that people, particularly women, are included in the mainstream financial system.
Access to financial services will enhance the economic potential of women, whether by starting a business, pursuing education or training, or joining the formal workforce. They can save and invest their money more securely and effectively, leading to greater financial stability and long-term wealth creation.
Experts from the World Bank believe financial inclusion of women in Pakistan is a $500 million market opportunity which further sweetens the pie. It is a ripened fruit that if harvested rightly can provide a much-needed energy boost to our ailing economy.
Obstacles, however, remain and they are compounded by an acute lack of financial literacy, which is why most unbanked people cannot see the advantage or are hampered by financial and sociocultural impediments barring their entry into the financial system.
The majority of unbanked people are from rural areas, subsistence farmers whose role is vital for the country’s agricultural economy. Millions of small businesses are connected to the agri-based economy that can be scaled and made sustainable through easy credit, saving, and insurance products.
Through digital products, they can directly access the market, eliminate the middleman and grow their income. A large part of these SMEs is women-owned and led. The government and MFIs must engage with this segment at the ground level to negotiate a social change that will transform their lives.
Huge gaps in gender equity scuttle our economic growth. For instance, consider mobile phone penetration. According to the Findex report 2021, against nearly 90% of men in Pakistan, only 40% owned a mobile phone. Without access to digital technology, women will lag and their weight will bring us to a grinding halt if not pull down the entire socioeconomic system to rubble.
Of course, there are countless women-owned and women-led micro, small and medium (SMEs) dotting Pakistan’s geographic expanse, churning out one success story after the other. Mobilink Microfinance Bank has engaged with hundreds of similar businesses across Pakistan.
Through financial literacy and business management training, they made sure that their loans are well invested into viable and flourishing business ideas. The results have been astounding.
One can see that SMEs that are led by financially literate and digitally enabled women achieve remarkable sustainability and business resilience. Overall, the women-led SMEs boast an excellent track record of timely repayments, thus acquiring a steady stream of credit products for their sustainability.
To conclude, gender equity is crucial to pace Pakistan’s economic progress. Women need to participate in the economy to transform their lives and those of their families. This is also true for the large swathes of rural women who require financial integration to unleash their full potential for economic transformation.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023
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