Digital Finance in Bangladesh: Empowering or Excluding Women?

By Parul Agarwal and Suraj Nair

This article is part of a series of Blogposts on the progress of digital financial services in Bangladesh. It draws on discussions held at a seminar on the subject in Dhaka in April 2016. The seminar was organized by BRAC Social Innovation Lab, Access to Information (a2iand USAID’s mSTAR project implemented by FHI 360. IFMR LEAD was the Knowledge Partner for the event.

Image Courtesy: BRAC
In the fast developing and rapidly expanding digital financial services landscape of Bangladesh, the number of women users – particularly users of Mobile Financial Services (MFS) continues to remain very low [1]. Addressing this involuntary exclusion by expanding women’s access to MFS is a policy priority, for the government and central bank of Bangladesh. Meanwhile, policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders have been grappling with the question of whether gender gaps could in fact be perpetuated through the use of mobile-based platforms –after all, it is most often the male member of the household who owns and uses a mobile phone. Will the rise of digital financial services exclude women? A nuanced look at the issue opens up an important discussion on the gender divide in access to financial services.
MFS – A relatively new introduction

Mobile-based financial services are a fairly recent entrant into Bangladesh’s financial ecosystem (2011).With entrenched systemic barriers that influence women’s access to mobile phones, the low uptake and usage of MFS among women does not come as a surprise. Moreover, low financial literacy, particularly among women in the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment, poses a challenge for them in transitioning from traditional models to mobile-based platforms. In such a scenario, handholding and guiding women towards the assisted use of mobile platforms can promote their uptake and usage. For instance, a training program initiated by BRAC on numeracy and mobile money for women in remote areas has had a positive impact on the usage of these services by them. Going forward, it is important for policymakers and practitioners to acknowledge the power of self-learning and peer learning as channels that can bring more women into the ambit of mobile financial services – even though this process may take time to demonstrate results.

Applying principles of Human Centered Design

In addition to addressing the systemic barriers to access and usage, a lot can be done by financial service providers (FSP) in innovating product design and delivery. There is significant scope for current mobile-based offerings to be tailored towards the needs of specific target audiences such as women. FSPs must recognize the need to create intuitive and easy to use platforms that can operate on the simplest of phones- users must be able to “mentally map” out the keys and shortcuts that can enable these transactions. At the same time, improving the value propositions of these products and services is equally important. All this can be made possible by applying the principles of human centered design to digital finance. As smartphone penetration increases in rural Bangladesh, focusing on product feasibility, viability and usability can open an exciting range of possibilities for both FSPs and women in remote areas.

MFS: Not a silver bullet?

In spite of the initial excitement surrounding MFS, there is a need to temper expectations from these services, as they are not a silver bullet to address all existing issues of financial exclusion.

Digitizing financial transactions is one of several delivery channels to ensure that financial services are easily accessible to all sections of the population. In the short run, mobile-based services can complement traditional channels of financial transactions– as customers may continue to access the services of post-offices, brick-and-mortar banks and Microfinance Institutions. Moving forward, while these options must be available to all individuals, allowing users the freedom to access and choose between these options would be a step towards true financial inclusion.

More research required

Having a registered mobile money account in her name does not necessarily imply that a woman is “financially included”. Conversely, not having a mobile money account need not mean that a particular woman is financially excluded; she may have access to financial services through SHGs or other delivery channels.  Moreover, in low-income countries, it is often observed that members of a household share the usage of a mobile phone. Thus, using individual access as a metric to measure financial inclusion may not adequately capture the household dynamics and complexities in access to these services. Even if we focus on individual access, financial services for the poor are ultimately consumed by the household – this has to be factored in as we move forward. While MFS providers strengthen their presence across select demographics and areas of Bangladesh, further research is required to understand the barriers that are preventing women from availing the benefits of these services, in larger numbers.

Conversing with Stakeholders

At a seminar on ‘Digital financial inclusion: Innovations from Bangladesh’ organized by BRAC Social Innovation Lab, Access to Information (a2iand USAID’s mSTAR project implemented by FHI 360leading practitioners, policymakers, researchers, MFS Providers and sector experts came together to deliberate on the progress of digital finance in Bangladesh. The consensus among the experts was that while the sector has made tremendous progress in promoting financial inclusion in the country, much remains to be achieved in order to tap the full potential of digital finance in reaching excluded sections, especially women. In addition to developing innovative and well-designed products and platforms that are in tune with needs and capabilities of women, the need of the hour is to ensure that the systemic barriers that prevent women in Bangladesh from accessing these services are alleviated. This will allow ease of access and enable women to receive all the benefits of mobile financial services. The results will be evident – slowly, but surely.

The authors would like to thank Tanjilut Tasnuba, Maria May, and Masrura Oishi from the BRAC Social Innovation Lab for their valuable inputs on this article.

[1] Only 18% of digital financial service users in Bangladesh are women (CGAP 2015)