Digital financial inclusion of working women: a deep look in the district of Sylhet, Bangladesh

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Author: Tanvir Ahmed

In this era of digital finance, countries like Bangladesh have also gained good advancement towards gender equality in the workplace. Bangladesh, a less developed country struggling to become a developing one is facing the challenge of financial inclusion. Most of the people here are unwilling to be included in the formal financial systems (bank and non-bank financial institutions) because being included in the formal channels needs to follow many formalities and documentation. So, most individuals and merchants rely on transacting with cash, but as cash handling is risky and – at times – inconvenient, nowadays big merchants are using banking channels.

Digitalisation or digital financial systems, mainly, Mobile financial services (MFS) and internet banking are here to change the whole scenario. People from all categories are using MFS as it’s very user-friendly and there are agents everywhere. While internet banking is only limited to big merchants and educated people, MFS is used by almost every earning individual.

Bangladesh Bank (The Central Bank of Bangladesh) data shows that the number of registered clients of MFS by March 2023 is 1980.93 million, of which number of active accounts count to 675.20 million. A report in ‘The Daily Star’ shows that the number of total MFS accounts increased in past years, but the ratio of women users decreased. They showed women users of MFS accounts decreased to 42 per cent in December 2022 from 47 per cent in 2018. The report tried to identify the reason and found the most evident issues of access, digital literacy, lack of special efforts to include women in MFS, limit of access to mobile phone or switching to agent banking. Another Sun report found that financial inclusion (including digital financial inclusion through MFS) is less likely for women who have low incomes, are less educated, live in rural areas or have disabilities.

I wanted to look deep into this matter and choose a district where I live and wanted to be more paresis by focusing only on working women.

I talked with many women working as house assistants, construction workers, teachers, officials, small shopkeepers, salespersons and lawyers. I asked them simple questions pertaining to their jobs, such as; do they use mobiles, do they have access to the internet, do they have bank accounts, do they have MFS accounts, what service they prefer, why they prefer that service or what service will be beneficial for them.

Almost all the women I talked to use mobile phones, most of them use the internet and MFS services, especially Bkash, few of them have bank accounts and very few of them use internet banking. It is a simple finding to me that women are financially included digitally which was not possible previously through the formal banking sector. Two key factors working here are easy to include and easy to use.

Though most working women may use MFS, all users do not own MFS accounts, as they usually use their father, husband or brother’s account or transact directly through agents. Even if they have their own mobile phones, the number is opened by the name of a male member of their family as they want to avoid the hassle of purchasing a mobile number or opening MFS accounts.

So, the most crucial factor behind the rapid digital financial inclusion is “easy to enrol”. MFS accounts are easy to open, hassle-free KYC (Know Your Customer) using mobile number, doorstep service, no minimum balance requirement, no paperwork by customers, agents are everywhere, and the only requirement is a mobile phone and National Identity Card.

Some of the women workers having irregular income and want small credit facilities from these MFS providers. Few of them suggested that the bank-based MFS could introduce credit facilities based on the user’s usage history. The need for small credit as suggested is for an emergency event when there is no agent available nearby or just as an emergency (when the MFS account holder runs out of money). The proposal could be run on a trial basis, or a feasibility study can be done in this regard.

Digital Financial Inclusion is rapidly growing in Bangladesh, especially among women who are getting more financial freedom through MFS. The government, central bank, and the banks and MFS providers should take it seriously to make MFS more inclusive and useful. More research and development initiatives may be taken to make MFS a tool for financial inclusion.

 

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By Tanvir Ahmed

Assistant Director at Bangladesh Bank (The Central Bank of Bangladesh)

DFI Alumni and Community Member

 

Established in 2015, Digital Frontiers Institute is a proud brand of Digital Frontiers. Learn more about the Gender Equality Changemakers (GEC) programme and find out how to enrol: https://genderequality.digitalfrontiersinstitute.org/