Indian women are traditionally good savers. This is particularly true for rural India where rising prices and shrinking incomes impact women the most. The self-help group experience has shown that they are also good borrowers. Yet, women living below the poverty line have remained disconnected from formal financial services provided by banking institutions: only 26% of all women have bank accounts.
However, after the new RBI guideline directing banks to reach out to the rural population by authorising independent banking intermediaries, a concerted effort to include marginalised women within the financial fold has been made and several not-for-profit organisations are collaborating to engage, inform and empower women economically.
In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, one such partnership has leveraged mobile phones to find a way around the prevailing patriarchal attitudes depriving women of their rights and enable financial inclusion. In the last two years, over 1,57,968 BPL women with little or no education and between the ages of 20-60 have opened savings accounts with the help of their mobile phones in these two states. These figures for 133 centres spread over nine economically vulnerable regions of the two states where Cashpor Micro Credit, a Varanasi-based not for profit microfinance organisation, initiated its savings programme in 2011 with the help of ICICI Bank and Eko, its technology service provider. Technical inputs have been provided by the, Grameen Foundation, America India Foundation and Citi Foundation. Cashpor encourages underprivileged women to join joint liability groups comprising 15-25 members so that they can avail of their financial services. As the first MFI to use mobiles to enable financial inclusion, they bring the bank to their doorstep.
Besides saving their time and loss of wages, there have been significant benefits. In Boxa village, Buxar district, Bihar, Najma Begum was always starving herself so that she could feed her five children. Her daily wager husband, an alcoholic, would beat her regularly. The violence would increase when she would refuse to hand over money to buy liquor. After learning she could open a no frills savings account through a mobile phone and deposit as little as `20, she began taking out money from her husband’s pocket. When her husband fell ill some months ago, it was this saving of `3,000 that came in handy. When her husband learnt how his wife saved his life, not only did he gave up drinking but has not laid a hand on Najma since then.
Financial literacy training programmes have made BPL women aware of their credit repayment schedule, rate of interest payable and processing fee. They can dial to check their saving balance or withdraw money. While challenges exist, innovative use of technology is making financial inclusion possible and giving women marginalised by caste and religion, hope and opportunities for a better life.
Swapna Majumdar is an independent journalist writing on development and gender. The views expressed by the author are personal.