Prime minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday inaugurated the country's first state-owned bank for women, aimed at strengthening their financial security and empowering them after a string of sex crimes highlighted gender inequality.
Singh opened the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women's Bank) in south Mumbai, home to one of seven branches that are now operational.
The bank was announced in February, when India was still reeling from the fatal gang-rape of a student in the capital.
CMD Usha Ananthasubramanian (L) with SBI chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya during launch of the first all-woman Bharatiya Mahila Bank in Mumbai. (PTI Photo)
It focuses on lending to women and aims to employ mostly women, although men will also be able to open accounts.
Currently, only 26% of women in India have formal bank accounts.
Sonia Gandhi (L) hands over documents to the first customer of the newly-inaugurated Bharatiya Mahila Bank, the first state-owned bank for women, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2nd R) watches. (AFP Photo)
"The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, at school, at their place of work and in public places. Their social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal," said Singh at the launch.
"The setting up of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank is a small step towards the economic empowerment of women," he added.
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who was also present at the ceremony, said: "We observe the birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, there have been many events to commemorate this day, but nothing can be a more appropriate tribute to her life and work than the inauguration of Bharatiya Mahila Bank, which aims to provide financial services to women in general and women self-help groups in particular."
Maharashtra governor K Sankaranarayanan and chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan were also present at the launch.
While this is the first such state initiative, there are existing co-operative banks run for and by women, such as the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank in Maharashtra.
According to its website, the Mann Deshi bank was set up in 1997 and is now the state's largest microfinance bank with over 185,000 clients.
The new Bharatiya Mahila Bank, headquartered in New Delhi, is due to have 25 branches by next March and is chaired by Usha Ananthasubramanian, a former executive director of the Punjab National Bank.
Other directors of the bank include Chhavi Rajawat, Nupur Mitra, Priya Kumar, Renuka Ramnath and Tanya Dubash.
Over a seven-year period, it plans to open 771 branches.
The board of directors is made up of eight women, said finance minister P Chidambaram, who set aside Rs 10 billion ($161 million) to capitalise the new bank in his 2013/14 budget.
"It will create more job opportunities for women and it will pay special attention to the weaker and more neglected sections of women," he told reporters at the new Mumbai branch.
The bank presently has 86 employees across the country and more than 55% are women, a senior official told AFP on Monday at the swanky Delhi office, on the ninth floor of a sky-blue glass high-rise in the city's commercial centre.
"This bank was planned for a good cause and because of that we saw scores of eager applicants willing to work here," said the official on condition of anonymity.
The Delhi bank branch and corporate office are expected to open after state elections in December.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Maharashtra governor K Sankaranarayanan, CM Prithviraj Chavan and Union ministers Farooq Abdullah, Sharad Pawar, P Chidambaram and Praful Patel during launch of the first all-woman Bharatiya Mahila Bank in Mumbai. (PTI Photo)
(With inputs from AFP and PTI)