Pakistan has the second worst gender gap in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2015. The report ranks it 144 out of 145 countries. This gender imbalance is reflected in the country’s financial inclusion numbers, as reported by Pakistan’s 2015 Financial Inclusion Insights (FII) survey.
While financial inclusion generally and digital inclusion specifically has been slow to take off in Pakistan, it has been particularly slow for women due to specific social norms (based on certain interpretations of Islamic scriptures) that create segregation between the sexes. While there are exceptions, arguably, a majority these norms limit interaction between genders except for that between certain close relations. It becomes more difficult for women to act as customers, as it requires interaction with unrelated men given that most jobs are dominated by men.
When it comes to mobile money, which theoretically can sidestep these restrictions, there are still several important obstacles:
- Male agents predominate in Pakistan. Mobile money enables registration and payment processes to be conducted in the privacy of one’s own home. But cash-in/cash-out requirements necessitate some level of interaction with agents, almost 100% of whom are men. Nonetheless, when compared with regular banks, the interaction with mobile money agents is limited because other functions such as person-to-person (P2P) transfers and bill payment do not necessitate a visit to an agent.
- Few women own phones. In a report by GSMA, it was noted that South Asia has the largest gender gap in mobile phone ownership. FII 2015 data bolster these conclusions. South Asian countries generally and Pakistan specifically stand out as having the lowest sampled women ownership of mobile phones relative to men.
Apart from permission to use mobile phones, women in South Asia seem to rely on friends and family to buy the phones. Within South Asia, Pakistan is found to have the lowest proportion of women who buy their own phones.
One way to address these restrictions would be to encourage women entrepreneurs to become mobile money agents. Female retail shop owners, beauty parlor owners, seamstresses and others like them are ideally suited for female mobile money users, as such entrepreneurs have fixed business addresses and are frequented predominantly by women.
Another way would be to counter the stigma through advocacy efforts. These could include gender sensitization through mobile money ad campaigns, public service messages from the Pakistan government as well as advocacy by donors and NGOs.
The promise of mobile phones is immense for financial inclusion of women. With low registration requirements as well as low logistical demands for operations, digital financial services are ideally suited for the unbanked women in Pakistan.