The introduction of the ‘Swanari’ (Swanirbhar Nari) programme by the Reserve Bank Innovation Hub (RBIH) in March 2023 marks a significant addition financial inclusion of women. This visionary initiative was crafted with the overarching goal of ensuring frictionless finance for women.

A year after the programme’s roadmap was published, a review of the aspects discussed in the report reveals a persistent lack of momentum in achieving financial inclusion of women.

However, given the myriad of women-centric policies in place, the sluggish progress in women’s financial inclusion appears to be rooted in deeply entrenched gender roles and stereotypes rather than a lack of policy initiatives and implementation.

For instance, the prevailing notion that women merely “help” their spouses in income-generating activities reinforces the perception that men are the sole breadwinners of the family, thus, limiting the flow of money into the hands of women and restricting their saving habits.

Per the RBI data, as of June 2023, women’s deposits in scheduled commercial banks constituted only 20.33 per cent of the total deposits, with only 1.62 per cent in current accounts, 26.93 per cent in savings accounts, and 19.83 per cent in term deposits. The relatively low share of current accounts serves as a notable indicator of women’s limited participation in business and income-generating activities.

Societal norms often dictate that male family members should own familial property, and when it is purchased in the name of a female family member, it is typically for tax benefits. Consequently, the combination of a lack of collateral and the persistent gender pay gap hinders the ability of women to avail themselves of credit facilities from formal sources.

Accordingly, the September 2023 RBI data related to credit by scheduled commercial banks highlights that the total number of female borrowers accounted for only 34 per cent (11.01 crores), while male borrowers accounted for 66 per cent (21.70 crores). This gender gap has persisted in the post Covid period.

In terms of access to finance for women entrepreneurs, prejudices against women’s entrepreneurial abilities and scepticism about their financial management skills significantly impede their access to financial resources.

Findings from the State of Women Entrepreneurship in India 2023 report reveal a worrying trend: less than 1 per cent of all institutional investments in 2021-22 were directed towards women-led businesses. Additionally, nearly 60 per cent of female leaders reported experiencing some form of bias while seeking financing.

Reinforcing disparities

Concerning mobile phone ownership and usage, the findings from the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023 highlight the distinct gender disparities in India. Notably, the gender gap for mobile ownership is quantified at 11 per cent for mobile ownership, 40 per cent for smartphone ownership, and 40 per cent for mobile internet adoption.

In terms of mobile usage, the average number of use cases per week for male owners in 2022 was 6.3, while for female owners, it was notably lower at 4.3. Even within their own families, women may receive secondary treatment; if a family can only afford one mobile phone, it typically goes to the male head of the household. These seemingly minor occurrences have a profound impact on women’s digital financial inclusion.

Even though women enjoy lower premium rates for life insurance due to their better mortality ratio, their representation in the insurance sector remains limited. The proportion of female policyholders in life insurance stood at 34.2 per cent in 2022-23, marking a marginal increase from 32.0 per cent in 2017-18. This under-representation of women in insurance can be attributed to the prevalent misconception that insurance is exclusively designed for individuals with income, resulting in a lack of interest in insuring non-earning female family members.

Women business correspondents

Despite the positive outcomes associated with the women Business Correspondent (BC) programme, which benefits both customers and the women BCs, a 2022 SBI Research report highlights the inadequate representation of women in the last mile of financial delivery services.

Specifically, the research reveals that only seven States/Union Territories had more than 20 per cent of women BCs. This under-representation of women can be attributed to the pervasive influence of family dynamics. In many households, decisions regarding women’s workforce participation or financial independence are not theirs but dictated by family preferences. Consequently, when women are restricted from engaging in income-generating activities, their financial inclusion is inevitably curtailed.

Traditional gender roles are prevalent in every part of the country, exerting a palpable influence on the financial empowerment of women.

In particular, a CGAP report reveals that the gender norm “women should not have financial privacy from their husbands” leads to a lack of investment by women entrepreneurs in growing their businesses.

Similarly, the expectation that “women should not interact with men outside their household” creates discomfort for women entrepreneurs in establishing professional networks with men. These unconscious biases, prevalent among both service providers and women, act as significant barriers to achieving financial inclusion.

So mere policy reforms will not bring about transformative changes to mitigate the gender disparities in the financial landscape. Instead, it is imperative to educate society about the detrimental effects of gender stereotypes and instigate a shift in mindset for radical transformation.

Consequently, until women are empowered to break free from societal constraints and gender stereotypes are shattered, their true financial inclusion will remain a distant dream.

Abinaya is a Research Scholar, and Alamelu is a Senior Professor, at the Department of Banking Management, Alagappa University, Karaikudi