Women’s Financial Empowerment Is the Tide that Can Lift All Boats
Changing gender norms does not mean empowering women at the expense of men. As the expression goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Social norms change in other sectors shows us that programs to change gender norms should be designed to benefit all groups, not pit one group against another. Regardless of someone’s gender, they likely share goals with other members of their family and community. What if they were all empowered to reach their goals together?
To date, financial inclusion programming has missed an opportunity to increase its impact by transforming gendered norms that reduce women’s benefits from financial services. Take the case of Josephine and John, rural smallholder farmers in Uganda. Gender norms shape their family dynamic. As the socially designated head of the household, John sets the household’s spending priorities and selects the institutions and mechanisms they use to make payments and save money. Josephine defers to him even if she disagrees. Were she to disagree openly, particularly in public, Josephine’s community would label her a “rebel” wife who has no respect for her husband. Even though she has little power over decision-making, Josephine’s work on the farm contributes to the household income, and she cooks for the household and raises the children. She also goes to market to buy goods and participates in the local village savings and loan association (VSLA).
A typical financial inclusion intervention would leverage Josephine’s participation in the VSLA to provide a more secure, transparent mechanism for her to save and borrow for household needs or the family business. What would be the effect of empowering Josephine to decide jointly with her husband how to invest their savings or credit provided by the association? Would they make different decisions if Josephine could openly discuss with John why she feels certain financial decisions might or might not be in the family’s best interest?
CARE is piloting an approach to transform gender norms in Josephine and John’s community. The approach calls for the provision of mobile wallets with mediated household dialogues. The mobile wallet has subwallets that allow couples to allocate mutually agreed on amounts for needs often prioritized by women. The financial needs may include education fees, health expenses, inputs for crops grown by women or food purchases.
The household dialogues go beyond supporting access to finance to promote mutual consideration of the opinions and needs of all key household members. Seventy-one percent of households that have registered for mobile wallets through the program Josephine and John participate in have opened subwallets for women, indicating a positive impact on women’s participation in spending decisions and control.
Having a greater say over how money is spent can motivate women to contribute to their families’ incomes and can lead to more effective budgeting for household priorities. When men and women appreciate each other’s financial needs, they can improve their overall well-being. Tools like mobile wallets can help them to manage money, but how effectively they use these tools will depend on transforming gender norms that restrict women’s financial participation.