by Asmat Kakar
Patriarchy and sociocultural constraints, chronic poverty, limited access to financial institutions and lack of financial control means women in Pakistan face a litany of injustices. However, women in Pakistan can be empowered via financial inclusion and projects such as those in Sindh province with the National Rural Support Programme of Community Investment Funds can help. Development from below, driven specifically by women-led community organizations, plays an integral role in achieving Pakistan’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Rural women’s active participation in development planning, implementation and their financial inclusion are rightly considered successful and effective pathways to promoting such development goals. Development from below works to ensure female empowerment and gender equality in areas where poor or no access to services, patriarchy and sociocultural barriers hamper their ability to progress.
Building robust and an inclusive financial prudence needs complete integration of women into all domains of human endeavours, not only as beneficiaries of auspicious and result-oriented equal opportunities, but as influential shapers of social, cultural, economic, and human development.
Status of financial inclusion in Pakistan
As per World Bank estimates, for 2017 Findex figures, only 21 per cent of the adult population in Pakistan is financially included within formal financial institutions, which is well below both the SAARC countries average of 58 per cent and the average for all lower middle income countries of 70 per cent. The financially included population in Pakistan is overwhelmingly 86 per cent male and predominately urban (68 per cent). The financial gender gap in Pakistan is therefore the second widest one in the world.
Constraints to rural women’s financial inclusion
The abysmal state of rural women’s financial inclusion is because of many constraints, including limited access to formal financial intuitions, low financial literacy, socio-cultural barriers, lack of awareness, insufficient funds, and limited access to loans particularly in rural areas. Due to these constraints, ensuring progress on SDGs, particularly in rural areas, remains elusive and negative. Consequently, these constraints to financial inclusion affect women’s empowerment negatively by restricting their socioeconomic development.
Despite many constraints and limited opportunities for women’s financial inclusion particularly in rural areas of Pakistan, National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) supported by EU-funding from the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) provides robust and sustainable opportunities of financial inclusions to millions of rural women in Sindh province through the provision of Community Investment Funds (CIFs), Income Generating Grants (IGGs), Financial Literacy Skills, and support for starting savings through community institutions fostered under SUCCESS Programme.
Up to now, through the SUCCESS Programme, NRSP has formed 121 CIFs, with a total of $3 million available for 121 Local Support Organizations (LSOs), union council level federations of Village Organisations (VOs), which have devolved financial powers to 1,104 Village Organizations (VOs) and further down to 12,596 Community Organizations to facilitate poor women for easy access to financial services. Overall 350,000 households are benefiting from CIFs through women as the principal beneficiaries.
CIFs are an effective and flexible financial fund that enables local and poor rural communities to make their own procedures about local lending, including loan approvals, loan sizes and terms and periods of repayment. The purpose of CIF is to alleviate poverty through sustainable and affordable financial services at the community level by empowering community institutions. It is managed and used by community institutions with minimum cost of operations to make it a cost-effective tool to strengthen livelihoods, improve access to quality equitable education, and provide relief during emergency to marginalized and poor populations in rural areas. Women’s financial inclusion is a lifeline for households’ which not only encourages development of financial capital but also provide assets for human capital development.
Community investment funds: Rural women’s source of financial inclusion and empowerment
Earlier this month I visited LSO Bukera Shareef at District Tando Allahyar where I interacted with community women who shared their experiences about access to financial inclusion through CIFs. Ms. Sheena Hyder, the President of LSO Bukera Shareef, while briefing on the purpose of having CIF in her LSO told “Formation of Community Investment Fund was driven by an approach with focus on serving the low-income populations (mainly women) in our poverty-stricken villages. Poor rural women’s financial inclusion is an important part of our LSO’s sustainable development plan. In this regard, NRSP’s continuous and comprehensive support have been a key driver in our success. NRSP, through SUCCESS Programme, provided US$ 30,000 to our LSO CIF in 2017 which has, till now, revolved up to US$ 60,000”
Most of the women, who have become beneficiaries of CIF, have started economic activities including buying livestock, opening a small grocery shop, and spending money on the education of their children.
The low progress on gender equality in Pakistan is largely because of the low participation of women in the workforce and their absence from financial inclusion. It’s essential to continue sharing the best practices and experiences of financial inclusion of rural women to help combat this societal inequality. NRSP experiences and achievements through SUCCESS Programmes proves that once women can be empowered through financial inclusion and that they can better manage their households’ resources, plan for their children’s bright future, and contribute to nation’s development.
Building on NRSP experiences and success in financial inclusion of rural women through SUCCESS Programme’s CIFs intervention in Sindh province, the Government of Pakistan under its Ehsaas Programme with a defined strategy for financial inclusion of women as “one women one bank account policy” can learn and benefit to a large extent from NRSP financial inclusion strategy particularly in terms of implementation effectiveness and outreach in rural areas. With this policy in mind and practice, we would be on track to closing the gender gaps and helping rural women to harness their full potential for their empowerment.
This article was first published on 31 October 2019 the South Asia @ LSE blog and is reposted here with permission.
Asmat Kakar is a Social Development Professional & LSE alumnus. He completed his MSc in Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2016. He tweets @asmatkhan19.