UNCDF’s Regional Office for Asia and The Pacific organized a two-day ThinkShop on January 20-21, 2015 held at the Australian Embassy in collaboration with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT), titled “Enhancing the Role of Finance in Expanding Equal Opportunities for Women to Access, Use and Benefit from Real-Economy Markets.” The event was held in the framework of UNCDF’s Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) programme, which aims to improve the level of financial inclusion in the ASEAN region by facilitating the transition of low-income people’s use of financial services from informal mechanisms to formal, regulated and higher value services.
Hosted by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), UNCDF invited practitioners from across a range of development disciplines, coming from Haiti to Bangladesh to Cambodia for an analytical discussion on women’s economic empowerment through financial markets specifically and real-economy markets, in the general sense.
The Australian Ambassador to Thailand, Mr. Paul Robilliard, said, “Development in Asia is uneven but there is a great growing potential in South East Asia. Financial inclusion is an important objective for the ASEAN countries. The SHIFT programme helps increase resilience to shock for Cambodia, Laos, Veitnam and Myanmar mainly. SHIFT will complement other access to finance projects supported by Australia. However, gender inequality can be an obstacle to growth.”
During the ThinkShop’s two-day event, the issues of opportunities and barriers to financial inclusion for women, a subject matter that is at the core of UNCDF’s unique mandate dealing with the least developed countries, were addressed. Moreover, women's empowerment and gender equality are one of the Millennium Development Goals and central to all other development efforts. UNCDF works to promote achievement of these goals in all parts of its work.
The ThinkShop was particularly important for UNCDF’s SHIFT programme as women, approximately constituting half of the region’s population, are an integral component of ASEAN’s economic growth engine. Additionally, the ThinkShop contributed to evolving UNCDF’s global approaches to women’s economic empowerment through its existing and future projects across the least developed countries.
The discussions taking place at the ThinkShop revolved around assessing the current state of women’s economic empowerment, understanding women’s empowerment and disempowerment in the market, exploring interlinkages between financial markets, exploring market inclusiveness for women and sharing pertinent stories from the field and beyond.
The current gap between men and women in access to financial services is great. In developing economies, women are 20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution and 17 percent less likely to have borrowed formally in the past year.
This disparity, particularly within the bottom of the pyramid population, roots from the uneven playing ground between genders in tapping into market opportunities in general. Issues such as the abiding legal framework and cultural norms condition markets’ dynamics and may create limitations within the space in which women can operate and interact in. In many instances, these factors are much less favorable for women compared to for men.
To reduce the gender gap — and to expand women’s overall level of access —policymakers and financial services providers need to understand what women value when it comes to viable financial products and services. Participants noted that there is great value in drawing lessons from the informal financial systems in order for financial services providers to cater to women clients’ financial needs and preferences, as women are often found within this sphere.
Ms. Shalina Miah, Regional Manager of UNCDF’s Regional office, stated in her closing remarks: “As many of you have expressed, the issue at hand is complex and requires all perspectives to be included in order to achieve strong and sustainable positive impact. This is why your presence and input was so helpful. This event is only one step in a longer process to ensure that our projects cater to the people they are intended to support.”
Greater inclusion of women has a strong potential to push the frontiers of markets. Addressing the demand and supply issues of financial inclusion for women could offer pathways to new and additional market opportunities that eventually lead to the growth of economies as a whole.