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Will Mobile Banking Empower Women, or Just Telecoms?

BY Julia Wetherell | Friday, March 1 2013

The "virtuous circle" of MFS, according to GSMA's study.

In many developing economies, while men earn wages outside the household, women are often acting behind the scenes as the money managers at home.  Yet a recent study found that mobile banking and financial services, which have gotten a lot of press as solutions for bringing economic empowerment to citizens in developing nations, are not yet serving women around the world.

Fifty-five percent of men globally report having a formal bank account, while only 47 percent of women do, according to a report released last week by GSMA. Other statistics show that in developing countries, women are less likely to have Internet access than men. TechPresident has also been told that men sometimes hog technology when it is introduced in the home, whether that's a laptop or a mobile phone.

Yet mobile banking might help women access financial tools, and benefit their families, by circumventing other cultural or logistical barriers. So: Can mobile banking improve lives? Or will promoting it only line the pockets of telecom corporations?

GSMA, the global association of mobile operators, supposes the former. Based on household surveys of women living in four emerging economies – Kenya, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania – along with focus groups in all four countries as well as Indonesia, it identified knowledge gaps and cultural barriers to accessing mobile financial services.

Women practicing traditional money management strategies – like storing cash in the home and participating in savings clubs or informal lending networks in their communities – face a lack of security and privacy in these transactions.  Mobile banking might solve some of those problems. The GSMA’s study concludes that, if they are encouraged to learn about and adopt MFS practices, women will enter into a “virtuous circle” of mobile engagement, leading to greater mobile ownership and use overall. 

Is this advocacy for developing infrastructure to empower women, or is it something more self-serving? Katrin Verclas, the co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org who was at the MWC this week, told techPresident that it’s an uneasy balance. 

“This is getting better data on mobile access for women, and there’s a scarcity of data,” Verclas says. “That's useful, but ultimately, it is in the self interest of the operators.” 

Unlike research conducted by an impartial body, like an academic institution, the GSMA’s report is not peer-reviewed, skewing its neutrality.  Verclas says it would be more useful for the organization to fund outside research, something that “delves into looking at women in and mobile in a more substantive way, which isn’t just women as customers of telcos.” 

“I’d like to see the GSMA push for a transparency report, like Google does on human rights issues,” she said.

While the study’s implications for technological empowerment and literacy might seem to have shades of advocacy for women, Verclas says that no GSMA study is likely to go beyond that. 

“Human rights, democracy – the GSMA will not touch it. That’s controversial, and that’s not the bottom line of the telcos.” 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.