Women-centric reforms needed for financial inclusion; gender-neutral schemes don't work amid societal bars -Sohini Sengupta

-Firstpost.com

The year is due to end, and the report card for India's flagship financial inclusion programme, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana for 2018 is out. Before diving into the specifics of the programme, it would be useful to remember that the year has been revelatory with regard to women's issues, from the #MeToo movement to the 217 years that it will apparently take to close the gender pay gap.

In this context, it is important to understand why the Jan Dhan Yojana is such an important scheme, and how it is underpinned by the limitations put on women because of societal hindrances, including gender violence, limited mobility, not being allowed to work, etc. These challenges women face extend particularly to access to finance, resulting in women relying heavily on informal channels to borrow and save, such as friends, family or self-help groups, and the lack of resources and capacities to create wealth.

What has been done so far

In this context, it is instructive to note that the state-wise statistics reveal the geographic discrimination embedded into the narrative of financial inclusion in our country. This is proved by the fact that the beneficiaries are considerably fewer in a number of states in the North East and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Even though the statistics of the gender split in the accounts opened have not been revealed, the number of households covered in most states appears to be 100 percent. But before we rejoice over "complete" financial inclusion in India, it would be relevant to note that the coverage of households rather than individuals seeks to make women invisible, even though this is an improvement over the previous Swabhimaan scheme that targeted villages.

This is important because women specifically score disproportionately low on ordinary functions like savings and borrowings, savings particularly through banks formally. This policy of gender neutrality prohibits advancing women's financial inclusion. A better example is that of Nepal, where it was found that offering easily accessible, no-fee accounts to female heads of households in slums resulted in 84 percent of women opening an account and 80 percent making at least two deposits in the first year.

Furthermore, even though an overdraft facility of Rs 5,000 is available per household targeting women in particular, there is no express guideline to banks stating so. Additionally, in the absence of IDs/documentation, there is lack of clarity over how banks classify individuals as "low risk" to open an account. It would also be pertinent to note that the scheme does not consider other socially relevant factors, such as caste, tribal status and geographical disparity, for "priority lending". This is particularly important because the factor of gender gets increasingly compounded when combined with other limiting parameters of caste, geography, tribal status, etc.

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Firstpost.com, 25 December, 2018, https://www.firstpost.com/business/women-centric-reforms-needed-to-ensure-financial-inclusion-gender-neutral-schemes-dont-work-amid-societal-bars-5786211.html

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