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Addressing the Gender Gap in Nigeria’s Financial Services

April 01, 2022 - By

The Gender Centre of Excellence (GCE) at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is a strategic resource centre that provides transformative solutions for unbanked or underbanked populations, particularly low-income women. In this Q&A, Loise Maina, gender lead for Nigeria at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, discusses the origins of the GCE and how financial inclusion can advance women’s economic empowerment in Nigeria and beyond.

Tell us about the Gender Centre of Excellence and its key areas of focus and objectives.

The Gender Centre of Excellence (GCE) is one of RPA’s newest initiatives. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GCE serves as a resource centre and knowledge hub for advancing women’s financial inclusion, with a significant focus on addressing the gender gap in access to financial services in Nigeria.

GCE implements initiatives around four key pillars. The first pillar is around capacity development, particularly efforts to understand gender norms and dynamics that may prevent women from accessing and using formal financial services. It’s worth noting that in 2020, Nigeria developed a national framework for advancing women’s financial inclusion, a robust document that outlines how various sectors can advance financial inclusion for unserved or underserved women. Capacity development support will enable the regulators, financial service providers, and other stakeholders to have the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively implement this framework.

The second pillar for GCE relates to data and evidence generation and finding ways to conduct deeper gender-focused analysis of existing financial information data to identify gaps and opportunities to improve women’s financial inclusion. This involves asking questions such as, what are the profiles of unserved and underserved women? What are their motivations? What barriers or challenges are they facing? What more can be done to deliver financial services and products that meet their needs? We are investing in this kind of analysis to ensure that key stakeholders including policymakers and financial service providers such as product development teams have the right insights into where the gaps are and how to design products and services that are better tailored to the needs of low-income women.

The third pillar is around building a vibrant community of practice and bringing together like-minded partners. While there are many institutions in Nigeria working in this space, those efforts have often been a bit fragmented. So GCE is aiming to provide a platform where different stakeholders can come together, share a common agenda, and leverage different capacities for greater impact. Some of this involves supporting existing efforts by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to strengthen communities of practice as part of its contribution to the implementation of the national framework.

The fourth pillar is innovation. This involves, for example, finding new ideas and business models that can advance financial inclusion for low-income women and working with innovators on developing solutions that are gender-responsive, such as through hackathons.

In terms of desired outcomes for GCE, we hope in the upcoming years to see increased access and use of affordable and relevant forms of financial services by Nigerian women. We want to see strong and sustainable institutions and regulatory environments that can support women’s financial inclusion in Nigeria and across the world. We would like to see digital financial services that meet the needs of low-income women in Nigeria and increased women’s digital literacy so that they can make use of mobile money and other tools. And we’d like to see an increase in reliable gender-disaggregated data.

What progress has there been for women’s empowerment in Nigeria? Where is there room for growth?

It’s important to acknowledge that while there have been notable strides, we still see a significant gender gap of 8 percent in access to financial services in Nigeria, according to the 2020 EFInA Financial Services Survey. There are several factors that contribute to this gap. For example, many women may not be able to access financial services because they do not have a basic identity card, which is often a requirement for opening a formal bank account. So, we need to work with policymakers and different players to address those fundamental barriers for many women.

Additionally, the data shows us that there is a correlation between education levels and financial inclusion This underscores the need for an integrated approach to financial inclusion that addresses issues such as education access for women and girls, for example, especially in communities with low literacy and education levels.

Social and cultural norms are another factor. There’s a need to build the agency and voice of women so that they can achieve equal standing and share financial decision-making at the household and community level.

There are also issues around the kinds of services available. Many financial institutions have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach. As a result, their services and products don’t necessarily address women’s needs. For example, they may have adopted strict collateral requirements or a pricing structure for their services that is out of the reach for many women.

Additionally, distrust toward financial institutions is quite high among many women in Nigeria. These institutions need to invest more in addressing that distrust, such as by increasing human contact through hiring women agents or increasing financial service points closer to where the women are.

Finally, it’s not enough for women just to open an account, because many of those accounts quickly go dormant. Maybe they’ll use the accounts to receive a cash transfer or to process wages, but beyond that, they don’t take advantage of the full range of benefits that come in an account—in some cases, because they lack the economic activity to sustain the use of these accounts. So, there is also a need to invest in economic empowerment efforts for women in business and investment to help them generate income and make use of these services.

What system-level outcomes can financial inclusion achieve for advancing women’s economic empowerment?

There is certainly a need for a system-level change, as there are so many factors at play that lead to complexities. This calls for an integrated approach right from the regulatory level to the development of appropriate products and services and building women’s agency at the household and community level.

When it comes to issues around gender equality, there is a need for political will at all levels as a critical prerequisite to catalyze the change that is required. There is a need for greater investment in relevant programs and policies to reach low-income women who are often in hard-to-reach areas. It’s crucial to engage with these women to understand their challenges and develop solutions that meet their needs.

All this work requires building a business case for advancing women’s financial inclusion. It also requires building collaborative partnerships at all levels to enhance synergy and achieve greater impact.

Lastly, achieving financial inclusion for women requires broader attitude change. As I mentioned earlier, gender inequalities are influenced by existing societal norms and attitudes around gender roles and power dynamics between men and women. It will take societal changes to build equal opportunity for girls and women by addressing discrimination and existing biases.

How has technology accelerated efforts to achieve financial inclusion in Nigeria? What are the challenges involved?

In recent years, we’ve seen the widespread adoption of technology and digital financial services which was further accelerated by the Covid pandemic. More people are now able to access mobile technology and coverage, and providers can offer financial services in a faster, more affordable, and easier way. This has significant implications for women and helps address the time constraints that many of them face due to their care responsibilities. For example, technology can allow women to conduct their transactions via mobile phone instead of leaving their homes or businesses to go to the financial institution.

Even as we embrace technology and as it becomes more empowering, there are still some challenges and pitfalls to consider. Many women still lack access to the basic infrastructure needed to benefit from and participate in digital financial services. For example, data and mobile handsets can be quite expensive, and in some households, they are owned by men, perhaps due to social or cultural norms. There are also issues around literacy and education levels, which can be a barrier to using these services. And so, there is a need to invest in digital literacy programs for women on how to navigate different apps or even how to use a mobile phone. Data privacy and vulnerability to online abuse and fraud are yet other issues that may affect women. As more people adopt technology, there is a need for interventions that can safeguard women from falling victim to these hazards.

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