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First Person: Fighting For Women’s Financial Freedom

Around the world, the opportunities for women to
lead successful, financially secure lives are being limited
by government legislation, company policies and deep-rooted
misogyny. The UN is leading efforts to give women more
access to digital financial tools, seen as essential to
playing a full part in the global economy.

her role as a senior advisor at the UN Capital Development
Fund (UNCDF), which makes public and private finance work
for the world’s poorest people, Nandini
focuses on ensuring that more women are
able to take advantage of digital finance, as a means of
lifting them out of poverty.

Ms. Harihareswara spoke
to UN News ahead of an online
panel discussion
, involving UNCDF, The World Bank and
other partners, promoting financial equality for women, and
Women’s Day
, both held on 8 March.

“I would
describe myself as a digital finance and inclusive digital
economies professional who really cares about making sure
the benefits of digital reach women. I come from a
lower-middle class income immigrant family and I am first
generation Indian-American. I grew up on a budget. But my
dreams always bridged the two countries that defined my
identity, the United States and India.

A lack of

Harihareswara, Senior Advisor, Inclusive Digital Economies,

This quote from the
Women and Money report, published by the Gates Foundation,
says it best: “Money is the domain of men. Society
doesn’t view it as [a woman’s] role to earn money, or
her right to make financial decisions”. This is true for
many of the countries we work in.

The statistics show
that, in so many ways, women and girls bear the brunt of the
digital divide: they are 12% less likely to own a phone than
men, 35% less likely to have internet access and 32% less
likely to have access to energy. And, in least developed
countries, women traditionally do not have access to the
digital assets, collateral, networks, or financial services
that can help them access the capital they need to start a

Not only are women less likely to own or
have access to
digital tools and money, they are less likely to have
permission to use and control them: this is called
“agency” in the gender space. “Gatekeepers” who can
be fathers, brothers, mothers-in law or other community
members, do not believe women should have access to a phone
or a bank account.

Policy is also keeping women back:
there are 115 economies where laws prevent women from
running a business in the same way as men, and 167 countries
that have at least one law restricting women’s economic
opportunity. On top of these challenges, most of the
countries UNCDF works in do not mandate the use of
sex-disaggregated data (i.e. data that identify whether the
information concerns a man or a woman) in the private
sector, which would encourage both the public and private
sector to make data-based decision-making that can increase
the number of women clients.

Raising women’s

Women/Ryan Brown | Martha Alicia Benavente, from Tucurú, a
small municipality in Guatemala trained for six months to
become a solar engineer.

we are finding many ways to raise awareness of these
problems, and improve financial equality for women. For
example, in Zambia we launched the “Sprint4Women”
competition, in which digital finance providers tested their
products and business models in the field, then pitched
these models to the judges. UNCDF supported the finalists
with technical assistance in design, digital finance and
data analytics. The competition winner, a local fintech
company, changed the way it marketed its products, and today
their customer base is up more than 50 per cent, and the
proportion of women clients has more than

Open digital payment systems can increase the
access of women to financial services. In Papua New Guinea,
we’re working with a bank to help illiterate women access
financial services. Before, they would use a scribble as a
signature line, exposing them to fraud, but now they only
need a fingerprint.

UNCDF is also providing this bank
with finance, to offset the risk of making loans available
for women. This has had a significant impact, with a 145 per
cent increase in women microentrepreneurs taking loans, and
a 66 per cent increase in customers saving with the

‘My money is safe’

| A market vendor uses the SafeBoda app which connects
vendors to households using the SafeBoda transport service
during the COVID-19 lockdown in Kampala,

A driving force for me since
my early days as a development professional has been the
impact of inclusive finance for women. Everywhere I’ve
worked, from Haiti to the Philippines, Ghana, Zambia and
India, I’ve seen with my own eyes the positive impact that
digital finance and expanding digital and financial autonomy
can deliver for women.

I’ll never forget one of the
first women I spoke to when I went to work for the UNCDF in
Haiti, back in 2011, about the impact of being paid through
mobile money. She said, “Before, I would have to carry
cash. Everyone knew when I’d be paid, so often they would
take my money from me. Now, no one knows when I have been
paid and they cannot access the money. Even if my phone is
stolen, my money is still safe.”

But, 10 years on,
the challenge of bringing more women into the digital
economy is still with us and, of course, it has been
exacerbated by COVID-19. Almost
every study shows that the lives of hundreds of million
women are getting worse, as they lose their jobs and slide
back into poverty. We can’t turn a blind eye to the threat
of women becoming completely marginalized, of being
digitally and financially “dark” for the rest of their

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