(MENAFN- Tribal News Network) Farzana*, 45, stands with her nine-year-old daughter in the scorching heat of the southern Pakistan town of Larkana. She is waiting in a long queue to hand her mobile phone and computerized national identity card to a banking agent. Farzana visits the agent every few months to collect her quarterly welfare payment of 4,500 Pakistani Rupees ($40).
Farzana doesn't know how to retrieve the personal identification number sent by text message to her mobile phone to notify her of payment into her account, so she hands the phone over to the agent. The agent sees the PIN and uploads it into the system to verify her personal details. He then hands Farzana her grant, asks her for a thumbprint and gives her a record of the payment.
Charagh*, 78, is a widow suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease. She travels by bus with her 20-year-old son to the nearest ATM – located on the fringes of her remote village in Bahawalpur, Southern Punjab. The journey takes three hours there and back.
Once she's there, Charagh unwraps an embroidered handkerchief and gives the debit card inside it to her son. She wears her identity card – her most precious asset – as a necklace. Her son, who has only attended primary school, gets the money from the ATM and gives it to his frail mother.
These are the stories of some of the 16 women I met during my research on Pakistan's (BISP) – the largest government-run social cash program run exclusively for women in southern Asia.
of the world's 2.5 billion unbanked people. From a population of more than 190 million, only 13 percent of adults have a formal bank account, as reported by the . Even more alarming, fewer than are included in the formal financial sector, compared with south Asia's average of 37 percent.
Digitizing BISP payments has had the benefit of ensuring that low-income women have access to bank accounts. For most of the women registered on the program, being enrolled was the first time they had ever had one.
of beneficiaries of BISP receive electronic payments. They provide flexibility and convenience to women, letting them cash their payments at various locations – banking agents, ATMs and point-of-sale machines – using a secure PIN. This eliminates the practice of some politicians or postmen demanding bribes for delivering cash payments to people's homes.
My study, completed in 2016, shows that digital innovation has led to mass financial inclusion. But this inclusion only goes so far. In the program's current form, beneficiaries are provided bank accounts with the facility to withdraw funds only, while access to other banking services, such as making payments, depositing savings and obtaining loans, is blocked. This limits their participation in entrepreneurial activities.
Gaining a Voice
The use of digital technologies for receiving BISP payments can lead to greater social and political inclusion of female beneficiaries.
like Bangladesh, India, Ghana, Mongolia, Cambodia and Nepal to initiate similar programs to improve the socio-economic livelihoods of poor citizens.
As in Pakistan, in many of these countries ingrained gender inequality leads to the social and economic exclusion of women. My research shows that financial freedom through digital payments can be a route to social inclusion.
The main drawback I found is that most women in Pakistan are illiterate, which can present hurdles when using technology such as ATMs. As a step forward, I suggest women receive digital training before being given access to digital payments. Other infrastructure constraints, such as weak mobile signals and power outages in homes, affect mobile phone usage for the receipt of timely payments.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.
The views expressed in this article belong to its author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women's Advancement Deeply.
The next step in achieving true financial inclusion for women will be to ensure wider access to financial services beyond bank accounts to promote entrepreneurial activities among some of the world's poorest women.
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