Barriers abound for women in digital space

Experts call for helping women understand use of technology, overcome social hurdles

Omar Qureshi March 08, 2021
The greatest desire of digital workers was to be paid instantly. PHOTO: AFP


Women in Pakistan continue to face problems when it comes to financial inclusion, digital outreach, entrepreneurship and running startups.

The Express Tribune reached out to prominent experts specialising in fintechs and startups in Pakistan to assess the country’s standing in financial and digital empowerment of women.

Oraan CEO Halima Iqbal and COO Farwah Tapal pointed out that women across the country faced several barriers to embracing technology compared to their male counterparts.

“Women are less likely to own a mobile phone or use mobile internet compared to men,” they noted. “Higher school dropout rates among females, early marriages and societal norms that dictate women’s role in households impact their ability to adopt technology.”

The two officials of Oraan, which offers people to save money with a safe group, revealed that 84% of Oraan Savers consisted of women, who were saving for various reasons such as to buy a car, bear travel cost, pay for educational or wedding expenses, or pay off debt.

Talking about the fintech industry in Pakistan, they said digital financial services had the potential to reach those segments of the population which had been excluded from the formal economy.

“Today, 79% of Pakistanis do not have access to a formal financial account, in which women have a majority share,” they said. “In order to ensure that the entire population benefits equally from the services being offered, we need to consider requirements and demands of all Pakistanis.”

According to them, this can be achieved if digital financial products are developed keeping in view the unique barriers faced by women in accessing financial institutions. Outlining the hurdles, the Oraan high-ups said they varied from mobility to lack of trust in financial institutions such as banks, and societal taboos.

They stressed that if the fintech industry did not make concerted efforts to create services and products that specifically catered to women, the sector would not be able to serve as an equaliser in a male-dominated financial landscape.

Financial inclusion

Echoing similar views, CIRCLE Founder Sadaffe Abid said the gender gap in financial inclusion was widening in Pakistan because only 11.7 million adult women owned a bank account.

“Just 18% of adult women in Pakistan have active bank accounts compared to 51% of men,” she stated. “This limits women’s ability to save formally, grow their enterprises and participate in the formal economy.”

Abid pointed out that the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) recently launched a national dialogue to reduce the gender gap.

The central bank is framing “Banking on Equality” policy, which is aimed at promoting equal opportunities for women and men in accessing and pursuing financial and professional endeavours for inclusive economic growth in the country. She stressed that the initiative was an important step towards building a more inclusive society.

Citing research papers, Oraan CEO and COO expressed concern that merely 55% of women in Pakistan could understand basic financial terms (such as bank, bank account, pension, interest and committees).

“The understanding level drops to a meagre 18% for more complicated financial terms like insurance, insurance premium, shares, stock exchange, investment and exchange rate.”

Giving province-wise breakdown, they noted that the awareness level in Punjab was the highest at 59%, followed by Sindh at 56% and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa at 49%. Financial awareness among women in Balochistan stood at a negligible 13%, which is a cause of great concern.

Coming up with recommendations, they called for launching literacy programmes, which would help women to understand the use of technology and how to overcome cultural and social barriers.

“For such programmes, we need to consider different factors that affect financial literacy and financial inclusion for women such as class, lifecycle, rural-urban divide and household type.”

Similarly, Abid called on authorities to design such policies that increased financial and digital access for women, which was critical for the country’s economic progress.

“This starts with the creation of a favourable environment for women and as an initial step, mobile phones should be made affordable,” she said. Citing the Mobile Gender Gap Report, Abid pointed out that Pakistan had a massive gender gap, which could be gauged from the fact that only 50% of women owned mobile phones compared to 81% of men.

Moreover, the gap in the use of mobile internet shows a stark contrast as it stands at 19% for females as opposed to 37% for males.

“We need every woman in Pakistan to be digitally literate,” the CIRCLE founder said. “Digital skills and digital literacy are essential in today’s world.”

Digitally aware

Talking about digitally aware women, Abid said they were learning digital skills and joining the male-dominated tech sector as well as the gig economy.

She pointed out that the private sector had played a key role and increased the number of women in workforce by creating a safe and healthy environment, which helped them to grow and take leadership roles. Moving on to women leadership in business, Abid urged policymakers and corporate leaders to commit to investing in women and placing them at all decision-making levels to build a prosperous Pakistan.

Speaking about women entrepreneurship, she was of the view that Pakistan needed a higher number of female entrepreneurs as they brought different perspectives, insights and solutions.

“We need to introduce entrepreneurship courses in schools, encourage competitions and project work so that our youth, especially girls, can get exposure,” she said.

Women-led startups

Abid also talked about She Loves Tech Pakistan competition, which is hosted by CIRCLE.

Talking about the challenges faced by women-led startups, she said the founders did not always get support from their families because the journey of every startup was non-traditional with several ups and downs.

“Often female startup founders are not taken seriously because their business is viewed more as a hobby than an idea to create jobs and aid the economy,” she said.

Moreover, “their networks are not strong and wide, so they have to be resilient in difficult times.” According to Abid, having advisers, mentors and support groups for giving recommendations can make a huge difference.

“Despite such problems, women-led startups in Pakistan have raised $5.76 million in the past five years, according to WeRaise, a WorldBank initiative,” she said. “However, this is only 3% of the total amount raised by startups in Pakistan.”

A positive thing was that women-led startups were growing and some strong firms had emerged, which inspired other women to enter the field of entrepreneurship, she said. Generally, women are not encouraged to take risks or explore new horizons, however, initiatives such as She Loves Tech Pakistan is changing the mindset and inspiring women to utilise their creativity.

“We believe that as women progress in the startup space, they will grow their enterprises, create jobs and help Pakistan’s economy grow,” she said.

The writer is a staff correspondent


Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2021.

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