Changing social norms to achieve women’s financial inclusion

by 19th Nov 2018
Clementine, a community activist trained by the Indashyikirwa project in Rwanda to challenge GBV and promote positive roles for women Clementine, a community activist trained by the Indashyikirwa project in Rwanda to challenge GBV and promote positive roles for women

We can’t achieve women’s financial inclusion without considering harmful social norms and trying to change them. This was the key message I shared during the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s (SDC) annual Savings and Credit Forum in Bern earlier this month. The forum’s theme was ‘how to reach 1 billion women’ and I was there on behalf of CARE International UK and the CGAP Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice to speak about how gendered social norms create barriers to women’s financial inclusion, and how to change them.

Despite great strides in bank account ownership, women are still being left behind: in developing countries, women are 9% less likely than men tohold an account. One of – if not the – single greatest underlying cause for that stubborn gender access gap is the prevalence of entrenched social norms which dictate what women can and can’t do, including access to financial services. Depending on the context, social norms dictate women’s access to identity, ability to make financial decisions or own and operate a mobile phone.

Yet the reality in our sector is that very few financial products and services understand or address gendered social norms and the barriers they create for women’s access to, and use of, financial services. Here are further insights on why anyone interested in closing the gender access and use gap needs to understand social norm change, and how to go about it.

What are social norms? And why do they matter to women’s financial inclusion?

Social norms are shared expectations held by a community or society (not individual attitudes) about how people – or different groups of people – should behave. For example, queuing is a social norm. We wait our turn in a queue because others do, because it is expected, and others would disapprove if we cut in line. The consequences of breaking a social norm are not so big if you don’t know people, but when you do know people (like in the queue) the consequences can be really bad for you.

Why do social norms matter for women’s financial inclusion?

While some norms can be empowering, other norms exacerbate the barriers for women to access and use financial services. Because norms shape women’s access to and control over resources, in many contexts this limits her ability to hold land titles and assets, reduces her mobility in public spaces and increases her unpaid care burden. These factors compound to limit her ability to have an account with a financial institution or mobile money serivce and use it.

For example, social norms in Pakistan around mobile money being more for men than for women have contributed to a widening of the gender access gap from 9% in 2011 to 29% in 2017 (Global Findex, 2017). Here’s an anecdote from a CGAP Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice (COP) learning brief. Village elders in Gujarat banned mobile phones for unmarried women. Any unmarried woman found using a phone was fined, and anyone reporting them received a reward: “Young girls get misguided [with cellphones]. It can break families and ruin relationships… Why do girls need [a] cellphone?” said a village elder.

How can we support social norm change for women’s financial inclusion?

The best approach is one that is norm transformative. This means going beyond a focus on access to challenge gender norms that impede women’s economic empowerment (see IDRC learning brief ‘Beyond Access’).

CARE pursues a norm transformative approach to financial inclusion whenever possible, based on our social norm methodology, and we are mandated to address social norms within our gender equality and women’s voice framework:

gender equality framework graphic

Every one of CARE’s projects is expected to work across all three dimensions of this gender equality framework. For financial inclusion, that means:

  • increasing women’s agency, such as having the knowledge and skills needed to access and use financial services;
  • changing relations, such as her ability to negotiate with her husband and make decisions jointly or for herself;
  • transforming structures including discriminatory social norms, so that others respect her financial autonomy.

Too frequently approaches in our sector only focus on increasing women’s agency, and fail to engage men and boys, service providers and governments to create the conditions for women to use their knowledge and resources on equal footing with others. It’s inconceivable to think achieving women’s financial inclusion is possible by working with financially excluded women alone.

A norm transformative approach in Rwanda

CARE’s Indashyikirwa (‘agents of change’ in Kinyarwanda), a DFID-funded project in Rwanda, is a good example of a norm transformative approach. A 2012 study by CARE Rwanda found that gender-based violence, and women’s lack of decision-making power in the home, were barriers to women participating in Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). Strong norms existed around man as the primary decision-maker and there was significant peer pressure on men to discipline wives. Our research showed more than half of women in North, West and South provinces believed wife beating was justified.

Indashyikirwa tackled social norms head on by working with 1600 men and women through a couples’ curriculum – a five-month course where couples unpacked unequal power dynamics in their relationship. Around 25% of couples’ curriculum participants went on to become activists in their local community for gender equality and discouraging gender-based violence. Assessments using randomised control trial (RCTs) demonstrated Indashyikirwa was effective in reducing various forms of intimate partner violence (IPV) within trained couples, and VSLA members participating in the couples curriculum experienced increased joint decision making with husbands over family resources and greater economic empowerment outcomes.

Mobile money backed up by household dialogue in Uganda

Here’s another example. In Western Uganda, CARE with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently implementing a digital sub-wallet alongside household counselling, designed to support women’s uptake of financial services and increase her financial autonomy.

The digital sub-wallet developed with Postbank Uganda enables women customers to divvy up their money and allocate funds toward goals based on how they prefer to save and use money. To increase women’s agency over how it’s spent, women enrolled in VSLAs, and their partners and household members, were encouraged to participate in household dialogues.

The dialogue goal is to promote equitable decision making, set household financial dialogues goals, and ultimately to create a household norm for women’s financial autonomy. Implementation is ongoing, though early outcomes indicate an increase in joint financial planning.

The dialogues consist of a series of facilitated sessions designed to engage female VSLA participants and their male partners on various aspects of household and relationship dynamics, including financial planning, communication and negotiation skills, power dynamics and decision making. The goal of the dialogues is to create opportunities for change in household norms, especially related to women’s financial autonomy. Early outcomes indicate an increase in joint financial planning.

If you can’t be norm transformative, be norm aware

Norm aware approaches are conscious of and work within existing social norms. This will likely not shift social norms but will help improve women’s access to (though not necessarily use of) financial services. In reality, many practitioners find a norm aware (not norm transformative) approach is all that can be achieved within the timeframe and reality of the context. See this CGAP Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice (COP) learning brief for a good overview of norm aware and norm transformative approaches.

Several of CGAP’s Community or Practice members are pursuing thoughtful norm aware approaches. GRID Impact designed a mobile money app targeting low income financially illiterate women customers, with an onboarding experience designed to make women feel that mobile money is a service for them. BSR’s HERfinance Digital Wages programme worked with garment factors in Bangladesh to digitalise employee wages, alongside workplace trainings and discussions around equitable household decision making, to help promote acceptance and uptake around women’s use of mobile money.

Fiona Jarden is co-chair of the Social Norms Working Group within CGAP’s Women’s Financial Inclusion Community of Practice. The Social Norms Working Group is bringing together practitioners, researchers and policy makers who are all interested in decoding the role of gendered social norms in promoting women’s financial inclusion. Please take a look at our overview document to learn more and join the conversation.

A version of this blog was first published on the FinDev Gateway blog.

Fiona Jarden

Fiona was formerly Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor - Financial Inclusion for CARE International. She describes her role below:

I support CARE’s work to enable women and girls to have equal and increased control over their financial resources and access to financial services. My role is to ensure institutions like banks and governments adopt policies to bring women living in poverty into the realm of financial inclusion. Since joining CARE I've been leading the development of CARE’s global financial inclusion multiplying impact strategy, and have worked with CARE offices in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa to influence financial inclusion policies and practices in these regions. I'm a member of Women Advancing Microfinance, GADN’s Women’s Economic Justice working group, and SEEP’s Savings Led working group.

I have previously lived and worked in remote Australian aboriginal communities to address the barriers families face through financial exclusion and generational poverty. I've also worked with banks to strengthen their ability to link with poor rural customers and I was an advisor for the Permanent Mission of New Zealand to the United Nations. I have an MA in International Development with a specialisation in development economics from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and a journalism qualification from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

One good thing I’ve read

Radical Hope by Noel Pearson. Noel is the chief architect behind a radical new approach for social change and development for disadvantaged indigenous Australians. Having worked with him for years he is equally as brilliant and inspiring as he is controversial. In this book he turns his thinking to education with new ideas for transforming the lives of the disadvantaged to ‘raise up the many’ and ensure ‘no child is left behind’.


Twitter: @FiJarden