Financial Literacy and Empowerment

by | Jan 16, 2019

When I first heard about Mann Deshi, the NGO I’d been assigned to work with, as an India Fellow , I was excited to have gotten a chance to work with an organisation that’s known for its work on financial inclusion. Mann Deshi had started out when Chetna Gala Sinha, the founder, realized that banks were reluctant to even open savings accounts for those working in the informal economy. As the story goes, she was approached by a welder named Kantabai, who told her about her unsuccessful attempts at opening her savings account. Kantabai was repeatedly rejected by banks as she could afford to save only small amounts (10 rupees at a time) [1].

This was in the early 90s, much before zero balance accounts for the poor became a cornerstone of financial inclusion policy. This callous disregard of the banking sector towards the economic aspirations of the poor, galvanized Chetna Sinha to start the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, the first bank set up by and for rural women.

However, opening bank accounts and providing easy access to credit and other financial resources is only one step towards financial inclusion. This is evident from the results of the current government’s efforts at opening zero-balance accounts through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY). Although 29.51 crore accounts have been opened under the scheme, at least one-fifth of them remain dormant as of last year [2]. Financial inclusion in its true sense, can come about only when people are capable of properly using the financial tools and resources that they can now access. Building this capability involves not only spreading awareness and sharing knowledge but also imparting skills and changing attitude towards money. This capability, in other words, the skill-sets, knowledge, attitude and behavior required to manage one’s economic assets and financial future is called financial literacy [3].

According to a Global survey by Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC (S&P), less than 25% of adults are financially literate in South Asian countries. This is not surprising when one thinks of the significant access barriers that the ones already excluded from the formal sector face. Most financial literature is produced in English or Hindi, leaving readers of regional languages in a blind spot. Moreover, many people in this demographic, are intimidated by banks and other formal financial institutions so much so that they hesitate to approach them even in times of need. The complicated procedures to activate bank accounts and ATM cards are also difficult to comprehend.

It is also an acknowledged fact that women form an especially vulnerable economic group within the informal sector. Gender and its accompanying social constraints become another access barrier to an informed and responsible use of financial tools. Since most of the clients of the Mann Deshi Bank were women, this fact soon became apparent.

They confessed being hesitant to use ATMs as they were afraid of making mistakes and losing money. Thus, while the bank was providing easy access to credit, it would not have made a significant impact on the lives of rural women unless they were given guidance, knowledge and the skills to navigate the world of business and finance. Thus, a year after the Bank was founded, the Mann Deshi Foundation was started to provide these skills and knowledge to rural women. The Foundation provides several courses through its various programs to fulfill its vision of financially empowering rural women and helping them achieve their economic aspirations. These courses range from business development and agri-business to financial and digital financial literacy.

During my last 6 months of the fellowship, I have witnessed a few of these financial literacy workshops which are conducted using interactive methods like games and learning modules. For these workshops to be effective, the content needs to be accessible and culturally relevant to the participants. Keeping this in mind, the modules and learning material have been developed by CRISIL, HSBC India and Accion. The success of the workshop also depends on how well the trainer is able to facilitate the understanding and discussion of the concepts among the participants, who tend to be the women from JLGs* who have taken loans from the Mann Deshi Bank. Although, the workshops are open to anyone interested.

The first thing that struck me about the workshops was how soon the trainers were able to put the participants at ease. Whether it was being held at office or in the field, the participants always seemed to enjoy the games and discussions. It helped that often, the trainers were from the same JLG or SHG which created an environment conducive to discussion. Earlier, I was skeptical of how effective these modules or games might be, but after attending a few workshops, I realized that they were not only great conversation starters but also helped the women visualize their income and expenditure in a way they probably hadn’t done before. This helped them draw insights into their money management patterns and figure out where to improve upon.

Time becomes a limitation for workshop facilitators. Most of these women lose an entire day’s income by visiting the bank and attending the workshop. Thus, they are in a hurry to leave and it is often a challenge to persuade them to stay until the day ends. Moreover, financial literacy aims to not only impart specific concepts and skills but also change mind-sets and long-term financial behavior, which may not be possible in one session. Constant guidance and support in using financial tools and products go a long way towards reinforcing positive economic behavior. While this has not been built into the financial literacy sessions due to logistical constraints, field staff and workshop facilitators often maintain personal relationships with the beneficiaries, thereby keeping a check and providing support whenever necessary.

Thus, financial literacy has a lot of potential as a tool for empowerment. While most women clients of the bank repay their loans timely, they stand to improve their economic condition and secure their financial future by becoming financially literate. Much work has already been done on creating culture-specific modules and interactive games, however more efforts need to be taken to offer continuous support in using the financial products.

*JLG (joint liability group) is a group of usually 3-5 women, where they take joint liability for a loan. JLGs remove the need for collateral by sharing loan liability among the group. Each member is required to guarantee at least the interest component of the loan given to other members.

[1] ‘How women in rural India turned courage into capital’, by Chetna Gala Sinha. TED, April 2018.

[2] ‘Government claims Jan Dhan Yojana was a big success. Here’s a reality check’, by Mayank Jain., Sep 06, 2017.

[3] ‘Financial literacy in India is still not priority, 76% of adults do not understand basic concepts’, by Moin Qazi. Counterview, August 21, 2017.

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