Five Moments to Build Women’s Financial Empowerment

Boosting womens’ power by meeting them when their power is most in flux.

When we met Kavita and her new husband Pranav in rural Bihar, they had only been married for three days. We curiously inquired about how they’d come to know each other and what their interests were–eventually leading to the topic of money. When asked about what they planned to do with the cash gifts they received from their wedding, Kavita said she wanted to pay back the debt from their wedding ceremony, while Pranav said he would invest it in goats to make more money. After a pause, Pranav declared that as the husband and the person in charge of these types of decisions, they would indeed be buying the goats. Kavita looked disappointed. Like so many of the other women we interviewed, Kavita would likely never actively play a role in, or be recognized for, the financial decisions in their household. But there was something different about their situation—there seemed to still be hope.

That interview was part of a year long research project with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on understanding the unique barriers and opportunities women face when accessing financial services. One of the insights that started to emerge across contexts, and in interviews like the one with Kavita, was around patterns of empowerment or disempowerment in women’s lives. There were certain key moments of transition where the rules seemed to shift or relax, making it easier to intentionally change norms and practices in their lives. These shifts—marriage, motherhood, even the death of a family member—were ripe for design.

In the financial services sector, the discussion around boosting women’s financial agency focuses on increasing her transactions or use of financial technology, without taking into account all the contextual cues in their lives. However, to increase their power, we need to focus on the moments when it’s most in flux. And to effectively meet women in these moments, we need to work across the silos to offer holistic support.

Over the past few months, we have been working with gender specialists, data science partners, and over 100 experts in women’s economic empowerment and health to identify the most critical moments like this to design for—based on feasibility, reach, and desired women’s economic empowerment outcomes. We're calling these moments life stages.

Finishing school
There’s robust evidence (1) that shows that when we invest in girls during adolescence, it can have a profound ripple effect not only on their future well-being, but that of their families and communities. Yet not all girls have the support they need to complete their secondary education. Imagine a future where educating girls becomes a household, community, and national priority? How might design solutions that give girls the foundation to envision their future, pursue careers, and assert their perspectives?

“When I asked my husband if I could take a loan for an embroidery machine, his straightaway answer was ‘no.’ I just left it. I haven’t said anything since. It was seven years ago.”

Poongodi, Wife in India

Stepping into marriage
Many of the girls and young women we interviewed didn’t have a say in the decision of who they married. When they entered into marriage, they often lacked agency in their households, their husbands often didn’t trust their ability to make financial decisions(2), and in many cases, they were getting uprooted into new communities without a social network. When we were in Bangladesh, we met a young woman who had started a small hair salon, which is rare in Dhaka. However as soon as she got married, her husband pressured her to close her business. She was devastated. How might we leverage the flexibility of a new partnership to set more equitable norms around duties and decision-making? How might design solutions that solidify equal partnerships?

Becoming a mother
In Tanzania, we met Fatima, a new mother. Her husband and brother suggested she start working to help support the baby. She started selling fabric by walking around her village, with her baby on her back. Fatima was thrilled to be contributing to her household, and this independence also meant she had a say in household decisions. Early adulthood is the beginning of women’s childbearing age and the impact of motherhood varies greatly for women—for some it brings newfound respect and freedom in a community, for those whose child was born out of wedlock or not the gender that the community values, it can bring judgement. However, motherhood significantly decreases a woman’s ability to earn an income due to an increase in unpaid care work(3). How might women’s care and domestic work be recognized, redistributed, and reduced?

“Self–dependence is the key to confidence. When I stayed home it was like bonded labor; I wasn't using my brain for anything, nobody knew me. I didn’t have an identity other than being somebody’s wife, somebody’s daughter-in-law. Now I am my own person. I am special. It makes me happy, I have my own personal confidence.”

Renu, Wife in India

Entering the workforce
Even though young women are in their prime working years, women aged 20-24 have the lowest workforce participation rates (4). The gender gap in labor force participation and employment impact women’s ability to access and manage resources (5), limiting young women’s opportunities to learn, earn, and manage money. Without this experience, women often are behind their male counterparts when it comes to skills, opportunities, and earnings—a gap that is difficult to overcome even in later years. How might we build a future where young women are offered resources, skills, and concrete job prospects to learn and earn as they wish, both inside and outside the home?

Growing Wealth As a Matriarch: Women are often at the peak of productive activity in their middle-age (6) due to a reduction of care responsibilities or in response to shocks, new financial needs, or widowhood (7). Yet, most women work in the informal sector with significant barriers to accessing formal financial services. Imagine if mature women were supported in securing and growing their wealth and power?

There is incredible potential in moments of transition, but in order to meet women where they are we need to work across silos—coalescing financial services, health, education, and livelihood partners to build more holistic services that support her when her power is in flux. By focusing on these moments that matter most, we can honor the intersectional nature of her life and finally propel her forward.

This project was done in collaboration with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kore Global, and DrivenData.

(1) Grown, 2005; Lloyd and Young, 2009; Plan International, 2009; Cerise et al., 2012; Chabaan and Cunnignham, 2011; Patrinos, 2008 in Calder & Marcus, 2014.
(2) Wodon et al. 2017.
3) Ferrant et al., 2014.
4) Kabeer, 2018.
5) Munoz Boudet et al., 2018.
6) FII Data Set 2013 - 2017
(7) Rost et al., 2018

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