The Asia Pacific Women thought leadership series brings focus to the status of women in the Asia-Pacific region through expert commentary on women’s social inclusion and economic engagement in several aspects of life.
Access to financial services is critical for people to meaningfully participate in and benefit from the monetary economy. Inclusivity extends beyond ownership of accounts for deposits and withdrawals to include: payments, remittances, savings, loans and insurance services. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), financial inclusion is extremely low with only 25 per cent of the population having access to financial services. State intervention to address the urgent need to improve access to financial services by the country’s financial regular, Bank of PNG started in 2013.
Since then, PNG has joined international and regional efforts to extend the financial inclusion agenda. Nationally, the Centre for Excellence in Financial Inclusion (CEFI) was established to coordinate, advocate and monitor national financial inclusion activities. Since 2014, two National Financial Inclusion and Financial Literacy Strategies have been developed and implemented and CEFI is currently preparing to develop the third strategy. By 2019, the country’s first National Financial Inclusion Policy was adopted. According to the policy 1.9 million new accounts were opened, but only 28 per cent of these were owned by women. There are huge variations within and between provinces, urban/rural areas, socio-economic, age and gender groups.
Most workers in the informal economy are financially excluded. Open markets for fresh food remain the major form of informal economic activity in the country.
Markets provide the only opportunity for most PNG women to participate in the cash economy. Women vendors dominate market trading and most are financially excluded.
This has major implications for women and their families as well as society more generally, because without access to financial services, economic empowerment for the majority of women who work in the informal economy will be difficult to achieve.
This article focuses on financial inclusion from the demand side of women market vendors. The data used is from a study on understanding the dynamics of the informal economy in Port Moresby. Data was collected using a survey instrument from 205 randomly selected vendors in 10 randomly selected markets and analysed using descriptive statistics. Women vendors comprised 75.6 per cent (n=155) of respondents.
Results of financial inclusion data
The findings of women vendors’ financial inclusion are discussed under the three dimensions of access, usage and quality of services.
Ownership of a bank account is the first step towards financial inclusion. An account does not automatically lead to financial inclusion. It enables customers to save, withdraw, make transfers, access loans and insurance products. In this study, 64 per cent (n= 99 out of 155) of women regularly save part of their earnings, with 70 per cent of the savers (n= 69 out of 99) keeping savings in cash at home. While 39.3 per cent of the women (n= 61 out of 99) have an account with a financial institution, just half (30 out of 61) of the account holders keep their savings in a bank account. Women with accounts need to effectively use financial services to realise the full benefits of financial inclusion.
Currently active accounts are used mainly for saving and withdrawal of women’s own funds. Of the women surveyed, none used their accounts for any additional services for payments, remittances, loans, or insurance products. Start-up capital for market vending is usually small (average of K281.00), so many used personal funds. Those who borrowed, had mainly sourced funds from family and informal lenders.
Two-thirds of the women expressed a desire to expand or formalise their enterprises. Even though access to finance was identified as the most important area of need; they were unwilling to borrow from financial institutions. Reluctance to obtain loans is largely due to a lack of awareness about where and how to source small loans at affordable rates.
Financial products and services tailored to meet the needs of customers. Women’s experiences relate more to challenges of access and usage as outlined below.
Barriers to financial inclusion
The study revealed a range of major barriers affecting women’s access to financial services:
This is the most common reason for not saving. Profit from sales is spent on paying for survival needs such as food, transport, utilities or paying for children’s education and the principal re-invested in the enterprise. Saving is done if there is any surplus cash after immediate needs are met. Often there is nothing left.
Low levels of education and Illiteracy
Most women (84.5 per cent) have very low levels of education. They have not reached beyond primary level education. Education is a catalyst for financial inclusion as it enables people to read, but with low levels of education women are lack literacy skills to read and write well. This prevents them from accessing financial services.
Identification requirements for account opening
The identification documents required by commercial banks for account opening discourages many of the women. Though financial institutions have reduced the number of documents required for opening accounts in recent years, this information is yet to filter out to the public.
Don’t understand process of account opening
A lack of understanding about the process of opening accounts and accessing financial services is prevalent among women. This is mainly due to the high levels of illiteracy, which hinders women from being able to read, understand and fill out required documents.
Transaction costs and account keeping fees discourage those with accounts from using it. Some women view fees as ‘theft’; with a certain level of mistrust in banks and prefer to keep savings at home. Even when a bank offers no fee attracting accounts, front-line workers do not always assist customers to open the type of account that best suits their situation.
Banking is time consuming
Banking trips take long hours, from time spent on public transport to waiting in long queues and this reduces the day’s hours for conducting business. It is considered to not be worth spending the time and effort on transactions of small amounts and this hinders vendors from using banks. Many women prefer to keep cash that can be used when it is needed. The danger is, cash can be lost to theft and it is tempting to spend cash rather than savings in a bank account.
Interventions that can improve women’s financial inclusion
Below are some actions that can be taken to address barriers to women’s financial inclusion:
- A bank account does not automatically lead to financial inclusion. It needs to be complimented with incentives to encourage women to continue to use accounts beyond savings and withdrawals. At the time of account opening, customers should be informed of other services that are on offer to encourage up-take.
- Relax identification requirements and simplify processes to enable women who are financially excluded to open accounts. Equally important is making information widely available in a form that can easily be understood.
- Providing basic adult literacy training would help women to improve their reading and writing skills. This needs to be accompanied by financial literacy and competency training. This will enable women to include saving as an important part of spending to budget for, and not an after-thought as is currently the practice.
- Incentives need to be created and supported to enable vendors to save regularly. Options for financial institutions to offer basic accounts that do not attract account keeping fees and minimum transaction costs to women and other excluded groups will increase account opening and usage. Also, awarding interest on savings will encourage account holders to increase savings and build a credit history which can be used as collateral for loans too.
- Providing financial services in convenient locations for women/customers will reduce banking times. In markets or other locations where banks do not have brick and mortar branches, it would be helpful to engage agents using mobile technology for banking.
Access to financial services is critical for women to participate meaningfully in the economy. It is vital for financial inclusion intervention strategies to be tailored to reach the majority of women who trade in markets and other sectors of the informal economy. Without access to financial services, women’s economic empowerment will remain an elusive objective.
Dr Elizabeth Kopel is a Senior Research Fellow and Leader of the Informal Economy Research Program at the National Research Institute, Papua New Guinea. She co-shares leadership of the Gender Research Program.