My money, my dream: Mewat women’s fight for financial inclusion

In Mewat (renamed Nuh), women’s dreams of entrepreneurship are often stifled before it takes flight. Despite a staggering 77% of women yearning for a business loan, their aspirations are suffocated by fear and mistrust of the banking system. The heartbreaking stories of over 2,400 women surveyed in Nuh, Haryana, under SMART NGO’s financial literacy program […]

In Mewat (renamed Nuh), women’s dreams of entrepreneurship are often stifled before it takes flight. Despite a staggering 77% of women yearning for a business loan, their aspirations are suffocated by fear and mistrust of the banking system. The heartbreaking stories of over 2,400 women surveyed in Nuh, Haryana, under SMART NGO’s financial literacy program “Fayde ki baat,” expose a stark truth: a vast gap exists between women’s financial ambitions and their access to resources.

For six months, SMART NGO has witnessed firsthand the root causes and crippling effects of this disconnect in Nuh, which tops the list among the 115 aspirational districts designated by the government, characterised by high levels of poverty and low social development parameters. Within this harsh landscape, women suffer a double blow. Plagued not only by the region’s deprivation, they also endure the scourge of domestic violence, abandonment by husbands, poor health, and illiteracy. Financial inclusion becomes a crucial tool for them to gain control over their lives.

We unpack the reasons behind the grim findings of our baseline survey, informed by our field observations and interactions with local stakeholders.

Ghaseda Narrowcasting. Photo Credit: SMART

Corruption and logistical barriers fuel financial exclusion

89% of women in Nuh possess a bank account – a deceptive piece of data masking the reality of their financial exclusion. These accounts, opened under the obligation of school enrollment and government benefits, often lie dormant once women marry and relocate. A miniscule 35% of the women surveyed, deposit their money in banks, and only 23% of the women interviewed leveraged the banks in times of need.

67% of women remain unaware of even the nearest bank’s location, their access further restricted by societal norms demanding male chaperones for such outings. This isolation leaves them vulnerable to predatory banking representatives who charge exorbitant commissions for basic transactions and services, such as opening accounts – charging for the convenience of offering services at their doorstep.

However, this too is not an easy option available always. Then there are a number of logistical problems. Some banks mandate in-person visits, a daunting task in the extreme weather. Transporting bank representatives to villages where women have gathered with their documents is not feasible, given they often lack equipment like laptops or tablets. In one instance, our team resorted to transporting a desktop computer on a bike to facilitate the process. Power outages and server malfunctions add further delays, underscoring the obstacles faced by women seeking financial inclusion in Nuh.

An essential component of achieving financial inclusion involves leveraging government welfare initiatives. In Nuh, there exists several government schemes designed to provide financial assistance and support specifically for women. For instance, schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY), which offers insurance benefits, can be seamlessly integrated with bank accounts. However, the vast majority of women’s bank accounts lack such linkages to government schemes, primarily due to a lack of awareness and their associated benefits.

Additionally, there’s a lack of clarity regarding eligibility criteria and required documents. Many women face challenges with paperwork, such as discrepancies in names, especially if their surnames have changed after marriage but have not been updated in official documents like Aadhaar cards.

FI project in full swing on ground. Photo Credit: SMART

Even when the papers are complete, women fall prey for petty corruption because of the mediators. At most times since the women lack know-how, they get their accounts opened either through the Common Service Centres (CSC) or through Bank Correspondents (BCs). Both of them charge some amount for their service which many times is not officially authorised.

As the SMART initiative ‘Fayde Ki Baat’ rolls out on the ground, there’s a growing issue of BCs resisting cooperation due to the commissions they receive for each account opened.

Read More: SMART NGO empowers Mewat’s women to forge their financial futures

The digital divide keeping women out of banking system  

This digital divide exacerbates the existing barriers to financial inclusion, leaving women reliant on exploitative middlemen and bureaucratic hurdles.

While online and mobile banking have revolutionized financial access in many parts of the country, Mewat’s women remain largely excluded from this progress. 68% lack access to smartphones, the gateway to digital banking, while 72% of those with bank accounts lack even a basic ATM card. Very few considered using banks for investments, and they lacked knowledge about different savings and investment methods such as fixed deposits or SIPs.

Furthermore, the low literacy rates* among women in the region compound the issue, making the prospect of mobile banking daunting and inaccessible without dedicated support and training.

Supervisors training. Photo Credit: SMART

Dismissive, unreliable, patriarchal bank officials 

Another factor that exacerbates the women’s aversion to formal financial institutions is the dismissive, unempathetic and unhelpful behaviour of the staff present in the bank . In Badwa village, women shared stories of being turned away by bank officials with flimsy excuses or facing arbitrary withdrawal limits. These experiences have sown seeds of doubt about their ability to access their own funds during emergencies, fueling anxieties about potential obstacles and delays. As a result, many women choose to keep their savings in cash, hidden away under their beds, tucked inside sugar jars, or in the nooks and crannies of their cupboards.

In another village, when a group of women accompanied our team to a bank, their instinctive act of squatting on the floor while men occupied chairs spoke volumes. This stark visual of inequality exposed banks not as empowering institutions but as mere extensions of the oppressive conditions women endure within their homes. The message was clear: even in a supposedly neutral space, the patriarchal power dynamics that confine women remain firmly entrenched outside the four walls of their homes.

“My Money”: A longing for financial independence and dignity 

We also observed that women in Mewat tend to downplay their economic contributions and lack ownership over their hard-earned income. 83% of the surveyed women reported being unemployed, with 73% identifying themselves as housewives. Despite shouldering the backbreaking burden of farming, often under scorching heat, while male members engage in construction or transport, women rarely claim a share of the family’s income.

Reliant on their husbands even for personal expenses, these women typically receive a paltry Rs 500-2000 per month.* This meager allowance, euphemistically termed “own expenses,” is expected to cover not only their personal needs but also those of their children and the family.

Despite this financial constraint, women strive to save, with 33.4% managing to squirrel away a mere Rs 150 from their personal budget. This desperate longing for financial independence, for the dignity and comfort of “my money,” reinforces the urgent need for support systems.

Akeda narrowcasting. Photo Credit: SMART

In the past six months, we’ve ignited a spark of interest in banking among the women of Mewat. We’ve facilitated the opening of numerous bank accounts, empowered women with the knowledge that they don’t need to pay commissions to middlemen, and most importantly, linked these accounts to a multitude of government schemes. These include PMJAY, (name a few more schemes) PMSBY(Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Beema Yojna), Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna, and PMJJBY (Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Beema Yojna), which not only directly benefit the women themselves but also extend crucial support to their daughters.

*Over 48% of these women lack formal education, and more than half can only sign their names

*The families surveyed fall in the annual income range of 1 lakh to 2.5 lakhs.

About “Fayde ki baat”

SMART NGO’s “Fayde ki baat” is being implemented in collaboration with CMS foundation, the official nonprofit partner for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, India’s leading business services company committed to driving meaningful social impact amongst underserved communities. can all of this summed up in 100 words 

“Fayde ki baat,” meaning “Talk of your profit,” is a multi-faceted initiative designed to empower women in Mewat by addressing the root causes of their financial exclusion.  “Fayde ki Baat” aims to dismantle barriers and create a more inclusive financial landscape where women can fully participate and thrive. It operates on three key levels:

Empowering with information: Equipping women with knowledge about banking products and government schemes, and how linking these to their bank accounts can bring tangible benefits. This includes education on financial literacy, savings, and investment opportunities.

Challenging systemic barriers: Tackling the bureaucratic hurdles and discriminatory practices that hinder women’s access to financial services. This involves advocating for policy changes, raising awareness among bank officials, and building partnerships with local stakeholders.

Promoting success stories and bringing about mindset shifts: Showcasing inspiring examples of women who have achieved financial independence through banking and entrepreneurship. These stories serve as powerful motivators, shifting mindsets and challenging traditional gender norms.

About the Author:
Praveen Tiwari is a Program Associate at SMART NGO. He completed his master’s degree in International relations from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. He takes a keen interest in researching and writing about state institutions, public health and information and literacy issues.