Costa Rican young woman wearing traditional costume during the art school anniversary in Liberia, Costa Rica / iStock

17 March 2021

Investment in women’s empowerment critical to financial inclusion

In conjunction with International Women’s Day 2021, AFI reached out to women leaders in the network to share their insights on women’s empowerment and the important role women play in financial inclusion. This interview features Superintendenta Rocio Aguilar, Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras (SUGEF), Costa Rica.

  1. Why is women’s financial inclusion important to you?

Financial inclusion is a determining factor for the integral development of society, and a fundamental instrument in poverty alleviation and the improving quality of life. Financial inclusion is key to the economic independence, development, and empowerment for women. It allows women to expand their possibilities of their own personal and professional development, as well as improve their capacity to face challenges of the financial world.

Various studies and evidence show the benefit of financially empowering women, as they tend to prioritize investing in education, food and the health of their families and communities, which has led to them breaking the cycle of poverty and boosting economic growth. 

Financial inclusion initiatives with a gender approach contribute to overcoming the barriers faced by women both on the demand- and supply-side.

Demand-side factors include under participation of women in the labor market, as opposed to greater participation in the informal sector. It also looks into the disproportionate concentration of women in economic activities of lower remuneration, lack of assets to provide collaterals, as well as having the bear a double burden due to unpaid domestic and care work.

On the supply side many financial institutions still offer products and use channels that do not consider the specific needs and preferences of women in the commercialization and design of financial instruments.

As financial regulators and policymakers, we strive towards initiatives that promote a market which is comprised of high potential women. Women entrepreneurs in particular, represents a neglected segment in need of accessing financing and new financial instruments.

  1. What are unique qualities that women leaders can bring to an organization?

A good leader is one who manages a motivated and productive team, with a sense of belonging. The leader should create a positive organizational climate and that cultivates a high level of trust. Efficient delegation of tasks enables the leader to focus on the institution’s strategy. From this perspective, women have specific qualities that benefit this objective:

Empathy with a high degree of objectivity: Women have a special sensitivity that allows them to recognize the needs, feelings and expectations of the work team. This, in turn, leads them to make better decisions considering a greater number of perspectives. This quality makes them generate close ties and constant communication that help to obtain better results and the best from each member.

Today, organizations are flatter and more interconnected since changes are faster. Thus management requires greater collaboration, empathy, sensitivity and consensus, characteristics that are more associated with the feminine. For this reason, women’s leadership is better adjusted to the needs of the new social and economic dynamics by being more supportive, flexible, cooperative, participatory and going beyond mere economic interest.

  1. What are the biggest opportunities you face in developing and implementing policy and regulation focused on women´s financial inclusion?

Financial Inclusion with a gender perspective is an issue that is gaining greater momentum in the financial sector, with an increasing openness for making constructive developments for women. The growing commitment of governments to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) offers an excellent opportunity to generate synergies, as poverty reduction is an essential component to sustainable development. Therefore, the fulfillment of the SDGs provides a key opportunity to renew the commitments made by the countries on this matter.

Many women in the region are micro-entrepreneurs. Access to financial resources is essential to expand, diversify and improve the quality of their production and to increase their economic autonomy. Lack of financing makes it difficult for them to manage risk, start or invest in their business and finance education expenses. For this reason, financial institutions are beginning to see women as a very large, neglected segment of the market that offers excellent business opportunities. Properly managed, this segment could become very profitable. Consequently, the implementation of initiatives focused on the financial inclusion of women is receiving less and less resistance from the financial sector.

The effort of greater financial inclusion must go hand in hand with greater financial education and training, in such a way as to multiply the benefit generated by unifying the three pillars: Financial Inclusion, Training and Financial Education.

The growing awareness of the importance of the issue has also generated greater synergy among different government agencies which have begun to work more closely to each other in order to capitalize on significant joint efforts. SUGEF’s relationship with institutions such as the Ministry of the Economy, the Ministry of the Environment, and the National Women’s Institute has become increasingly close in implementation of specific initiatives in this area of work.

  1. In the training co-hosted by SUGEF and AFI late last year, you mentioned that special emphasis should be given to women-led MSMEs and women-focused initiatives. What lessons can SUGEF share in how having women at the core of development activities can benefit the economic ecosystem as a whole?

Promoting women’s access to financial services brings benefits for the economic development of the country as a whole. Women tend to invest a greater part of their money in education, health care and well-being of children, which not only strengthens families, but also sustains the long-term soundness of society.

Many women are outside the labor market or work in the informal sector, as this allows them to balance their productive activity with their role as caregivers and often of heads of households. In many developing countries, many of women get involved in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). Promoting women-led MSMEs is of particular importance for the economy, especially considering that many of them do not have access to financial institutions or do not receive adequate financial services to meet their needs.

If the specific needs and preferences of women-led MSMEs are not taken into account in the design of financial products and in the provision of services, this will have an impact on women having less access to financial products and services. This also means that financial providers could be losing out on opportunities in developing their businesses.

  1. What is your message to women in your institution and in our network, across the world, on international Women´s Day, especially during the challenging times of COVID-19 pandemic?

Although the obstacles are great or seem insurmountable, we must continue fighting and striving to achieve what we want and deserve. Achievements that are most valued are those that have required the most effort and the only struggle that is lost is the one that is abandoned.

The path to reach our goals is always going to have obstacles that we must face. The important thing is not to give in, not to be defeated and to be constant. Society has a wealth of women who, receiving financial support, have the ability to positively impact development. Institutions need to recognize this importance and work towards creating enabling and conducive conditions to fully deploy women’s potential, whose performance will be multiplied by the impact it generates on their family nucleus.

The Gender Inclusive Finance workstream is partially financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and other partners.

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