Women waiting in the queue during the COVID-19 pandemic, Peru / iStock

19 March 2021

Women must be at the heart of public policy design

In conjunction with International Women’s Day 2021, AFI reached out to women leaders in the network to share their insight on women’s empowerment and the important role women play in financial inclusion. This interview features Socorro Heysen Zegarra, Superintendent at Superintendencia de Banca, Seguros y AFP (SBS).

AFI: Why is financial inclusion, especially women’s financial inclusion, important to you?

Dra. Socorro Heysen: Financial inclusion for women is a key enabler in reducing poverty and improving well-being. Access to financial services – such as saving accounts, loans and insurance products – means having the opportunity to improve one’s economic status. Increasing women’s economic opportunities has a positive impact on human capital, as women tend to prioritize their children’s education and health.

In Peru, structural and individual barriers continue to limit women’s access to and use of financial services. Women do not have the same access to formal education as men but also invest more hours in household chores, leaving them with less room for income generating activities. Furthermore, women’s income generating activities are often in lower productivity jobs, which have lower pay.

There is a significant bias towards men’s access to financial services. Peru’s 2016 financial services demand survey revealed a 15-percent gender gap with only 22 percent of women having access to savings accounts compared with 37 percent of men. This divide denies Peruvian women of the positive effect financial inclusion has towards achieving greater empowerment and bargaining power at home.

This situation calls for immediate action to implement strategies that can regulate and reduce these disparities. Here, we are already making some headway. Peru’s national policy for financial inclusion has made women its focus and main objective, requiring the private and public sectors to develop initiatives for the benefit of women. In this regard, SBS and the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion implemented a joint financial education program focused on providing women leaders of the Food Supplementation Program with the necessary knowledge and tools to manage their finances and improve their living standards.

AFI: What are the unique qualities that female leaders can bring to an organization?

Dra. Socorro Heysen: In addition to conducting all the regular work demands as well as men, women bring abilities and competencies that can improve discussion- and decision-making processes. Women have been recognized for their ability to manage multiple tasks simultaneously, deal with difficult human resources issues carefully and communicate assertively.

AFI: What are the biggest opportunities you can have in developing and implementing policy and regulation focused on women’s financial inclusion?

Dra. Socorro Heysen: After many years of working to improve financial inclusion, we identified three key factors that must be considered in accelerating financial inclusion: attitudes toward savings, the role of technology and the importance of social environments.

Loan and saving products for women have been around for quite some time in Peru and provide valuable experiences and lessons. Several microfinance projects were tested and revealed positive results and findings. First, poor or rural women can save even if they do not have a regular or steady income. Second, women can harness technology related to financial products or services with adequate support from financial educational strategies. Third, belonging to women communities matters as they provide opportunities to learn and build strong trust and empathy ties. In other words, to be accompanied by other women throughout the saving process adds value to women. This evidence shows that initiatives focused on providing financial education and empowerment to women provide excellent opportunities to include them in the financial system.

Another opportunity would be to implement policies that promote women’s participation in the design process of financial products with the aim at offering products in the financial market that reflect the needs and preferences of Peruvian women.

AFI: How has SBS utilized digital financial services (DFS) to expand the reach and accessibility to financial inclusion for women in Peru?

Dra. Socorro Heysen: Peru still has a strong preference for cash, a situation that is strongly associated with informality and communications infrastructure gaps. In this regard, SBS has taken actions in two key plans – the national financial inclusion strategy and national financial inclusion policy – to promote the use of digital financial services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a mindset change in favor of using digital channels for financial transactions. It is imperative that policymakers and market practitioners capitalize on this change to move forward quickly and develop a comprehensive digital ecosystem to meet the needs of the population.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 emergency, companies in the financial system designed bank accounts that could be opened and activated remotely. They also offered digital products and apps for money transfers and online payments through smartphones. Digital wallets, such as YAPE and PLIM, have become increasing popular with consumers. Peru’s central bank estimates that payments through online bank transfers rose 75 percent to 84 million by the end of 2020 from 48 million in December 2019.

Women and men have equal access to these digital features. Their use was even extended to social assistance, with COVID-19 government stimulus payments being paid out at ATMs or deposited directly in bank accounts. E-money wallets have also been used to funnel aid, as was the case with private initiative Bono Peru Unido.

While SBS has issued regulation linked with customer digital identification and authentication, significant effort is still needed to achieve a complete remote experience for all electronic payments, as well as adequate legal certainty, user experience and security with solid identification and authentication systems.

AFI: 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?

Dra. Socorro Heysen: The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that efforts to include women financially have been important but that, as a country, we still face many challenges because women need better and broader financial inclusion policies to enhance their capacity to work and improve their standard of living. We have an opportunity to place women in the spotlight and at the center of public policy design for a sustainable economic recovery. This will ensure better reconstruction in terms of gender gaps in the post-COVID-19 era.

To the women at SBS, I want to thank each one of you for your tireless and exceptional work. This past year has been extremely challenging for the whole world, the country and the institution. Women have had to adapt to a new reality, balancing work and increasing family responsibilities, all of them with unwavering commitment and a strong sense of duty.

We will continue to work as a team because we need the contributions of each one of you to perform our best as an institution.

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