On International Women's Day, 'Invisible' Women Need Financial Access

In photo: Olusoga Fausat (right), a client of Women's World Banking's partner Diamond Bank, sells goods at her market stall in Lagos, Nigeria. Ms. Fausat opened a special savings account that allows her to safely deposit money and conduct transactions through an agent of the bank who visits her market stall regularly. Credit: Women's World Banking

Today we celebrate International Women's Day. Admittedly, this day is not as well-known or as loudly celebrated as many of our commercial American holidays. But International Women's Day was actually founded by a group of visionary women who wanted to make noise. In the early 1900s, women's oppression and inequality spurred women around the world to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change. The founders of International Women's Day came together to draw global attention to the quest for women's equality. They spoke out for the right to vote, work, and earn an equal wage, no longer accepting women's invisible position in society.

International Women's Day provides an opportunity to celebrate our shared experience as women. As women today, in some way or another, we are all caregivers, we are peacekeepers, we are leaders, we are innovators, we are providers. As I reflect on these commonalities, however, I cannot help but reflect on the vast disparity in the resources available to women to fulfill these responsibilities. As a working woman in New York City, I am fortunate to have financial resources, and more importantly, access to the tools to manage those resources. But what about the woman farmer in rural Tanzania who is miles from the closest bank and cannot take out a loan or open a savings account without her husband's signature? And she is, by no means, alone -- over 1 billion women around the world don't have access to these basic financial tools.

The founders of International Women's Day organized to give women greater control over their own destinies. The woman who controls her own finances controls her own future and that future is brighter not just for her, but for her entire family. Wherever she lives, no matter what country, when a woman controls her own finances she invests that money in ways that can bring about long-term change -- education for her children, health care and better housing for her family. Women make these types of transformative investments to a far greater extent than men do, but low-income women around the world are routinely denied access to the basic financial products that most of us take for granted: loans to grow businesses, savings accounts to provide a safety net in time of emergency, or insurance policies to cover medical costs.

Low-income women around the world are largely invisible to financial institutions. Most banks have failed to recognize that this financial access gap is not a problem to solve, but an exciting market opportunity to embrace. My organization, Women's World Banking, works with financial institutions in 31 countries around the world, and we see this problem of "invisible women clients" time and time again. But we know, if done well, serving women can be both successful and profitable. One of our partners Diamond Bank, a large bank in Nigeria, worked with us to develop a successful savings product for women. Yet, when conducting initial customer research for this project, we spoke to market women who ran stalls directly across the street from Diamond Bank branches. They didn't see the bank's services as intended for them -- it was only for rich people and they feared that their savings would be "eaten" by fees. When we walked across the street to the branch and asked the manager why he wasn't providing banking services to the women who owned businesses across the road, he said to us: "There are women with businesses across the road? Where?" These women, like many women struggling without tools to manage their finances, were literally invisible to the bank.

This International Women's Day, invisible women clients around the world do not just need us to make noise. They need banks, insurance companies, mortgage providers, indeed the full range of financial service providers to recognize the market opportunity that lies in servicing this unmet demand. For financial service providers that are savvy enough to recognize the tremendous market potential of serving one billion international women, the opportunities are boundless. By investing in women we produce a multiplier effect on the well-being of their households and communities. Put simply, financial access for all women means positive change for the world.

Celebrate International Women's Day by visiting www.womensworldbanking.org to learn more.

Cisco supports the Center for Microfinance Leadership for executives of microfinance institutions (MFIs) dedicated to expanding access to financial services for women. For more information about Cisco's community partners, visit: http://csr.cisco.com/pages/community-partners