Momena Khatun, a homemaker living in a village area under Sherpur Upazila of Bogura district, has experienced some changes in her life in the recent years. 10 years ago, her life was different. Her husband used to work in a leading construction firm then and so, he roamed around from one place to another depending on the project site. In every two months, her husband used to visit her once to meet them as well as provide the money necessary to run the family. It was a troublesome experience for her husband as his workstation was quite far from their village. Sometimes he transferred the money to her bank account to avoid trouble. But, it was also bothersome for Khatun as the nearest bank branch was in the upazila. At that time, life was difficult for Khatun as withdrawing essential money was a hassle back then. However, on today’s date, life is much more convenient for Khatun as she does not have to squander time as well as extra money for doing transactions and withdrawing money. With the advent of Mobile Financial Services (MFSs), many things related to transactions have turned into a cakewalk for her.
Just like Khatun, MFS has proved to be a boon for hundreds of rural women who were once deprived of the amenities modern innovations can offer. Owing to digital transformation underway in full swing in the country, even our rural women are now in a position to take advantage of digital services. And no digital service has probably impacted the lives of these women more than Mobile Financial Services (MFSs). MFSs have empowered rural women in the truest sense in many ways as they were earlier denied convenient and easy ways of doing transactions. With increasing participation of women, the number of MFS users have also witnessed an upward curve.
At the moment, there are more than 100 million MFS account holders in Bangladesh, according to information provided by Bangladesh Bank. According to Bangladesh Bank data, more than Tk 2,000 crore is transacted through MFS every day on an average. Out of total MFS users, the number of women users is 11 per cent whereas 30 per cent of men are using such services at present.
Mobile Financial Services (MFSs) have empowered and enabled rural women in multifarious ways. First, women who were earlier excluded from financial activities are now taking part in such kind of activities. Because of social stigma associated with women standing in a queue or dealing with money, many women in the rural areas were barred from opening bank accounts or visiting local branches. With the advent of MFSs, the scenario has changed and women folks are now being considered for financial inclusion. Women now can transact easily using different mobile financial services. Such empowerment has also instilled a sense of value in them and increased their confidence.
In the meantime, an enabling ambience created by MFSs has inspired many women in the village areas to do something for them and achieve self sufficiency. To be particular, many women are now involved in small-scale businesses. As it is now possible to carry out important transactions through mobile phones, many female entrepreneurs involved in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are now resorting to MFSs to conduct important dealings. This has definitely played a good role in encouraging more women to do small businesses and contribute financially to the family and the society in a greater sense.
Most importantly, participation of women in MFSs has been playing a significant role in materializing ‘Digital Bangladesh’ dream. According to independent stats, female population of Bangladesh stands at around 81.4 million. Now imagine, is it possible to achieve the goals related to digitization leaving this huge population behind? Simply ‘no’. So, it was a vital step that women are being facilitated with digital services. Participation of women in mobile financial services has definitely been a crucial part of that journey, which now seems achievable.
Despite all these positive outlooks, there are some hard facts as well. Though it’s true that many women are availing of mobile financial services, many others are still lagging behind. As stated earlier, only 11 per cent of women are registered MFS users, which is not very encouraging. More women need to be facilitated with such digital services so that everyone can reap benefits of digital transformation.
Tech literacy is a major problem in this regard which is hamstringing the growth of MFS users in our country. Especially women dwelling in the rural areas are not tech-savvy population, so many of them refrain from using such services owing to a lack of proper tech knowledge. According to information revealed in a survey report titled “Last Mile Experience of Mobile Financial Services during COVID-19” conducted by the Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), only 40 per cent of MFS account owners can operate accounts by themselves without any help from others. The same report stated that 50 per cent MFS account holders operate their MFS accounts with the help of MFS agents, 5 per cent with the help of family members and 4 per cent take help from neighbors or friends. This clearly attests the fact that technological barriers are holding our population (especially women) back as far as utilizing MFS is concerned.
Another cause of concern is the risks of fraud associated with such services. As rural women are less educated, they turn out to be easy meat for conmen. Consequently, the risk of being deceived by fraudsters is still high. With the advancement of technological amenities, the chances of transaction-related fraud attempts are also increasing. The fear of being deceived is also discouraging many rural women.
The comforting fact is that the bright side is heavier than the gloomy side when it comes to participation of women in mobile financial services. With increasing availability of smartphones and meteoric rate of digital transformation, the number of women MFS users is poised to increase in the near future. Moreover, if Bangladesh wants to ensure inclusion of women in financial activities and give them the opportunity to contribute economically, then congenial ambience must be created for them so that they can empower themselves by availing of more digital services like MFS.
The writer is a freelance columnist