A Bank of Women, by Women, for Women

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week opened the first branch of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, which will employ only women, and accept deposits from and lend mostly to women.

Importantly, this bank will have branches in smaller towns and villages where its services are most required. And while men may also operate accounts here, the focus will be on women, and making educating women financially-aware.

Why a bank – primarily – for women? Only 26 percent of women in India have an account in a financial institution – be it a bank, a credit union, a post office or a microfinance institution – compared with 46 percent of men, according to a study by the World Bank. 

Financial inclusion is a big challenge in many developing countries where barriers to opening a bank account or taking a loan include physical distance, lack of documentation and high costs; only 35 percent of Indians have access to banking services compared to a global average of 50 percent, and a developing-nation average of 41 percent, according to World Bank data.

In India, even as more women are getting an education and jobs, millions still have no access to basic financial services and are reduced to being dependent on their fathers or their husbands to manage their money. At the same time, some of the top private banks, from ICICI Bank to HSBC Plc and JP Morgan in India have women CEOs. 

Microfinance institutions and self-help groups have done much to improve access to financial services for women, as have the advent of mobile phones and the rollout of India’s unique identification system. Simply setting up a bank of women will not solve entrenched social issues and traditions which continue to favor men. But it is a start, and much like India’s popular ladies’-special-trains, the bank may lower the barriers for women in a deeply patriarchal society.

Fading Opportunities for Women in the Land of the Rising Sun

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I am just back from a vacation in Japan (highly recommend it), where I was as struck by the cutting-edge technology in everything from toilets to trains and the wondrous aesthetic sense of shop assistants and chefs alike, as I was by the appalling gender gap.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy (overtaken by China in 2010, in case you missed it), is the world’s most rapidly aging advanced country, with also the widest gender gap among developed countries. This is not something to be proud of; yet, one leader after another, one CEO after another, has failed to address the issue, to Japan’s great detriment. 

Global female labor-force participation has stalled at about 50 percent for two decades, according to a report in September from the International Monetary Fund.  More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, according to the World Bank. Failure to integrate women fully into the workforce is costing the Asia-Pacific region about $89 billion a year in unrealized output, according to the United Nations. 

Japan’s 63 percent of women in the workforce is comparable more to developing countries, and most women are confined to lower-paying and lower-rung jobs. Even in fancy offices, women until very recently were required to serve tea to their male colleagues and  having a baby is a sure route to career-wilderness, as there is little by way of public daycare, and hiring a nanny is an expensive process.

Christine Lagarde, among the most high-profile women in the world as managing director of the IMF, has made it something of a personal crusade to call out countries on their female participation, and in asking them to report on gender issues. In a paper last year called ‘Can Women Save Japan’, the IMF highlighted the many hurdles to working women in Japan, and suggested ways to remove them – primarily, with policies to reduce the gender gap in work and better support for working mothers. The economic outlook for Japan would be much brighter if more women joined the labour force, it said.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to elevate the role of women, calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions across different parts of the society by 2020 and vowing to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. While Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Daiwa have all recently pledged to increase the number of female managers significantly in the coming years, Japan resolutely refuses to mandate quotas for women in the government or in company boards. The sun may well be setting, and quickly.  

Women Are Less Equal in Natural Disasters

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Pic: CNN/Getty Images

The Philippines is still assessing the destruction wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people and caused damage costing billions of dollars. The super typhoon may have a greater economic impact on the country than Hurricane Sandy did in the U.S., according to estimates from disaster modelling by Kinetic Analysis Corp.

What’s definitely clear though, is that the country’s women will be hit harder than the men. This is true not just in the Philippines, but pretty much in any disaster area, particularly in a developing nation.

“There is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction,” the World Health Organization notes. “Due to social norms and their interaction with biological factors, women and girls may face increased risk to adverse health effects and violence. They may be unable to access assistance safely and/or to make their needs known. Additionally, women are insufficiently included in community consultation and decision-making processes, resulting in their needs not being met.”

Fortunately, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among developing nations and its women are a feisty, resilient lot. Even so, the government, aid agencies and donors would be well-advised to keep women front and center as the country recovers from the tragedy.