Women love exclusive services but considering the problems that Finance Minister aims to solve through this, the step seems a little out of place
Within a day after Finance Minister P Chidambaram announced that India will have its first all-women bank by the year-end, there have been all sort of reactions on the announcement: optimistic, pessimistic, neutral. With so many discussions around women’s rights and empowerment, the step though not anticipated, doesn’t come as a surprise. Hinting at the exclusive nature of the bank, Chidambaram pointed out that this state-owned bank will principally employ women. Men can use this bank for deposits but it would give loans mostly to women. Great idea! Women love exclusive services and ‘men not allowed’ boards but considering the problems that Finance Minister aims to solve through this measure, the step seems a little out of place.
1. Will it make women feel equal?
It is amazing how women are offered exclusive services in India: All-women schools, all-women buses, all-women cars and now all-women bank. The point is, how establishing an all-women bank gives women the opportunity to be and feel equal. To back his proposal, Chidambaram said, “We think women get a raw deal from many of our institutions, including public sector banks. Any number of people have told me clearly there is a bias to lend to men rather to women. (Sic)” Coming from the Finance Minister of the country, this statement raises concerns. Does this mean that this bias is accepted and instead of solving it a new institution that will offer exclusive services to women is the only solution? Rather than reserving another space for women, a better idea would be to make the existing banks more women friendly, so in the longer run they learn to deal with their customers fairly. As for making women more comfortable inside banks, banks can have branches that are exclusively for women.
2. Will it really empower women?
What people (men and women) require from banks are quality services that meet their needs; based on their gender, age, financial background, these requirements may differ. A recent World Bank study claims that only 26 per cent of women in India have an account with a formal financial institution. In a country where less than one fourth of the women are financially independent, most are illiterate (or get lost in the cumbersome paper formalities and other processes) more than exclusivity, easiness of processes is required. The all-women staff or services may not be useful unless some drastic steps are taken to reach out to them. Moreover, the steps taken to attract the customers (interest rates, lending formalities, collaterals, zero balance accounts) are more significant. To enable such ‘reluctant’ women come out to banks it will be necessary for the banks to reach out to them.