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International Women’s Day: Simona Haiduc from Opportunity International Talks About Financial Inclusion of Women in Developing Countries

“Women’s rights are a human rights issue. Everyone must work to help achieve equal rights for women,” says Dr Farzana Khan, Head of Programs, Operation PeaceMaker, My Choices Foundation. On this International Women’s Day, in an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Simona Haiduc, Opportunity International’s Managing Director of Strategic Partnerships elaborates on the initiatives of the organisation that has extended support to organisations including My Choices Foundation and Centre for Development Orientation and Training (CDOT) in India, aimed at offering financial services and digital tools to millions living in extreme poverty. The collaborations are thus moving women’s inclusion forward in the developing world.
Following are the excerpts from the interaction combined with the thoughts of the collaborating partners of the organisation.

1. Opportunity International has recently collaborated with several organisations in India and abroad working towards women empowerment. Please tell us more about the collaboration.

Opportunity International is a 50-year-old global organization that believes in business solutions to poverty and designs innovative financial tools to help families living in extreme poverty build sustainable livelihoods and access quality education for their children.
We focus on women’s economic empowerment, as women are true agents of change in their communities. To do that, we equip women with three things: access to capital and financial services such as loans and savings accounts, specialized training (e.g., financial literacy, good agricultural business practices or business management training), and support networks to help grow their businesses, increase productivity, yields, incomes, and create jobs for their family members and neighbours.
We implement our work through our own technical expert teams and partnerships with local organizations. One of these powerful partnerships in India is with CDOT through the Agents of Change initiative.
Agents of Change empowers women socially and financially as last-mile service provides. The program consists of networks of female banking agents who give rural women in India access to crucial banking services. Agent outlets are run by local women and provide a welcoming environment that aims to build trust and confidence with marginalized women so that they can begin using banking services to become financially independent.
Through Agents of Change, nearly 600 women have become a bridge to the global banking and eCommerce markets in hard-to-reach communities within some of the poorest states in India.
Appreciating the organisation’s support, R.R. Kalyan, Executive Director, Centre for Development Orientation and Training (CDOT) says, “Opportunity International means a lot to CDOT. CDOT’s vision is aligned with Opportunity International’s vision and approach. Their participative interactions, support and valuable input has really brought change to the last mile. Our Agents of Change programme was designed with a lot of discussion and collaboration. Opportunity’s support in building and financing the project will have a larger impact on the community. Our partnership has proven that women agents are really essential.”
Elaborating on the program, he adds, “Bank agents are mostly men. Only 8 per cent of those working in this sector are women. Still, women are mostly excluded from financial services. The general perception is that women cannot work in banking because it requires a lot of technical knowledge. So, we selected women from villages and organized online training with the support of existing women BC agents.
They participated very seriously, with great zeal and enthusiasm. It was a golden opportunity for them to learn and prove that they too can work in this sector. After the training, they passed the IIBF (Indian Institute of Banking and Finance) exam to get certified. Around 70 per cent of the women agents passed their first attempt. They proved their worth and did so with a tremendous amount of confidence. This demonstrated that women are just as qualified as men. The women agents became role models for other women who didn’t believe they could do the same. Now, more women are showing interest in working in the financial sector.
Women are usually not comfortable sharing their finances with men. They’re usually more comfortable sharing this sort of information with other women. So, in that regard, women agents can enable a lot of change at the community level. After they become bank agents, the women provide all kinds of financial services to those who still don’t have access to them. They are change agents who not only facilitate transactions but also help others plan for the future.
The programme provides women with gainful employment and is helping to pave the way for others.
Dr Farzana Khan, Head of Programs, Operation PeaceMaker, My Choices Foundation says, “Opportunity International has not only been one of our strongest partners and loyal donors but has played a vital role in providing strategic guidance and leadership to My Choices Foundation. Without resources, My Choices Foundation was not in a position to give women and girls the choices to live a life free from abuse, through our two operations, Operation Red Alert and Operation Peacemaker.
My Choices Foundation aims to see the transformation of India into a safe, peaceful, and flourishing place for women and girls, by empowering women and girls with the awareness, education, and support they need to become change agents. We address two of the most pervasive and intractable human rights abuses, domestic violence and anti-sex trafficking, through our two initiatives – Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert.”

2. Patriarchy is a norm across the globe. But when it comes to financial planning, it is to another level. How can this situation be addressed?

Women in India face many challenges. According to the UN India’s Business Forum, “Women in India represent 29 per cent of the labour force, down from 35 per cent in 2004. More than half of the work done by women in India is unpaid, and almost all of it is informal and unprotected. Though they comprise almost 40 per cent of agricultural labour, they control only 9 per cent of land in India. Women are also shut out of the formal financial system. Nearly half of India’s women do not have a bank or savings account for their own use, and 60 per cent of women have no valuable assets to their name. It is unsurprising then that at 17 per cent, India has a lower share of women’s contribution to the GDP than the global average of 37 per cent.”
Opportunity and its local partners address these challenges by providing women with the financial tools (e.g., bank accounts, loans, savings, insurance, digital payment services, financial training and advice) to support their economic activity at all levels – micro, small and medium-sized businesses.
We see the impact on women like Bindu, a broom-maker in Kerala, India. With support from Opportunity International, she has been able to grow her business, hire nine employees, and send her kids to school. When extreme flooding struck her community, our partner on the ground used digital data and analytics to speed up the delivery of emergency loans. Her bank now uses biometric access that utilizes iris scans because many manual labourers and farmworkers have eroded their fingerprints. Digital algorithms have helped the financial institution cut loan renewal times from 60 days to 2, and then from 2 days to 10 minutes.
Because cultural norms do not allow women to speak to or seek financial services from men, Opportunity and CDOT hire and train women as bank corresponding agents to ensure that women and girls can have their own bank accounts, receive payments (including from the government) in their own name, protect their assets (savings), and get access to capital through loans.
Opportunity has developed several innovative financial instruments to ensure that capital flows to women and women-owned businesses. For example, collateral buy-down guarantees allow women who do not have the collateral needed to access capital to qualify for loans that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

3. Children are subjected to stereotyping often. The young girls are encouraged to pursue creative hobbies while the boys are given sporty or educational toys. How can this mindset be changed?

Opportunity International believes that education, equity and equal opportunities for girls and boys are key to ending generational poverty. To that end, Opportunity has built an education finance program. Today, Opportunity is the global leader in unlocking capital in the affordable private education sector – including in India. To date, we have released close to $500 million in capital to 13,600 schools and 135,000 parents in 27 countries, bringing access to quality education to 9.5 million children.
With access to school fee loans, parents send and keep all their kids in school – including girls – and purchase the necessary school supplies and sports equipment for all their children.

4. What role can CSR play in inducing more interest among women for understanding and managing their finances?

Corporate social responsibility can play an important role in supporting the most innovative and proven initiatives that help women understand and manage their finances. CSR initiatives designed to provide financial support, training and mentoring, and support networks are most efficient, and Opportunity has designed a strategy and business model to include all these components when partnering with CSR partners.

5. How can international organisations like Opportunity International address the issue of financial inclusion in India and other developing countries?

Opportunity has a client-centric approach that starts with client journey mapping to understand the challenges that the client faces, and then designs tailored strategies to address the barriers to financial inclusion.
In India, for instance, a major challenge to financial inclusion in rural communities like Bihar was getting women access to bank accounts. Rani is one of Opportunity’s clients in Bihar. She has never been to school, and she does not own her own phone. Opportunity implemented a biometric-based system that leverages India’s national ID program and Rani can now use her fingerprint to access a formal bank account where she can receive welfare benefits in her own name. Only Rani – with her fingerprint – has access to those funds. She can now save and start her own micro business through the training and financial services support she receives from Opportunity’s partner there.

6. Domestic violence is an issue that is not only inhumane but is also detrimental to a woman’s self-confidence. How can NGOs and corporations address this effectively?

Opportunity believes that women’s economic empowerment is the most effective strategy to allow women to reach their full potential in all aspects of their lives. By living productive lives, women increase their incomes and assets (primarily through savings accounts), create jobs for their family members and neighbours, prioritize sending all their kids to the best schools they can afford, and gain significant confidence and respect in their communities.
We have countless stories of Opportunity women clients who have started and grown their own micro or small businesses through the financial literacy and business training coupled with loans and access to market support they’ve received from Opportunity’s local partners.

7. What role can an individual play in empowering the women around them?

Listening. Giving women a voice to talk about their challenges and the solutions they see, providing advice, directing women to the best resources available to them, and lending them your unique expertise.

8. How is Opportunity International celebrating this International Women’s Day?

By focusing on serving women, Opportunity celebrates women every day. But on March 8, we’ll join the global community in celebrating International Women’s Day by celebrating women as agents of change in their communities and moms committed to giving quality education to their children. A series of Opportunity women client stories will be highlighted and posted on our website (opportunity.org) and on all of our social media channels.