Understanding the barriers and serving the needs of women with DFS


Understanding the barriers and serving the needs of women with DFS

October 24 , 2016
Kampala, UGANDA - 

Facilitating women’s access to digital financial services (DFS) is an opportunity for the private sector to engage in gender equality. This is how Rosa Malango, UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda, opened the latest Partner Event of the Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) conference #DFS4W, today in Kampala, Uganda. Ms. Malango devoted particular attention to the significance of the UN Gender Equality Seal, which has been endorsed by 13 companies since its announcement in August, to align the Sustainable Development Goal of supporting women with the interests of the private sector in the name of women’s financial empowerment.

The first breakout session of the event, ‘Tapping into the 51%—Understanding the barriers and serving the needs of women,’ provided further food for thought on this topic, as the participants were invited to reflect on obstacles, barriers and challenges facing DFS providers in order to identify viable solutions for improving how women receive, use and benefit from DFS.

In an effort to unpack the barriers that confront women in regards to DFS, it became evident that a self-assessment by providers is a key element to understanding where to begin. Several self-assessment questions are key to gauging providers’ state of readiness to address women with their DFS offerings. Organizations benefit from knowing the current state of data and ability to disaggregate current users based upon gender. Overall knowledge of the gender differential regarding mobile ownership or bank account access in their market and their institutions' willingness to conduct research regarding gender-specific strategies can strengthen their offerings.

In order to get closer to understanding the actual financial lives and needs of female clients, the participants collaborated in an atypical case study exercise. Rather than reading a flat case study and holding a discussion, participants engaged in a ‘build your own adventure’ exercise wherein each decision made by the group on behalf of a fictitious but representative woman revealed the real challenges of a woman when considering when and how to engage with financial services.

Most notably, participants came to understand the nature of women’s engagement with financial services; unlike men, who typically enter their working life and maintain their earning potential for a sustained period, women have a different experience. It is often interrupted by significant key phases in their economic lives—from childhood to young adulthood, from marriage to pregnancy. The experience of a new mother is different from the various financial shocks or disruptions that may follow as the woman matures and then grows old.

In each of these phases, the female client may enter (or temporarily suspend) a period of earning capacity and financial services activity. Women experience cyclical relationships with banking and finance and often have interrupted livelihoods.

With these phases in mind, there are opportunities for specific and targeted products or elements that operators can deploy to make access to financial services more universal and therefore accessible to women.

Many of the barriers identified for women are universal to men, like proximity to services and reliability of network and infrastructure. Other barriers are linked to the fact that women’s earning is generally lower than men’s and that leads to more frequent but smaller transactions. Mobile phone ownership is lower amongst women as is financial and basic literacy. When they are actively earning money, women’s funds tend to support the daily needs of the household and education of children, which translates to a casual income and does not contribute to a credit history that may put a collateralized loan or other financial service out of reach. Occasionally, women are suddenly thrust into being the breadwinner, without an income history or understanding of financial services and how to avail of them.

By being mindful of these barriers, providers can create services that are more easily accessed by women and men. Key considerations could be categorized into three areas:

  • Accessibility: Phone network, infrastructure and agents all need to be accessible and available. Women prefer to transact with women agents and, in many markets, that alone can be an important barrier overcome. Developing applications and services that are easily used by illiterate customers, with graphical, interactive voice response (IVR) and/or agent-assisted elements, increases access for all customers.
  • Safety and security: Creating services that allow and encourage anonymity (while maintaining know-your-customer [KYC] guidelines) provides additional security for women. Services that bundle insurance that can help women to endure work disruptions or economic shocks can make a significant difference.
  • Understanding: Through specific market research, it is important to be aware of the changing needs of women throughout their economic lifetime.

Women tend to be more brand loyal, be less mobile and maintain deeper community relationships; once aligned with an institution, they tend not to make unwarranted changes. In terms of borrowing, women are typically more timely and consistent in repayment. Ultimately, women are a large and identifiable customer segment that represents specific and significant business opportunities for providers that recognize these trends and engage actively.


Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) is a programme launched by UNCDF in partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The MasterCard Foundation. MM4P provides support to digital financial services (DFS) in a selected group of least development countries (LDCs) to demonstrate how the correct mix of financial, technical and policy support can build a robust DFS ecosystem that reaches low income people in LDCs.

For more information, visit or follow @UNCDFMM4P and Mobile Money for The Poor.


October 2016. Copyright © UN Capital Development Fund. All rights reserved.             

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.

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