Driving Action in 2020: UN Women Announces Coalition Themes for Their Generation Equality Forum

January 17, 2020

By Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President & CEO of Women’s World Banking.

On January 15 UN Women, in partnership with the governments of Mexico and France, announced coalition themes supporting the 2020 Generation Equality Forums to be held in Mexico City in May and Paris in July 2020. The announcement is intended as a catalyst for accelerated progress against gender equality goals. The platform identifies six themes that span feminist action for climate change, economic empowerment for women, innovation for equality, leadership, as well as themes dealing with a woman’s control over her own choices, decisions and body.

The fact that, in 2020, we even need these initiatives to call out that girls and women everywhere are still disadvantaged and disenfranchised is shocking. However, at Women’s World Banking, we applaud and encourage the Forums, not only because they can drive towards the Sustainable Development Goals for gender equality by 2030, but because they provide a much-needed rallying cry to draw out firm action commitments from the international community. The key word here is action.

Driving to action is critical because the pace of change is too slow, and has been for some time. In our own field of financial inclusion, progress has stalled. According to Findex data, the gap between men and women having access to financial services has stagnated at 9%, and in some markets the gap is even growing. But dig deeper and there are gender gaps across the board, particularly in the enablers of financial inclusion. There is a disparity in men and women’s ability to access services like the internet of around 10%. There is a 33% percent gender gap in the use of mobile money. In education, just 35% of students enrolled in STEM courses, and 28% of the world’s researchers, are women. And when it comes to the institutions that have some control over the policies that could help address these inequities, the story is the same. Just 14 of the world’s 173 central bank governors (8%) are women; that figure grows to 63 out of 173 if you look at governors and deputy governors. One in five central banks has no senior female presence at all.

So, what can we do to ensure that this new initiative is not just another well-intentioned PR campaign? Well, that is on us, the international development community. At Women’s World Banking, we want to make 2020 a year of action. We believe three things differentiate our organization in the world of financial inclusion – our deployment of solutions that serve women clients through our local financial services partners; our research about, and knowledge of, low-income women clients; and our network of 55 financial services providers representing 30 million women clients and who have each expressed a powerful commitment to women as clients and as leaders in their local markets.

We want to drive further action in all three areas. We have incubated a number of commercially sustainable financial solutions in markets where women face the greatest barriers to access to finance; now it’s time to learn from the pilots and scale these solutions with other financial services providers. We also want to expand our research to fully understand the impact and outcomes of those solutions and how access to finance empowers women more broadly in their daily lives. Finally, we want to expand our network of partners so that we all benefit from their knowledge and experience.

Beyond what Women’s World Banking is doing this year, we think there are three broad areas where our partners and industry colleagues can take action. We look forward to sharing more of our thought leadership on these topics in the coming months.

First, one billion people around the world are virtually invisible because they lack legal identification and more than half of them are women. Identification opens women’s access to education, employment, health care, and government services, such as social protection; importantly, it also allows them access to technology and financial services, which can give them greater control over their own lives.

Secondly, financial products are not designed with women in mind. They are designed by men, and that means they are designed for men. Women must be part of the design process for products – for women, by women. (And no, a pink payment card or one that doubles as a mirror will not do it!)

Lastly, there is an important link between women in leadership positions at financial service providers and regulatory agencies and their outreach to women clients.  Gender diverse teams in these organizations not only contribute to better financial performance, risk management and financial sector stability, but can do much to enhance women’s access to financial services.

Governments are beginning to lay down green shoots of progress. Indonesia, Nigeria and India are among the many countries that have identified the need to expand women’s access as a pillar of their national financial inclusion strategies. But government cannot bear this responsibility alone – partnership with the private sector will be critical to ensuring that women not only have access to the financial products they need, but are able to use those products in transformative ways. Financial inclusion can be an unrivalled channel for women’s empowerment by enhancing aspects of their lives as diverse as financial awareness, business acumen, self-worth and motivation, and political engagement. Women’s financial inclusion can be an accelerator for all six of the themes at the center of the Generation Equality Forums and Women’s World Banking stands ready to partner with UN Women and all of the other organizations seeking to drive action in 2020.


Follow Mary Ellen Iskenderian on Twitter and LinkedIn.