Are Financial Services Only Reserved For The Well-off?

By Bezawit Fantu

Bezawit is a Gender and Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) manager at Girl Effect. Girl Effect is an international non-profit that builds media that girls want, trust and need – helping girls make life-changing choices about her body, her health, her learning and livelihood. In Ethiopia, Girl Effect is a member of the Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion (WDFI) Advocacy Hub. Bezawit serves as Girl Effect’s technical representative in the Advocacy Hub. For any comments, she can be reached at

There’s been a seismic shift towards expanding digital financial services (DFS) in recent years, which is opening up more opportunities for women as Ethiopia transitions to a digital economy.

However, in 2020 the gender gap in overall bank account ownership expanded to an estimated 19 percentage points, with women 67% less likely to have mobile money accounts and 30% less likely to own or use a mobile phone. Women are also 40% less likely to save and half as likely to take on loans. Overall, Ethiopia is at the bottom end (74th) of the global gender gap ranking of the World Economic Forum. 

Turning the tide of these inequalities requires a concerted effort among all stakeholders. The Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion (WDFI) advocacy Hub, led by Women’s World Banking and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), was established to catalyze collective actions among local, regional, and global stakeholders to accelerate progress towards women’s digital financial inclusion. 

As part of capacity-building efforts for coalition members, the WDFI Hub partnered with the Fletcher Leadership Program for Financial Inclusion (FLPFI) at Tufts University to offer an Eight Question Method for Policy Development (8QM) training. As a coalition member, Girl Effect participated in this training, which focused on developing accountability frameworks that can drive impactful change for women in the country. Collaboration is key for driving meaningful and sustainable progress, and we see it is a critical step to foster women’s digital financial inclusion. 

The training also provided the framework to structure the Hub’s work, resulting in a well-formulated policy recommendation, market solution, and stakeholder engagement plan to advance women’s inclusion in the digital financial space. 

Uncovering insights to drive impact

At Girl Effect, we are experts in girls and what makes them tick – what they love, how they understand the world around them, their motivations and how they see themselves. As part of the training, we undertook a mini-study to better understand the impact of financial literacy on women’s uptake of financial services in Addis Ababa. 

It was an interesting experience to speak to women from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds and gain an understanding of the way they currently earn and utilize money. For instance, I spoke with two single women with comparable incomes and living conditions. Both make 2,000 Birr a month, but their financial management experiences vary greatly.  

As the saying goes, “Money is useful, not for those that earn a lot but for those that manage to save a lot.” 

This is apparent from the polarized experience of these two women. Although they live similar lives, one of them is forced to borrow money from friends to make it through the month while the other manages not only to get through the month but is also able to save.

The woman who is living paycheck to paycheck with no savings explained: 

What will I save? Even if I have the account, I won’t be able to save anything. The money I have is not sufficient, and I also lack discipline. when I get my paycheck, I spend as if I’m rich, buying unnecessary stuff for myself, for others and start borrowing a few days later.”

This shows that financial literacy and management are pivotal to shaping the way individuals make a living.

Below, I list some of the main insights I gathered from the women interviewed in the mini-study. 

1. Hearing successful stories inspires women to adopt better financial habits

Various women underscored how hearing success stories inspired them to start saving and helped them realize that small amounts of money accumulated over time could become an asset for their future. 

2. Youth groups are early adopters of digital financial services

Almost all respondents confirmed that young and literate women have a higher tendency to use DFS. The most important factors that contribute to the usage of DFS by women are accessibility, literacy rate, phone ownership, trust in technology and value proposition. As clarified by one respondent:

“Youth, particularly in the age group of 15-24 with a good educational background, show an increased usage of DFS”.

Girl Effect uses scientific behavior change models to shift the behaviors of girls and young women. We know that adolescence is a critical period in a girl’s life when a lot of “should” and “should nots” come into play and gendered norms start to take hold. When it comes to digital financial inclusion, reaching young people, who are identified as early adopters of DFS can serve as an excellent gateway to reaching groups who are already making use of DFS. 

Girl Effect can promote DFS by using the voices and stories of these early adopters to inspire and encourage others. At Girl Effect, we have taken many meaningful steps to ensure that adolescent girls are at the center of developing solutions for girls within or outside their own communities. 

The insights that Girl Effect collects through its evidence-based, youth-centered approach is crucial: understanding girls’ realities and lived experiences can help drive impact for financial literacy and digital financial literacy.

A new study by Girl Effect, launching in 2023, will examine adolescent demand, access to digital technology. Specifically, the study aims to uncover possible barriers to accessibility, explore young people’s online habits, and gauge the influence of technology on their self-esteem and mental well-being in a COVID-19-altered world. This data is vital to address the gender digital divide which holds girls back in every aspect of their lives, in healthcare, online learning, career building, and financial services.

3. Women want to save, but don’t feel capable enough to realize their financial aspirations

Women are aware of the role that savings can play in their lives, but it is not enough for their financial aspirations to become a reality. Women need financial skills and reassurance that DFS products can help them. The women I spoke with feel that being banked is a luxury only reserved for those with higher incomes. They felt embarrassed to go to a bank branch to deposit a small amount of money. 

Interviewees noted that mobility barriers substantially decrease the value proposition of financial products and services. In many instances, they lack awareness of the potential value of formal financial services. 

 “I don’t want to go to the bank to save 10 Birr. I prefer a door-to-door service, where trusted agents come to my workplace to collect deposits,” said one respondent.

“Agents come to me 3-4 times a week and are happy to collect whatever amount I can save. They operate like a bank, have given me an account book and issue receipts for my transactions. They provide interest on savings as well as small loans,” said another interviewee. 

4. Women value personal engagement and interaction 

Women who prefer door-to-door services highlighted that the agents from these formal services put a lot of effort into gaining their trust by:

    • Building a personal relationship with them

    • Taking time to understand their financial goals 

    • Helping them develop the capacity to better manage their finances

Feeling cared for and engaged with someone who understands their circumstances significantly influences women’s willingness to save with a given service provider.

These qualitative insights indicate that female users need to be made aware of the advantages of digital financial services, build up their trust in using them, and ensure that their needs are taken into consideration and prioritized by service providers to allow them fully realize the potential of digital financial services.