Help during COVID crisis becomes ladder up to financial inclusion for poor women

Posted on 12/08/2020

Overcoming the mobile phone divide that helps keep poor women poor has long been a centerpiece of Grameen’s work. While mobile phones have become largely ubiquitous around the globe, Pew Research reports that in many emerging economies about 30% of adults do not own one. That number holds true even in countries like India, which boasts the ambitious India Stack, designed to bring its entire population into the digital age.

Among those in poorer communities who do manage to scrape together enough to own or share a mobile phone, lack of education and distrust of technology prevent them from using their phones to their full advantage. That’s where Grameen Community Agents come in!

By educating and shepherding them into a rapidly expanding digital world, our Agents (known as Mittras in India) are preventing the poorest women from being left even further behind. And that’s never been truer than in this time of COVID.

Let me tell you about Asha, a Mittra in Rengepar village, in Bhandara, India. Asha had been considering closing her business. Then came the COVID-19 lockdowns. Women in her neighborhood, who are often the “treasurers'' in the households, were suddenly unable to access their accounts at distant banks. Whether from incomes, pensions, or government cash grants intended to help them survive the pandemic, the villagers couldn’t get cash to buy food or medicine.

When Asha saw the people in the village become increasingly panicked about money that seemed unreachable in their accounts, she got to work serving her community. She set up shop with her mobile device and biometric reader in fields and in the streets to help her neighbors wherever they were.

Mittras like Asha, deemed “essential workers” across India, became mainstays for their neighbors as they turned to digital financial solutions. By providing access to cash, the Mittras helped keep the basic socioeconomic engine in their villages running. The Mittras also helped protect their neighbors from the virus by sharing information on wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing. Some sewed and gave away masks.

Before the pandemic, Asha served about 30% of her village. Today she serves about 70% – and that’s just one village. Thanks to the tireless work of our Mittras during lockdowns, countless women and families were introduced to digital financial solutions for deposits, savings, payments, and loans.

Such financial inclusion goes far beyond the convenience of not traveling to a distant bank. It opens doors to opportunities for farmers and entrepreneurs to access new markets, to manage their money safely and effectively, and to save and plan for emergencies. The result, as we know, can be a chain reaction of measurable outcomes including increased income, food security, educational opportunities, and resilience.

I have always admired the women, many very poor themselves, who take on the challenge of becoming a Grameen Mittra. They work as Mittras to launch their own microenterprises and earn income for their families, and also to serve their neighbors. But the way they have responded to the COVID crisis in their communities inspires me on a new level. With courage and determination, they not only helped their villages survive pandemic lockdowns, they gave them the lasting advantage of access to financial tools that can change the course of their families’ and their communities’ futures.

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