Expanding Women’s Access to Financial Services

February 26, 2014


A young woman is being taught to use a sewing machine in class in India.

John Isaac / World Bank

Financial Inclusion (FI), which promotes access and the use of high-quality financial services, particularly among poor people, is crucial to achieving inclusive growth. Women disproportionately face financial access barriers that prevent them from participating in the economy and from improving their lives. The World Bank Group is working to promote financial inclusion for women to help achieve gender equity and poverty reduction.


Women make up 40 percent of the world’s workforce. Many of the sectors that are critical for economic growth in some of the poorest countries rely heavily on women. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with female ownership represent 30 percent to 37 percent of all SMEs (8 million to 10 million women-owned firms) in emerging markets. These businesses have unmet financial needs of between US$260 billion and US$320 billion a year. This is their biggest barrier to growth and development.

Access to credit can open up economic opportunities for women, and bank accounts can be a gateway to the use of additional financial services. However, women entrepreneurs and employers face significantly greater challenges than men in gaining access to financial services.

The Global Findex, a comprehensive database measuring how people save, borrow, and manage risk in 148 countries, reveals that women are less likely than men to have formal bank accounts. In developing economies women are 20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution and 17 percent less likely to have borrowed formally in the past year.  Even if they can gain access to a loan, women often lack access to other financial services, such as savings, digital payment methods, and insurance. Restrictions on opening a bank account, such as requirements for a male family member’s permission, restrict women’s access to accounts. Lack of financial education can also limit women from gaining access to and benefitting from financial services. In addition, many women may have access to financial services in name only: A study in Pakistan showed that, although accounts might be opened in the name of a woman, the decision-making authority around the use of those funds often lies with a male relative. The World Bank’s Gender at Work report (2014) asserts: “On virtually every global measure, women are more economically excluded than men.”

Through technical/advisory assistance and lending support, the World Bank Group works to ensure the full potential benefits of financial inclusion for women are secured by:

  • Increasing access to finance and markets by partnering with developing countries and financial institutions within those countries;
  • Reducing gender-based barriers in the business environment;
  • Creating business opportunities for institutions and in the private sector to improve working conditions for female employees, market segmentation, and inclusion of women in community relationships;
  • Supporting business skills and financial capability trainings for women; and
  • Building the business case for equal economic opportunities for men and women.

An important World Bank-led mechanism to accelerate financial inclusion through enabling country commitments is the new Financial Inclusion Support Framework (FISF) which was launched in 2013.  The World Bank has committed to assist at least 10 IDA countries to reach their financial inclusion targets, including for women’s financial inclusion, and plans to expand this support to at least a further 10 IDA/IBRD countries. 

IFC’s SME Finance Forum, the leading-edge knowledge agenda of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), and the World Bank-led FISF are highly complementary. They strongly leverage the World Bank Group’s country-level financing, advisory services, and policy dialogue to help under-served women.

IFC’s Investment Services – including risk-sharing facilities, credit lines, loans, equity, SME and credit insurance, supply-chain finance and blended finance – are all products that can improve women’s access to finance. IFC launched Women’s Finance Hub in Spring 2013 – an online collaborative platform, as part of the SME Finance Forum, that aims to further advance access to finance for women-owned businesses by addressing missing data, disseminating research, promoting best practices and providing information on critical issues related to the women’s market.

The Women, Business and the Law project provides cross-country comparable data for 143 economies on where laws differentiate between women and men – a factor that can hinder women’s ability to gain access to finance


Through its technical and financing partnerships, the WBG has helped developing countries secure expanded benefits of financial inclusion for women. For example:

  • Starting in 2010, the World Bank has helped Indonesia develop its new Financial Inclusion Strategy, which includes empowering women as a priority focus. One of the programs that the Bank supports is financial literacy training for the 4.3 million Indonesian migrant workers, the majority of whom are women from lower-income rural households.
  • IFC’s Banking on Women Program plays a catalyzing role for IFC partners and financial institutions to help them profitably and sustainably serve women-owned businesses. As of December 2013, the program has developed a track record which includes 16 investment projects, ranging from long term loans to instruments such as risk sharing facilities that help share the risk FIs undertake when assuming greater exposure in new or riskier markets, amounting to almost US$700 million in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, East Asia and the Pacific, and East and Central Europe. In addition, IFC issued the first-ever Banking on Women Bond in 2013 that raised US$165 million to be invested in projects that will support women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
  • For the first time, policymakers worldwide have a detailed picture of women’s access to finance, provided by the Global Findex. This complements data provided by Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) program, Women, Business and the Law, Global Financial Development Report 2014 on Financial Inclusion and Financial Capability surveys—all World Bank Group-sponsored studies. WBG experts are working with national policymakers and regulators in more than 20 countries to design and implement reforms that meet the constraints identified by these surveys.
  • Groundbreaking research supported by the World Bank in Pakistan found that more than two-thirds of women microfinance borrowers required a male relative’s permission in order to qualify for any kind of loan. Changes in loan selection procedures and requirements, spurred by this information, could help open up access for women and enable them to manage their finances in a way that meets their own priorities. 

Bank Group Contribution

The World Bank Group has an extensive FI portfolio, with a growing focus on opportunities for women. The World Bank has an active lending portfolio of US$3.5 billion for FI – with about US$1.4 billion in IBRD, US$1.26 billion in IDA funding, and US$862 million in IBRD/IDA blend countries - and with over 100 lending projects in more than 60 countries. The World Bank has active technical assistance and lending projects supporting FI in more than 100 countries.

IFC’s development reach has been notable in calendar year 2013. IFC reached 41 million microfinance and more than 1 million small and medium enterprise clients. IFC’s investment and advisory services facilitated an estimated 11.6 million microfinance loans; 210,000 housing finance loans; and 2.7 million SME loans, for a total of US$11.4 billion, US$7.3 billion and US$91.3 billion outstanding, respectively.


The World Bank Group frequently partners with a variety of organizations to advance financial inclusion for Women, including the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI), the G20, financial sector development trusts, UNCDF, the OECD, GIZ, USAID, AusAid, SECO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Women’s World Banking, The Global Banking Alliance for Women and regional development banks.

Moving Forward

Key challenges faced by countries in achieving financial inclusion for women include a lack of data and a lack of capacity. The availability of gender-disaggregated data is still limited, despite such important new surveys as the World Bank Group’s Global Findex, the Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) program, and Women, Business and the Law. Improved gender-disaggregated data, with stronger quantity and quality, will strengthen the business and policy case for financial inclusion for women entrepreneurs.

Supporting women entrepreneurs remains a vital issue. In September 2013, IFC set up a Gender Secretariat to support clients with integrating women as entrepreneurs, employees and leaders resulting in better business performance and development impact.

To ensure that countries have access to comprehensive technical assistance, capacity-building support and knowledge for meeting their national financial inclusion commitments and targets, Financial Inclusion Support Framework (FISF) was launched. FISF will cover such areas as MSME Finance, Financial Infrastructure, Financial Capability and Consumer Protection, Mobile and Government Payments, Remittances, and Agricultural Finance. More than 15 countries have already requested and received assistance. The FISF also has a knowledge component for Women and Financial Inclusion, which is currently in the design stage.


An assessment of a World Bank project including female migrant workers from Indonesia found that financial literacy training for both the migrant worker and the family member entrusted with receiving remittances, resulted in increased financial capability, higher levels of savings, and improved financial management.

The World Bank Group is supporting legal reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo to remove restrictions embedded within the Family Code which impede women's ability to make financial and business related decisions. The new Family Code will remove the legal requirement that married women need their husband's written authorization to open bank accounts, get loans, register businesses, enter into contracts, and initiate legal proceedings.  

Also in Côte d’Ivoire, wives are no longer barred from being the legal head of household. Married women who previously could not claim tax deductions for their children or husbands can now claim the same deductions as married men, reducing their overall tax burden and enabling women to build their savings and investment potential.

In China, IFC works closely with Bank of Deyang to help extend its services to SMEs and support women-owned businesses in areas affected by the 2008 earthquake. In 2009, IFC approved a US$31 million equity investment to the bank. IFC has also provided gender sensitivity training to Bank of Deyang’s managers, and is helping make the business case for the women-owned SME market. As a result, the bank launched a microloan program for women, which has disbursed US$2 million to 322 women entrepreneurs, creating more than 1,000 jobs. The bank also opened the first branch exclusively dedicated to women, aiming to reach 4,300 women-owned SMEs and US$458 million in loans by June 2013. Bank of Deyang became the first Chinese bank to join the Global Banking Alliance for Women.

These results support the following Millennium Development Goals:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Develop a global partnership for development

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