NEW DELHI - Hoping to offer economic empowerment for women, India has opened a bank to cater especially to women, aiming to give them easier access to facilities like bank accounts and loans.
Komal Devi, who works as a maid in three houses in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, manages to save $20 every month out of her $100 earnings, but until now she has had nowhere to put that money.
Devi said she has attempted to open a bank account many times, but has never been able to do so because she migrated from a village, meaning she has no proof of identity banks in the city will accept. She is concerned that her savings are not secure. Left in the house, sometimes her husband takes away the money; sometimes it gets spent.
To help women like her gain better access to banking services, India has opened a public sector bank, called Bharatiya Mahila Bank, to cater primarily to women.
Inaugurating its first branch in Mumbai this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out that although some Indian women have become business leaders, the vast majority face huge disadvantages.
"The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, at school, at their place of work and in public places. Their social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal… They score below men in literacy, in health status, in employment potential, and in entrepreneurial skills,” said Singh.
The Prime Minister has called the founding of the bank a small step toward economic empowerment.
In a patriarchal society where in most cases men control a family’s financial resources, nearly three quarters of Indian women do not have a bank account. Per capita access to bank credit is also far lower for women than men.
Officials say the new bank will facilitate the opening of savings accounts for poor and disadvantaged women. It will also encourage women entrepreneurs by making it easier for them to get access to loans. For example, the bank will offer loans of up to $400 to women to start small businesses, even if they cannot offer collateral - a problem in a country where property is mostly owned by men. It will also encourage businesses and products that help women by offering credit for enterprises such as crèches and catering services.
The new bank will begin operations with seven branches in major cities and has plans to expand to 500 over four years across urban and rural areas. The bank’s board of directors has eight women on it, and a majority of the staff is female.
For Komal Devi, the Bharatiya Mahila Bank offers a ray of hope.
Devi said she recently bought a gold pendant to convert her savings into the only asset that most Indian women have - jewelry. She had no other options because there was no place to keep her money. However, she insists, she would have preferred the security of a bank account.
Experts say the new bank’s success will be judged by the inroads it makes into rural areas, where banking facilities are poor and where women suffer the worst gender biases.