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Digital Pandemic Relief Funds Leave Out Vulnerable Women

By Tanvi Jaluka

Source: Press Trust of India

As a (positive) second-order impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, development officials speculated seeing increases in the use of digital financial services (DFS). The shift toward DFS was already a critical component of many economic development projects and had increasingly been a tool for the empowerment of women. DFS provides a work around for many women who lack access to formal employment, financial institutions, and markets.

DFS seemed to be a natural way of providing COVID-19 relief, especially as governments in the developing world had already begun shifting social funds away from cash and toward mobile money. As the number of smart phone owners increase (by 40% from 2016 to 2020), and the availability of mobile money agents surpasses the reach of bank branches 20 times, digital has the benefit of providing money to people fast. In the current pandemic context, DFS also limits the risks of personal contact while providing funds at an unprecedented scale.

Crises—economic, epidemiological, and otherwise—disproportionately affect women, who are the heads of poorer households, and exacerbate existing structural inequalities. Since March, government-to-person payments have been designed to address gender gaps. Many countries are providing transfers to women heads-of-households (and in some cases exclusively) in order to promote longer term resiliency. Countries that have implemented gender sensitivity within their relief programming ought to be applauded. However, it is critical to evaluate these programs in context with countries’ broader efforts toward women’s financial inclusion. Without this broader context, programs may inadvertently reinforce harmful gender norms.

India was one of the first to announce that its cash transfer plan would exclusively target women and directly transfer funds into 200 million low-income women’s bank accounts. These bank accounts were provided as a part of a program in 2014 to provide universal banking services to every unbanked adult. And while this program dramatically increased bank ownership across all genders, only 23% of poor women respond having access to a bank account, meaning the majority of poor women are excluded from COVID relief funds.

Countries like Colombia, Morocco, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe have similar digital cash transfer programs in the works, but these are not gender specific. These relief programs are targeted to poor households that are already registered, or that will self-register as beneficiaries. Funds are dispersed electronically into bank or mobile accounts. Relief structures like these are equally problematic because they assume government databases have accurate information on which households qualify for benefits, and that the most vulnerable households have access to the internet. Furthermore, a cross-country assessment of cash transfers reported that social programs are not accessibly promoted: women are largely unaware of which benefits they qualify for, and how to use their bank accounts.

Going forward, countries must account for existing gender gaps in their COVID programming. I offer the following incomplete list of recommendations:

  • Direct cash transfers to women. There is some evidence that shows that cash transfers to women have positive spillovers to the rest of the household. Often this depends on power relations within the household and whether women have a private place to save. More importantly, direct cash transfers to women ensures that she will have some capital to minimize the pandemic’s economic effects on her own employment or business. Cash transfers to a single household head may prevent the benefit from being allocated equitably.

  • Ease regulations. Providing cash to women only works if they have a safe space to save. Now is the time for governments and financial institutions to ease “know your customer” requirements which often entail multiple forms of ID that poor women lack. Providing simplified, no frills, zero-balance savings accounts can help to scale the effect of government-to-person payments.

  • Private sector engagement. This is crucial for the success of digital transfers. Governments should work with telecommunication providers to subsidize the cost of data to ensure beneficiaries have access to their accounts when needed. Furthermore, as many telecoms themselves are offering mobile money accounts, governments may provide cash transfers through platforms like M-Pesa.

  • Collect gender data. Data on beneficiaries, patients, household consumption, and employment must be disaggregated by gender. This will allow governments to understand the gender-specific outcomes of the pandemic and respond appropriately. This will also help determine whether economic transfers are reaching intended targets. It will also help post-pandemic relief efforts.

  • Use real-time data. Our situation is constantly evolving. By the time data is collected, analyzed, and disseminated, the information is often outdated. Real-time data on pollution, cellphone use, and workplace mobility may help governments estimate daily economic trends. For example, analyzing the volume of mobile-based transfers before and after a stimulus may help to determine whether the relief effort is positively promoting growth. Disaggregating this by the gender of phone users will provide some insight into women’s economic behavior.

This crisis has certainly forced governments to trade-off between quickly addressing the economic fallout of the pandemic, and accurately targeting beneficiaries. Nevertheless, the recommendations proposed above, and by other experts, may help to make further response more efficient and improve best practices for future disasters.


Tanvi Jaluka is a researcher on international development and gender issues. Her experience lies in the fields of women’s economic empowerment, digital financial inclusion, and gender-based violence. She is currently in the final year of her MPP.


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