Mobile Money: A Path to Empowerment for Indigenous Women

Today is world Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a day to raise awareness and protect the rights of the world’s Indigenous population of more than 370 million living across 90 countries. Indigenous people are defined as tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from the rest of the nation, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations. Inhabiting approximately 22 % of the global land space and speaking more than 4,000 of the globe’s 7,000 world languages, Indigenous peoples are a diverse group with diverse experiences and plights.

While all Indigenous people are underserved when it comes to access to financial services, Indigenous women (roughly 185 million of the total Indigenous population) have further barriers to accessing finance due to increased discrimination on the basis of gender, lower economic power, and sociocultural barriers. Mobile money can help to transform the lives of Indigenous women across the world by improving access to financial services that can meet their diverse needs.

Often seen as both guardians of culture and the environment, Indigenous women do not constitute a homogenous group; however, they all face similar challenges due to the marginalization they face. Relevant to the issue of finance, Indigenous women often have high levels of poverty, low levels of education, literacy, and digital skills, limitations in accessing credit and employment, and lacking documentation such as birth registration or forms of ID.

Due to their consistent marginalization caused by their ethnic and gender status, Indigenous women are typically undereducated, underemployed and resourced. When it comes to employment, Indigenous women often rely heavily on the informal economy and resulting low and inconsistent wages with little to no social protection. For example, in Latin America, informality rates amongst Indigenous women is 20 % higher than among non-Indigenous women, and the percentage of Indigenous women who earn less than USD $3.20 per day is 49.1 % higher than for non-Indigenous women.

Indigenous women’s access to resources is limited. As the average income for Indigenous households is typically far below that in non-Indigenous households, with many Indigenous women struggling to access the financing they need and in a timely manner. One reason for this is distance to financial services—as many live in rural and remote areas, there are few banks to provide services and in turn their access is limited further due to expensive transport and the journey being time consuming. When it comes accessing loans, Indigenous women struggle to do so due to seldom having property rights, land tenure and collateral due their status as women. Additionally, as Indigenous women’s income can often be predicated on agricultural work, their incomes are often unpredictable and seasonal, making it harder for them to get approved for loans.

Mobile money can directly help improve Indigenous women’s socioeconomic development prospects by giving them access to financial services that can meet their needs. Firstly, mobile money is easier to sign up for due to its lower KYC requirements. This is especially relevant for Indigenous women who are less likely to have the documentation required to have a traditional formal bank account, thus in mobile money having less stringent KYC requirements, more women will be able to access the service. Secondly, mobile money can lower the cost to transact for Indigenous women as many of them live in remote and rural areas. In being able to transact from anywhere Indigenous women can save money and time in that they no longer will have to travel and pay for transport to municipal centers to transact. With these time and money saving opportunities Indigenous women can invest further in their livelihoods and communities.

For mobile money providers to reach more Indigenous women and better serve them they need to make services more accessible to them and either create or better advertise mobile money services that are particularly relevant to them. Firstly, mobile phone ownership is likely to be lower amongst Indigenous women due to lacking resources, thus partnering with relevant organizations to increase their access to mobile phones is integral. To make their services more accessible providers with Indigenous populations should involve more Indigenous women in the design, testing and implementation of services. This will help ensure services are not only relevant to Indigenous women but can reach them through advertising and workshop roll outs— for example MMPs could advertise and teach about their products in Indigenous languages. To make mobile money more accessible to Indigenous women, MMPs will need to extend their services and agent networks to remote and rural areas as many Indigenous communities reside there.  

Offering services via mobile money that will be particularly beneficial to Indigenous women like climate microinsurance and microloans would help a great deal to include more Indigenous women. As Indigenous women typically have trouble accessing loans at fair rates, mobile money powered microloans can help Indigenous women improve their livelihoods and increase their resilience in emergencies. Lastly, as Indigenous women are heavily reliant on the land for their livelihoods, they are acutely at risk due to climate change and the subsequent rise in natural disaster. By offering products like climate microinsurance, both FinTech’s and MMPs can help to not only attract more Indigenous women to use their services but give them an integral tool in increasing their resilience to the ever-changing climate.

Ultimately, while Indigenous women have traditionally been excluded from financial services, mobile money has the power to change that and in doing so change not only their lives but the lives of their communities.