Must banks too go pink?

As Bhartiya Mahila Bank gets underway, Uma Shashikant speaks of why such gestures are short-sighted at best and tokenism at worst

August 25, 2013 03:49 pm | Updated 03:49 pm IST

Simply symbolic: Segregating women into separate spaces is easy; giving them real equality is far more difficult.  Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Simply symbolic: Segregating women into separate spaces is easy; giving them real equality is far more difficult. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

The government has recently approved Rs. 1,000 crore as seed capital for a new bank called Bhartiya Mahila Bank, which will be the first of the exclusive women’s banks that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced with much fanfare in his budget speech this year.

An only-for-women bank in these times and in this country — when we mourn everyday a new rape and seethe in anger each time at the sheer impotence of our response — is hardly a cause to celebrate.

On the surface, a women’s bank and sexual harassment of women might seem totally unrelated, but let us look carefully at the underlying arguments proffered in each case. When the issue is sexual harassment or rape, it is women who are asked to modify their ways. They are asked to change how they dress, when they go out, where they go, and with whom they go. Women are asked to stay secluded indoors to stay safe. If women don’t step out in large numbers and use public spaces, how can these spaces become safe at all? There must be a fierce fight-back from women to defiantly occupy all public spaces, at all times, alone or accompanied. In other words, women don’t need exclusivity to ensure safety; they need to be a part of everyday activity, everywhere, and at any time.

Women-only banks are another instance of wanting to treat women ‘differently’. We guise this in many forms, some in garbs of reverence, some as protection, but they are all forms of discrimination that promote gender-based stereotyping. Women-only organisations stem from this eagerness to patronise women in the name of preferential treatment.

An all-women bank is, at best, a symbolic move. Why do we need such a bank? Don't women transact in other banks? Have women customers had problems collecting money from male tellers at cash counters, or in handing over applications to male officers across the counter?

The main reason why millions of women lack access to financial services in India is not because banks are manned by men or because women don’t get service from regular banks; it is because of overwhelming illiteracy, inability to take part in documentation, inaccessible bank branches, and because men still control the finances in a family.

To imagine that a ladies’ compartment and ladies’ special kind of solution will instantly increase women’s access to financial services is short-sighted at best.

If there is one thing a woman needs, it is equality in opportunity. To go to school, to get adequate nutrition, to get a job with a fair salary, and have equal access to resources that enable her to achieve what she sets out to do. If her being a woman has denied her this equality, we need to restore that right. The problem today is that these rights of a woman are not seen as naturally hers, but as something society will ‘allow’ or ‘permit’ her. A widespread and willing acceptance of this secondary status as less than equal leads to a systematic loss of voice in the running of a household, a business, or even the country. It soon becomes a cultural albatross that hangs from the necks of all future generations of women.

Discrimination starts when we celebrate women who are demure, speak softly, and stand behind the man. Or when we systematically objectify the woman ensuring she is decorated, beautified, and treated as the proud possession of a man. Women who seek to live lives on their own terms are made outcasts, systematically put down by parents, peers, colleagues, and society. We then mask this discrimination by creating celebrations, appreciations, awards, and ‘exclusive’, women-only spaces. Tokenism is far easier than the tougher task of equality.

What works instead? The sterling examples of Sewa and the several hundred self-help groups across the country tell us that women are willing to take responsibility for financial decisions of their households, and given the right mentoring will pursue entrepreneurial ventures. From informal credit groups and chit funds to joint entrepreneurial ventures, women have drawn strength from working in groups. Their collection does not represent a preference to deal only with women, but to enable them to fight their battles better. These women benefit from organisations that are able to work with them at the grass root level, a task several NGOs, microfinance institutions, and business enterprises such as Amul and Fab India have accomplished over the years. The systems and structures in these organisations help women manage their earnings, profits, loans, and finance. It is not about these organisations being run by a man or a woman, but their acceptance that women can make financial decisions that has worked. It is difficult to see why we need a women-only bank to do what should be naturally done across the board.

A bank is expected to identify good quality borrowers and ensure that efficient processes make credit available to such borrowers at a reasonable cost. What is the bank likely to do differently if it is only for women? Will it lend only to women; give them cheaper loans; make it easier for women to take loans; encourage women to save, borrow or invest? Should not any bank do all of these things for all its customers, man or woman?

Yes, there is gender discrimination in how banks operate today, but the solution is to wipe out the root of the discrimination — by giving women equal rights and access to resources, including property titles and money. Simply earmarking spaces where women will live, eat, study or bank is both simplistic and superfluous.

Uma Shashikant is Founder and Managing Director, Centre for Investment Education and Learning, Mumbai.

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