Empowering Ethiopian Women: Bridging Gender Gap through Digital Financial Inclusion in Ethiopia

Hanna Lemma, a fearless women’s rights advocate and feminist researcher from Ethiopia, is leading a revolution. She is passionate about uplifting youth, amplifying young feminist voices, and advocating for the rights of other young women in her country.

Through her pioneering work at Addis Powerhouse, a young women-led feminist knowledge production platform, she is challenging the status quo and empowering young women to take their deserved place in Ethiopian politics and society.

Millions of women around the world struggle to access finance, with an alarming 9% gap between women’s and men’s access, according to a joint report by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Research shows that women face a number of challenges in accessing digital financial tools, including poverty, limited digital and financial literacy, cultural barriers, lack of training and awareness of insurance services, difficulty accessing information on insurance products and services, and limited access to capital. Some women are also limited by social norms that restrict their decision-making and interaction outside the home.

The lack of access to finance is a major challenge in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, especially for women. It demands attention, raising important questions for decision-makers: What continues to fuel gender disparity in access to finance across the continent?

In a conversation about empowerment with allAfrica’s Melody Chironda, Lemma called for stronger policies and improved digital financial inclusion to break down barriers to financial inclusion for women in Ethiopia.

“I was motivated to create Addis Powerhouse to address the gender gap in Ethiopia, said Lemma. “This gap is curtailing evidence-based advocacy for women’s meaningful inclusion and decision-making, and it is also preventing the country from overcoming gender-based violence. Young women, in particular, are disproportionately excluded from decision-making spaces and targeted for gender-based violence. These issues are often neglected because young women are not part of the decision-making process. For example, catcalling, online gender-based violence, unwanted pregnancy, and period poverty are not taken seriously because young women are unable to advocate for their own rights.”

“Addis Powerhouse conducts research to show the gender gap and to inform evidence-based advocacy. Our goal is to influence policy and implementation change in Ethiopia and to ensure that young women are represented in decision-making spaces so that they can advocate for their own rights,” she added.

Closing the gender gap in digital financial inclusion

“There is a huge gender gap when it comes to access to digital services and financial institutions in Ethiopia, as is the case in most third-world countries,” said Lemma. Data shows that compared to men, women in Ethiopia are more severely excluded from traditional savings and financial institutions. For example, only 3% of women have a formal bank account, compared to 43% of men. This means that men are more likely to have access to formal bank accounts, savings, and borrowing systems, as well as emergency funds.”

Lemma argues that digital financial inclusion can help to close this gap by providing women with access to a range of financial services, including digital transactions and mobile money, productive credit, conventional and interest savings, and micro-insurance. It is important to use an intersectional lens to understand the diverse needs of women and to develop financial services that are accessible to all.

“For example, if we are talking about digital financial services, we need to make sure that we provide women with the information they need to use them. We also need to make sure that the services are accessible to all women, not just those with access to smartphones and the internet,” she added.

Cultural and social barriers

Lemma said that there are multiple challenges with regard to cultural and social norms that prevent women in Ethiopia from accessing digital financial services.

“One challenge is that women have limited digital and financial literacy. Only 12% of women in Ethiopia have digital and financial literacy, which is below the global average. This is due to the patriarchal system that Ethiopia lives in, which limits women’s mobility and access to information. Men usually control household finances and decision-making, and women are not represented in decision-making spaces in the financial and technological sectors,” she said.

“Another challenge is that women are not allowed to work in many cases, and when they do work, their male counterparts often control their money and financial decision-making. Women are also overwhelmed by unpaid care work and reproductive roles and expenses, so they don’t have time to learn about digital financial services or participate in savings systems.”

“Finally, there is a perception that digital financial services are too complicated for women to understand.”

Lemma believes that there are a number of ways to overcome these barriers. “One way is to create awareness within the community about gender equality and debunk patriarchal attitudes towards women. This can help to create a common sense around empowering both men and women and making sure that men are allies in ensuring that women are included in financial decision-making and have access to digital financial services,” she said.

Ethiopian conflict disproportionately impacts women and girls

“Women are the prime victims of the conflict in Ethiopia, facing high rates of gender-based violence, sexual violence, and job loss. The conflict has also had a significant indirect impact on women, as it has led to high inflation and economic instability,” said Lemma.

“Despite the challenges that women already face, they are disproportionately affected by the war and the destabilization of the country. Addis Powerhouse is advocating for women’s voices to be heard and for their interests to be recognised in the upcoming and ongoing national dialogue, as well as in peacebuilding efforts. They are working to ensure that women’s interests are documented and taken into consideration when decisions are made at the regional, national, and international levels. This is how they are trying to overcome the pressure and pushback they face and to ensure that women’s involvement in peacebuilding and reconstruction is meaningful, not just nominal,” she said.

Lemma added: “Ethiopia is currently undergoing a digital transformation, and there is a growing interest in promoting women’s digital financial inclusion. The government, policymakers, and other regulatory actors are taking steps to ensure that access to technology and digital financial services is improved for women. The Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion Advocacy Hub, established by the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), is a good example of the government’s interest in this issue. The hub is working to understand the needs of women and to work with the private sector and civil society organisations to overcome the challenges that women face.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Women do not have the same resources or social networks as men, which can make it difficult for them to meet collateral or guarantee requirements. Women also lack awareness of available services and how to access them, she said.

She acknowledged that safety and security are concerns when it comes to digital financial services. However, she believes that digital services can also elevate some of these risks by reducing the need for women to carry large amounts of cash and make long trips to make transactions. Digital services also offer convenience and efficiency.

While digital financial service provision is overcoming many of these challenges, Lemma noted that digital connectivity in Ethiopia is a major issue. However, Lemma believes that digital financial services are still a better option than traditional financial institutions for Ethiopian women.

How to dismantle patriarchal structures and empower women

“To dismantle the patriarchal structures that hinder gender equality and empower women to achieve their full potential, we must start by addressing the root of the problem: the patriarchal system itself. This system is deeply ingrained in our culture, social norms, and family values, and it is interlinked with every other system in society,” said Lemma.

“There are many ways to dismantle the patriarchal structures that hinder gender equality and empower women to achieve their full potential. One important step is to create awareness of gender inequality and the harmful effects of the patriarchal system. This can be done through education programmes, public awareness campaigns, and advocacy efforts,” she said. “Another important step is to support women’s leadership and empowerment. This can be done by providing women with access to education, training, and resources, as well as by creating opportunities for women to participate in leadership roles in all sectors of society.”

Lemma also discussed navigating anti-feminist backlash in Ethiopia.

“The internet and technological services, like social media, can be a great opportunity for the feminist movement and women’s rights work. They give more women the space to talk about their rights and advocate for themselves. However, this also comes with a global pushback against feminism and women’s rights,” she said. “For example, on apps like TikTok, more and more people have started speaking out against feminism, spreading myths and promoting backward gender roles and gender-based violence.”

“We are doubly tasked with creating a positive understanding of feminism and fighting for women’s rights in the face of this pushback. We do this by using data to counter the backlash. Whenever we communicate about women, we make sure to back our information with data. This allows us to show people where the community is and where our society is with regards to seeing women as human, respecting women’s rights, and empowering women.”

“We also make sure to be critical with our digital safety and security. The backlash against feminism can lead to online gender-based violence, such as trolling and stalking. We share our knowledge of digital safety and security with other young feminist and women’s groups so that we can protect ourselves and advocate for women’s rights without facing the worst of the backlash,” said Lemma.

Vision for the future of feminism in Ethiopia

“I am very hopeful for the future of feminist knowledge production and gender research in Ethiopia. When we first established Addis Powerhouse, our primary goal was to amplify young women’s voices and advocate for young women, as young women. We understand the challenges that young women face, and we want to change the outcome. We also want to inspire and support other marginalized groups, such as women living with disabilities, to speak out for themselves. We want to create an intersectional movement where all women’s voices are heard in decision-making spaces,” said Lemma.

Lemma believes that Addis Powerhouse can play a vital role in shaping the future of feminist knowledge production and gender research in Ethiopia by providing resources and support to young women and other marginalized groups. We want to make sure that the movement has the tools it needs to succeed.”

“To young activists starting out, I advise you to read, learn, and explore different perspectives. Understand the world you live in and the systems that influence it. Do the work,” Lemma said.

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