> Posted by Kelsey Truman, HBS-Accion Program Coordinator, CFI

Domestic abuse and violence against women (VAW) are pervasive and shocking. According to the World Bank, 38 percent of murders of women globally are committed through intimate partner violence. Globally, one-third of all women have experienced domestic or intimate partner violence. The World Health Organization even went so far as to call VAW a “global health problem of epidemic proportions.” Could financial services possibly play a role in improving this situation?

One of the largest hurdles in combating VAW around the world is women’s inability or unwillingness to seek help when they find themselves in abusive situations. In conjunction with fear, one important reason many women don’t seek help rests on their degree of financial dependency. That is, they don’t have enough money or economic resources necessary to establish themselves independently, much less pay for legal fees and so forth. Furthermore, women’s vulnerability to violence has been shown to increase with their relative level of poverty. If women are given options to easily and discreetly pursue financial options and open bank accounts independently of their husbands and other male family members, it could very well save their lives one day.

One report from the World Bank found that women in developing countries like Pakistan faced multiple obstacles accessing basic financial services without at least two male guarantors. The same report goes on to find that in countries with higher VAW (like Pakistan) women are less likely to have a bank account, formal savings, or formal credit – which may further entrench them into a cycle of abuse. Therefore, financial service providers, according to Bobbi Gray at Grameen Foundation, have a responsibility to pursue robust financial inclusion pilots “to provide the financial services industry with a set of standardized, comparable, relevant, and reliable health indicators that they can add to the existing poverty measurements they are using to assess the impacts of their services for clients,” including in terms of VAW.

Policy and programs that pursue financial access and empowerment can help women create a tailored approach to address their particular situations. Financial inclusion initiatives, especially mobile and digital banking, can facilitate women’s access to financial services in a safe way, promoting independence. Economic empowerment through money management tools like a bank account can be a quiet VAW intervention and, if done correctly, can help afford distance between women and their abusers. MFIs and governments need to remove barriers to account accessibility to allow women to assert their financial independence.

Of course, increasing women’s access to financial services is not only the right thing to do, it is also a savvy business strategy. Private enterprises like telecoms companies and MFIs benefit from expanding their client base by making mobile banking solutions available to women. And there are plenty of markets with high mobile penetration rates and proliferating mobile money services where women could readily benefit – from Mongolia, to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Kenya, and numerous places in between.

Bank accounts are not a silver bullet in combating VAW or women’s economic empowerment, but they help build a foundation that can give a woman more control over her own finances. Such control can be a necessary first step she takes to remove herself from abuse. And if a bank account leads to a savings account, and a line of credit, this progression adds safeguard options for emergency funds required to leave an abusive situation. Bank accounts could be the tipping point in a woman’s ability to remove herself and her family from unhealthy and possibly dangerous circumstances.

Have you read?

Domestic Violence and Microfinance: What Is Our Role as Financial Service Providers?

Savings Groups, Mobile Phones, and a New Solution for Rural Women

The Heart and Science of Client Assessment