We can buy ourselves flowers: The tune of economic empowerment of Filipinas

This article’s title is a not-so-subtle reference to the Miley Cyrus song Flowers. It’s a global hit for a reason. It became an anthem for self-love and has resonated with a lot of people, especially women. As we celebrate National Women’s Month with the 2023-2028 recurring theme: WE (Women and Everyone or Women’s Empowerment) for gender equality and inclusive society, let’s talk about women’s strengths and the challenges Filipinas face in attaining economic empowerment.

Barriers and potential solutions

The Philippines ranked 19th out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2022 Gender Gap report. We have the best performance in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment among Asian countries. Although this is great news, the fact remains that gender gap still exists in certain areas.

The WEF report shows gender gap in the area of primary education enrollment. The Philippines went from ranking 84th in 2021 to 89th in 2022 as the share of boys enrolled in primary schools increased, indicating a reduced number of enrolled girls. Primary education is a crucial precursor to an individual’s development because fundamental literacy skills can open doors to social and economic opportunities. Thus, it’s important to give girls equal access to primary education to help them become more productive members of society.

Moreover, there are still some ways for Filipinas to be truly economically empowered, such as ensuring their financial inclusion or their effective access to a wide range of financial services. But, how financially included are Filipinas?

According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ (BSP) 2021 Financial Inclusion Survey, women lead ownership in e-money accounts (13.8 million women vs. 13.7 million men), cooperatives (2.4 million women vs. 2 million men), and microfinance (5.1 million women vs. 1.5 million men) but fall behind in terms of bank account ownership (7.9 million women vs. 10.2 million men). The survey showed that more women borrow and save outside of the banking system (i.e. e-money, microfinance, and cooperatives) than men, while lagging in ownership of insurance and investment products.

It also identified barriers to women in the banking system, which include insufficient money in opening and maintaining a bank account, lack of documentary requirements, and the physical distance of banks from their homes. These challenges can be attributed to women’s participation in the labor force.

A 2021 World Bank study on overcoming barriers to women’s economic empowerment found that Filipinas tend to focus on their domestic responsibilities (i.e., childcare), thus hindering potential opportunities for financial independence. Moreover, women in geographically-isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs) can face challenges in opening bank accounts, especially if banks are not easily accessible.

Financial institutions must consider these barriers in the development of policies and services. One solution is to expand availability of digital financial services. Over the past years, the banking industry has embarked on a digital transformation journey to enable mobile banking and online account opening. Digital banking helps bridge physical barriers by allowing customers to conveniently do transactions at home, whenever and wherever they may be.

Technology is a great equalizer and an enabler towards greater financial inclusion. Per BSP data, 30.2 million women own mobile phones and use the internet.  BSP regulations such as thee introduction of the basic deposit account (BDA) and the e-money law make account opening easier and more affordable, requiring little to no initial deposit and only one proof of identification. The banking industry, with the support of the BSP, has also responded to address the gender gap by conducting and promoting financial literacy activities, such as learning sessions and training programs, in communities and at the grass roots. 

Educating Filipinas on better financial management is the foundation for building a more progressive Philippines, as the female head of the household is usually the one managing the family’s finances.  

Supporting public and private initiatives

Addressing gender gaps in financial inclusion requires participation from the public and private sectors. The good news is that government agencies have programs that promote financial inclusion for women.

The BSP’s National Strategy for Financial Inclusion (NSFI) 2022-2028 outlines strategies for digital finance, financial literacy, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) development, and risk protection for vulnerable sectors. The BSP has also organized different working groups composed of relevant government agencies, private institutions, and civil society organizations to have a broad-based approach to financial inclusion.

On the other hand, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is implementing the Free Wi-Fi For All program, which provides free Wi-Fi hotspots in GIDAs. This can help reach more Filipinas who have been digitally excluded, catalyzing their participation in the digital economy.

To help Filipinas boost their economic productivity, women entrepreneurs are being supported by agencies like the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). DTI provides loans and funding assistance through its Pondo sa Pagbabago at Pag-asenso and Bayanihan CARES programs.

The DOST Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD) has a public-private partnership program called Women-Helping-Women: Innovating Social Enterprises (WHWise), which aims to connect women-led social enterprises to relevant industries that can assist in their growth and scalability.

Private efforts like Endeavor Philippines also help high-impact entrepreneurs scale up their businesses through mentoring and networks. Similarly, the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) through its social development arm, BPI Foundation, has been pushing for financial inclusion by conducting financial education, enterprise development, and livelihood programs.

Moreover, part of BPI’s responsible operations is to foster an environment that does not discriminate based on gender. An illustration of this is the bank’s workforce composition. As of 2021, 67% of our workforce and 52% of the Senior Management is comprised of women. The bank has also recently launched the BPI NextGen of Women Leaders where BPI’s female executive vice presidents serve as sponsors.

We can see from these initiatives that the private sector has a big role in supporting and supplementing the government’s efforts in pursuing the economic empowerment of Filipinas.

Inclusion for economic empowerment

What we know is that women are making great strides in advancing economic empowerment. However, challenges to gender equality and opportunities still exist.

Let’s continue to encourage each other in increasing our economic value, support each other in growing our finances, and teach each other how to protect ourselves from financial risks. We must remember that the pursuit of financial inclusion should involve every Filipino.  

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Maria Cristina “Ginbee” Go has helped make BPI an industry leader through product innovations and business initiatives. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in BS Business Administration & Accountancy from UP Diliman, ranked 1st in the CPA Board Exam, and earned her MBA from the Harvard Business School. She is also a member of women-specific organizations such as the Filipina CEO Circle and NextGen Organization of Women Corporate Directors. She is a devoted wife and mother who enjoys traveling with her family, starts her day with morning jogs with her husband, and keeps in touch with her creativity through writing, singing, and dancing.