Disrupting the financial system and empowering women

When I was growing up, my mother’s constant refrain to her daughters was ‘Make sure you are always financially independent’. This was borne out of the experience of generations of women who stayed at home and raised a family in a very traditional family environment and the men were the ones that went to work and earned the money.

Guest blog by Julia Flynn, a program administration officer at Saïd Business School. Previously Julia was at international development NGO Oxfam for over 20 years.

I took heed of my mother’s words, and they have influenced my career and lifestyle choices ever since. Of course this was at a time when education opportunities were abundant and cultural change was afoot in the Swinging Sixties and the Seventies Me Decade and the world was at my feet, or so it seemed. I was also reading Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer and other feminist writers, which reinforced and extended the messages I had taken on board from my mother. By the 1960s, access to a bank was easy, women in Australia having the right to a bank account since the late 19th century but still it was not too easy to get a bank loan for a mortgage or anything else for that matter. Women at that time were routinely asked to have their husband or a male guarantor sign for a loan, even when they were the sole earner. The assumption was that a woman did not need a loan in her own right, and she would not have the funds to service the debt.

Now in Australia, younger women have the opportunity to manage their money in a totally different way, with separate accounts and probably more than one account, according to their ambitions and expectations. There is a sense of personal freedom and financial independence, that women of my mother’s generation could not have imagined at the same age.

For the women in the film Disruption, there is a more fundamental issue about financial inclusion and poverty alleviation and making sure your family has enough to eat and your kids are in school, but you can still hear my mother’s mantra being echoed in another part of the world. Take Maze Saraiva, who lives in Northeast Brazil, explaining how the Bolsa Familia program, a social welfare program of the Brazilian government, helps her to not only feed her family but increase her own autonomy as a woman.

Maze Saraiva lives in Northeast Brazil

‘Bolsa Familia makes us feel independent. Although we need men’s help, if a relationship doesn’t work, we can leave and count on Bolsa Familia. We feel more independent, more secure’ – Maze Saraiva

The film Disruption highlights the work of Skoll Award winner Fundación Capital and the quest for women’s economic empowerment. At the heart of the film are the stories of women who participate in Fundación Capital’s programs, encountering in themselves formerly untapped political and economic energy which propels many into active roles of civic participation. The film spotlights women from Peru, Colombia, and Brazil who become agents of change in their communities.

By a lake in the Peruvian Andes, we meet Cirila Quillahuaman who tells us that the women in her Peruvian Quechua village, once “sleeping beauties,” are now learning to use accounts to build savings and start small businesses, changing the power dynamics within their families and communities. Cirila has been elected as city councilwoman and plans to run for mayor. She’s pressing her local government to expand the pilot program.

Cirila Quillahuaman, from Pongobama Peru

‘We have nothing to fear. We shouldn’t be stuck in the house. We should be engaged in our community, and our district, and even in national affairs. – Cirila Quillahuaman

Against the odds, Maze and Cirila and the other women shown in Disruption, become empowered economic and political agents in their communities through the bottom-up innovations, designed by both economists and women living in poverty.

María Briyith Fuquen & Johanna Fuquen, Cómbita, Colombia. Joahnna teaches her mother how to read and save using the Lista App, a financial eductions tool, on the tablet.

These innovative approaches to expanding financial inclusion, are now poised to spread to 40 countries. If the model is taken to scale, could 20 million women upend a continent? How can women’s economic agency transform the cycle of inequality and marginalization?

Disruption, by independent film makers Pamela Yates (Director), Paco de Onís (Producer), Peter Kinoy (Editor), for Skylight Pictures, sets the stage for this potential paradigm shift. My mother, still going strong in her 90s, would be cheering these women on, both in looking after their families and lifting them out of poverty, and what comes with it in terms of their autonomy and independence.

Disruption will be shown at Saïd Business School on 20 October. Registration is essential.

Reference: Women, Money and the Bank, By Supriya Singh* and Anuja Cabraal, RMIT University/ Smart Internet Technology Cooperative Research Centre. Paper presented to the Financial Literacy, Banking and Identity Conference, RMIT University, Melbourne, 25-26 October 2006,


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