Across India, only 43 percent of women have bank accounts, and most women do not save money at formal financial institutions, according to a recent World Bank study. But that’s slowly starting to change as banks themselves realize what an untapped market they have around them. I saw that dynamic in action in a small farming village, Sorkhi, located off a dirt road 100 miles northwest of India’s capital city, Delhi.
Last year, the Sorkhi branch of Sarva Haryana Gramin Bank — the only bank in the village — hired a woman, Sreeja Singh Berwal. She remains their only female employee, and her presence at the bank immediately led to an increase in women opening their first accounts.
But Sreeja’s story, and the unlikely way she wound up in Sorkhi, says a lot about why more banks in northern India don’t hire women.
Sreeja grew up thousands of miles away from here, in the southern state of Kerala. It’s a world apart from life here in the state of Haryana, where most men wield power and make financial decisions, and women tend to stay home.
I first met Sreeja eight years ago when I was making a documentary film about women from Kerala who came here for arranged marriages. In Haryana, many families see daughters as a burden, so sex-selective abortion has been rampant here. That’s eventually resulted in a shortage of local brides.
When Sreeja’s family couldn’t find her a local match back in Kerala, she agreed to this marriage. Several women from her hometown in Kerala have married other men in this village too. Sreeja and the others say it was very difficult to adjust to a new life in this patriarchal community.
“Here, you have to cover your face,” Sreeja says. “If you don't, men will stare. There, you don’t have to cover your face, you can go around freely,” she says.
An educated woman
In Kerala, most women get an education and hold jobs. Sreeja herself studied two years past high school, making her one of the most highly educated people in Sorkhi village. Now, her education is finally paying off, especially in a rural area where many women have not gone to school.
“Back in Kerala, I worked in a company that made saris and other clothing,” she says. “But, in Haryana, women don’t work outside the house. It’s different here.”
Her job skills and education qualified her for the administrative bank job. Bank customers gather around her desk, and she carefully fills out their forms in English. It’s a language few can read or write in this village. She helps customers deposit checks, open accounts, and set up loans.
Bank manager Sunil Seni tells me Sreeja is attracting a new demographic – women – because they feel much more comfortable talking to her. And, that’s improved the bank’s business.
“If we want to include the entire population in the financial realm, we cannot keep women separate in any way,” Seni says. “It’s our responsibility to do everything it takes to bring women into the bank, including employing a woman here. It’s for the sake of the country’s economy,” he adds.
Seni says at a recent bank event, almost half of the customers who signed up for a new account were women.
“Sreeja is motivating other ladies in the village,” he says. “They see that, even with a little education, Sreeja is informing everyone. All the village families come here, and they’ll gain awareness just by seeing Sreeja at the front desk,” he adds.
Despite what the manager says, though, Sreeja is still classified as a temporary employee and she only earns $100 a month. She says she’s happy she’s learning to use a computer. But, she wants to be made permanent and earn more money.
Today, a group of women sits on the dusty pavement outside the bank. They wait their turn to sign up for loans and bank accounts.
“These ladies are happy to have me open up their accounts and fill out checks,” Sreeja says. “It’s going well, and it works out both for them and for me. I take care of their paperwork because most of them are illiterate,” she continues. “I feel happy helping them.”
Sreeja’s house is a short walk away, and kids run around the road playing tag in the evening. It’s rare to see a girl out in public here, but there is one girl in this group of kids. She’s Sreeja’s nine-year-old daughter, Pooja. Sreeja has big hopes for her daughter.
“I want to give my daughter a good education,” Sreeja says. “I want her to work first, then get married later.”
Sreeja’s husband is unemployed right now, so she’s supporting the family. Times are tough and school fees are expensive, but Sreeja is really determined to send her daughter to a good school.
“I want my kids to stand on their own two feet and make a life for themselves,” she says.