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My Grandmother’s Secret Steel Box

A millennial’s view on financial inclusion and gender gap

3 generations of women. 3 ways of looking at money.

I adored my grandmother. A strong woman who raised seven children and kept a tight control over all the household activities. I still remember her solemn, gracefully wrinkled face, with stern eyes. Unlike most women living in rural India, my grandmother was particular about her finances. She didn’t rely on my simple-minded grandfather who happily whiled away his time under the shade of mango tree on his small farm.

The Strangest Security

Yet, I have to admit I found her ways of “preserving” money rather odd. You see, like most women in India, my grandmother did not have a bank account. So, she came up with the most brilliant solution: The Steel Box. The box was guarded by a big iron lock. Inside were her growing life savings.She would stash her money in this box, lock it, and then proceeded to the strangest thing. She would take this key, walk to the kitchen (just outside her room) and put it inside a container full of ghee. She knew if a thief came, the bottle of ghee would be the last place he would look at. What a clever woman.

I remember as a young girl wondering why she would go through so much hassle instead of depositing her money in a bank where it would be more secure. I realize now that there were two major factors at play. One, as 2015 Standard & Poor’s survey on financial literacy correctly found out that 80% of females in India are financially illiterate, my grandmother as well did not really have the financial literacy to open an account and always viewed banks skeptically. Two, the access to banks in these rural areas is still very limited and there are not enough ATMs for quick withdrawals. Often account holders had to travel a couple of miles to get their money which is an added inconvenience. Moreover, other factors like minimum opening balance and ATM transaction fees are still discouraging for many rural dwellers with modest earnings.

World Bank recently reported that some groups are more financially excluded than others: Women, rural poor, and other remote or hard-to-reach populations. The gender gap in developing countries is estimated at 9 percentage points: 59% of men reported having an account in 2014, while only 50% of women did. While I understand my grandmother’s dilemma and her rationale behind the secret steel box I still can’t wrap my head around these statistics and wonder why my educated aunts still don’t have a bank account or why my friends from colleges quit their jobs after marriage and don’t make a living of their own anymore.

My Mother Changed Things

My mom does not shy away from managing her finances on her own. Unlike most my aunts who either have an account only because their husbands opened them to evade taxes during demonetization or simply because they rely on their husband’s income to manage the daily expenses and don’t feel the need to have a basic savings account, my mom manages her own savings account which make her feel in control of her future. Women who open a bank account gain greater economic empowerment, save more for things such as health emergencies and their children’s education, and purchase more nutritious food. So, says Leora Klapper, a lead economist in the Development Research Group at the World Bank. Yet, while nonprofits, banks, and researchers have made serious strides, the data convincingly (and discouragingly) still shows far fewer women than men own a bank account and far fewer women than men use formal credit. According to a research by Omidyar Network, one out of four financially excluded women across the world is from India, which has a 14% gender gap in access to financial services. Nearly 62% of all women in the country don’t have access to bank accounts or are not active users of accounts.

Old is gold. Gold is forever.

Despite Herculean efforts from nonprofits, banks and economists, the gender gap between male and female bank account ownership persists. But this doesn’t stop just there, a survey by TD bank found out that more men than women invest — 39% vs. 27%. I believe this tie backs to financial literacy among women and their mindset regarding finance. Take my mother for example, she still believes in investing in gold which is perceived as more stable and less risky versus making investment in mutual funds or other paper assets which are subject to market risks. She recently gifted me a gold chain and ring and stated, “I am investing for your marriage.” Which like always, made me roll my eyes because it reminded me of the archaic believes we carry as a society where the ultimate future of a girl child is to get married to a husband who is fully loaded and stocked. I wonder now, why I was shocked to see a number of my female friends get married right out of college and settle into the roles of housewives instead of pursuing bright careers. As per WEF report, India has among the lowest female labour-force participation rates in the world, declining further in the last decade. Meanwhile women contribute just 24% to the country’s GDP, compared with a global average of 48%. This is despite women topping nearly every competitive examination in the country and outnumbering men in the best colleges.

Choosing a Different Path

I have different plans for myself and despite the alarming statistics highlighting the gender gap when it comes to financial inclusion, women’s participation in financial services and their outlook, I believe there is still hope. There is much work to be done for creating an inclusive financial system for women, starting right from a change in mindset. For me, it starts with individual efforts. I choose to invest in myself, in my career, and not shy away from personal finance or financial services that can, in turn, help me grow my wealth by investing wisely. I know my mother would have preferred that I bought gold instead of putting money in that last Europe trip but I am glad that I made my own free choice as it helped me broaden my horizon and gave me a global perspective that adds on to my experiences through intangible and non-transactional ways.

As for personal finances, I like to make informed decisions about investing in paper assets, I enjoy the convenience of net banking and smooth transparent services provided by innovative fin-tech companies. While the steel box was a brilliant conception by my grandmother, I am more than glad that I don’t have to worry about coming up with these innovative ways of saving money and hope more women step up and take control of their finances, whether it’s opening and operating their bank accounts or investing in their future through paper assets, smart debts or insurance. I strongly feel that women’s participation and financial inclusion is critical not only for individual well-being but also for the nation’s economy.


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