Women Worth Their Weight in Gold to Sri Lankan Banks

By Dissanaike, Tharuka | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Women Worth Their Weight in Gold to Sri Lankan Banks


Dissanaike, Tharuka, Contemporary Review


THE advertisement glitters. Ornate gold necklaces, heavily engraved gold bangles and gold sovereigns -- eight grams of pure 22-karat gold -- dance across the television screen. But this is no advertisement for jewellery dealers. This is how the Bank of Ceylon, Sri Lanka's leading state-owned bank, sets out to tap the savings of middle- and low-income women. Since the mid-nineties, the bank has led the financial sector in trying to attract women to banks -- by offering gold rewards. (Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon.)

Today, even banks that grew out of micro-credit enterprises engage in copycat golden carrot schemes. 'Sri Lankan women consider gold as an investment -- this is why we use the gold rewards to induce them to come in to the formal banking sector and open savings accounts in our banks', says the Bank of Ceylon's general manager and professional banker, Sarath Silva. 'This way, they will save money -- plus get their gold'. Traditionally, Sri Lankan women have preferred the yellow metal as a saving 'for a rainy day'. Gold jewellery can be turned into liquid cash practically over the counter at pawnshops, banks and even the neighbourhood moneylender. Normally around 80 per cent of the jewellery value is given to the customer and annual interest rates can vary between 25 per cent at banks and over 120 per cent at loan sharks. 'Tradition and culture look benignly at women saving gold. If she were to walk up to a bank and open an account, it may bring up uncomfortable questions about whose name should the account bear . It would seem as a challenge to male authority of her husband or father', says development worker Kusala Wettesinghe.

Poor urban women and those in rural agricultural areas have long shied away from taking advantage of the formal banking sector. (About one quarter of the country's population lives in cities.) Wendy Olsen, a lecturer in socioeconomic research at the University of Manchester, points out some reasons for this exclusion: 'In male dominated societies, particularly in south Asia, men traditionally handle cash and investible funds, even when the funds arise from women's economic activity'. Olsen, who has studied the case of Sri Lanka, observes that for the poor and vulnerable, having a bank account can 'create choices that can counteract a person's social exclusion -- that is part of what having a secure livelihood is about'. A decade of advertising by banks may have increased account holding among women. But banks have merely scratched the surface. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka estimates that the total bank savings of Rs 425 billion ($4.5 billion) can be increased by at least Rs 100 billion if more women were to o pen bank accounts. All women face barriers to formal banking, but poor women suffer from particularly formidable obstacles, including low levels of literacy, and the inability to comprehend banking jargon or provide acceptable collaterals for loans. Visaka Hidellage, Sri Lankan Director of the non-governmental Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), points to the practical difficulties facing women: 'In our experience, it is very difficult for a poor woman to walk into a fancy looking commercial bank to get a loan'.

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