When she switched on the evening news, Shipra Bhattacharya was overjoyed to find a solution to the problem that had been bugging her for over a year. Bhattacharya, in her 50s, is a mean chef who dreams of starting a tiffin-delivery service — providing home-cooked food to those who can’t or won’t cook — to supplement the $400 or so she makes each month from tutoring children in her New Delhi neighborhood. Although for years now middle-class Indian women like Bhattacharya have substantiated their family income with part-time jobs such as small-scale catering and play schools, banks are rarely interested in lending to them. Sure enough, “every bank rejected my application, as I live in a rented house,” says Bhattacharya.
Fortunately for women like Bhattacharya, such obstacles may soon be a thing of the past. This month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the country’s first women’s commercial bank, the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (loosely translated as Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, calling it a “small step” toward economic empowerment of Indian women. With seven other branches in major Indian cities like Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Patna (and plans for 500 branches all over India by 2017), the Mahila Bank wants to give women, from every strata of Indian society, easy access to bank accounts and loans. “Over centuries, India has produced several accomplished women leaders in a diverse range of areas — science, medicine, business, sports, politics and so on,” Singh said. “However, all this does not reflect the average reality of women in our country. Their social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal.”
Microfinance has been tried many times in South Asia, most notably by the Nobel Peace Prize–winning Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has helped millions of people, the vast majority women, open small businesses. The Mahila Bank, by contrast, is a proper universal bank that will prioritize women with collateral-free loans from $800 to $5,000. Participants will be able to start small businesses but are also encouraged to open savings accounts, luring them with a higher rate of interest and also the chance to borrow for special household expenses like renovating kitchen space. “Women in India are smart and intelligent and great at cutting corners and saving, but they have traditionally shied away from formal channels of banking and finance,” Usha Ananthasubramanian, chairperson and managing director of the bank, told TIME. “We want to bring in financial literacy among Indian women, which is very important for empowerment.”
But not everyone is wowed by the scheme. Despite India’s patriarchal society, women often handle household finances, but investment decisions remain very much the husband’s prerogative. (Only 26% of Indian women have bank accounts.) That’s why women’s-rights advocates fear the Mahila Bank initiative may remain an empty gesture. “There’s no big thinking behind this. These initiatives have no gender perspective, they are just women-specific initiatives that isolate women even more,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research. “I would rather the government sensitizes normal banks to support women’s economic empowerment.”
For women like Bhattacharya, however, these larger concerns mean little. She plans to apply for a loan as soon as possible. “This is a great opportunity for middle-class women like me,” she says. “I don’t have to dip into my savings anymore, and yet I can invest much more than I had originally thought I could.”