Bank accounts are rare among Indian women, leaving them unable to deposit savings that many have preferred to keep secret from their spouses
By midday, Soni Mishra* has taken off her dupatta (scarf), wiped the makeup off her sweaty face, and phoned her husband twice to make sure he can collect their son from school. Mishra, along with at least a dozen other women, has been queuing for two hours in baking heat at a Dena Bank branch in Mumbai, hoping to deposit a bundle of cash she has brought with her.
For the past 15 years, Mishra, a housewife, has been saving for a rainy day. Every month, my husband gives me some money for the household expenses. I spend most of it, but I save a few rupees in case of an emergency. I save for my sons education, for his future. My husband also saves, of course, but I save so I have my own money in case theres a problem in my life.
Mishra wants to deposit her 500 and 1,000 rupee (11.91) notes at the bank, before 30 December. In an effort to crack down on corruption, tax evasion and black markets, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced last month that the high-value banknotes, which account for roughly 80% of the total cash in circulation in India, were to be withdrawn. However, the notes can be banked before the year-end deadline.
In India, millions of women like Mishra keep bundles of cash stashed away in hidden biscuit tins or tupperware, under sinks, or at the back of wardrobes. Some collect tens of thousands of rupees over the years, hoping to pitch in for their childrens weddings or education, or save for old age.
Every woman saves, Mishra says. You never know what problems youre going to have, and we all keep money in the house, in a safe or in a box hidden somewhere. Its a security for a woman. Because of this announcement, I now feel very insecure.
Though they have large amounts of money, women are kept out of the banking system. Roughly 80% of Indian women dont have a bank account. Culturally, managing the household income is seen as a male preserve, so accounts tend to be in the mans name and the vast majority of women arent involved in making big financial decisions.
With the cash crackdown, womens savings are at risk. Many will have to hand their money to their husbands to deposit in a bank. If their savings exceed 2.5 lakh rupees (2,950), they will have to pay a 45% tax, and a penalty of up to 200% if the bank finds an income mismatch. With little access to reliable information, and little experience of the banking system, women nationwide have been thrown into panic by Modis announcement.
The Gauravi womens crisis centre in Bhopal, a city in central India, received more than 200 requests for help in five days from women with currency problems. Unfortunately, a lot of the women who come here dont have bank accounts, and many of them dont have information about what to do now, says Shivani Saini, coordinator at the centre.
Many of them are not allowed to watch TV, so they dont know what Modi has said. Many think they can only deposit their cash at the banks near their childhood homes they dont know that you can go to any bank and deposit cash. Now, their husbands are scaring them, saying, Why did you hide so much money from me? The police are going to come and catch you.
At least two women who came to the crisis centre had been beaten and thrown out of their homes for hiding money from their husbands. The moment they reveal to their husbands that they have cash saved up, the husbands start pressuring them to hand it over. One woman came here with six children at 6am. She had been kicked out for lying to her husband and she had nowhere else to go. In desperation, women are selling their 1,000 and 500 rupee notes cheap, accepting 800 rupees or 300 rupees in exchange.
Id say 100% of women in this area save cash, and especially migrant women, who have come to this region after being married off. They cant even go back to their parents house if theres some difficulty, Saini says. Women cant join six-hour queues. Nobody else is going to cook food on their behalf. This is a very disheartening decision for women.
Priyanka Bhatia, founder of Women on Wealth, which helps women manage their finances and start businesses, says women are bearing the brunt of the demonetisation announcement. People are taking advantage of women because they know they have no choice but to buy food for their house or books for their kids. Nobodys giving change for a 500 or 1,000 rupee note.
We usually advise women to save, so they can use that capital to start a business or achieve personal goals, but now they feel their savings are worthless.
*Name changed to protect identity