El Salvador is changing for good, with new opportunities for women at all levels providing the driving force for a brighter future
Following his election as President of El Salvador in 2019, Nayib Bukele made a significant move – he formed a cabinet of eight men and eight women. The move reflected a shift towards greater gender equality and recognised the vital role that women play socially and economically across the country. Integral to the cabinet is Celina Padilla Meardi, the CEO of El Salvador’s leading commercial bank Banco Hipotecario. As the head of a bank geared towards SMEs, Padilla Meardi is inspired to make El Salvador a country that provides opportunities for all through a financial ecosystem that reaches out to the unbanked.
Banco Hipotecario is changing the way people bank in El Salvador through its innovative range of products and services, and is fast-becoming a strategic partner in the economic and social development of the country.
Under the leadership of Padilla Meardi, Banco Hipotecario has established a new set of guiding principles. The board of directors is made up of four women and one man and the bank actively promotes the empowerment of women at all levels. This focus on gender balance in the boardroom signals a final departure from the institution’s traditional structure and has delivered positive results throughout the organisation.
However, the transition to greater gender equality has not happened overnight. Many senior positions within Banco Hipotecario are already held by women, including the management of corporate banking, which is responsible for financing the nation’s SMEs, and sectors such as agro-industrial. Furthermore, international banking, the compliance office and internal audit all have women in the most senior positions.
Women in Action
An important part of the bank’s vision is the ‘Mujer en Acción’ (Women in Action) programme. Aligned to Banco Hipotecario’s wider strategy, the programme has created a wide range of opportunities for Salvadoran women, providing them with crucial finance to invest in their businesses and build towards a better future. The initiative comes complete with supporting information and specialist education covering multiple vocational possibilities. There is also a portfolio of credit lines, plus other products and services designed to promote the empowerment of women and to help them recognise the vital role they play in driving El Salvador forward.
The Women in Action programme was created in May 2019, and was the first of its kind in El Salvador. Indeed, for years women had been excluded from accessing finance and the opportunities that follow. Part of the initiative is ‘Vivienda Mujer’ (Housing Women), which offers finance to women hoping to buy their own house, or looking to invest in land for a project. Access to decent housing is essential to improve the quality of life for many women and their families across the country who are currently experiencing difficult conditions.
Similarly there is a loan for female market traders, whereby financing is granted for working capital so that they can expand their microbusiness activity.
Helping female market traders is vital to the El Salvador’s productivity, as this line of work provides a source of income for many women and their families. A large percentage of women head the household, providing food and educational needs for their children; if these women cannot support themselves, then El Salvador suffers. This effort seeks to guarantee that thousands of Salvadoran women are beneficiaries of ‘Women, Local Economy and Territories – MELYT’, which is promoted by UN Women. Access to finance to improve their quality of life and professional development can be gained through Banco Hipotecario’s programme. Women in Action also provides comprehensive assistance with business matters, which begins by covering personal health, before issuing individual guidance on new business opportunities and working with the latest technology.
All these efforts are aligned with guidelines established by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, of which two, ‘Gender Equality’ and the ‘Reduction of Inequalities’, seek to reduce gender gaps that currently exist around the world.
CSR in action
Banco Hipotecario has a proud 85-year history of helping SMEs in El Salvador. Guided by new government policy, the bank has redirected its course, making women central to a strategy that’s geared towards microenterprises. The bank recognises that these companies are vital to the Salvadorian economy, and close to a thousand lines of credit have been provided as of June 2020, totalling more than $4m.
Evidence shows that the microenterprise segment – especially those led by women – demonstrate timely repayment of loans, which results in wider economic benefits, according to the National Microenterprise Commission of El Salvador, CONAMYPE. According to data from the International Council for Small Businesses, these types of businesses, whether they belong to the formal or informal sector of the economy, represent more than 90% of the total number of companies worldwide, and generate between 60 and 70% of employment and are responsible for 50% of GDP globally.
The key role that Celina Padilla Meardi has played in boosting gender equality within SMEs and microenterprises has led to her becoming Central America’s representative on the new UNEP FI Banking Board – the governance body for the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative, and the Principles for Responsible Banking.
Women play a crucial role across El Salvador’s entire value chain, but they need more opportunities and support. The initiatives led by Banco Hipotecario recognise this fact – that’s why the Women in Action programme is at the heart the bank’s strategic vision and counts more than 2000 women on its loan portfolio.