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In India, even smart women don't care for retirement

Neerja Pawha Jetley | Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 21 Oct 2013 | 6:58 PM ET
Joe McNally | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Eighty-two year-old Usha Kumar from Hyderabad should be considered fortunate compared to the majority of women in India.

As a Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in philosophy from Ohio State University in the United States, she taught for 22 years at India's prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, and led a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for much of her career.

But things took a drastic turn when she retired in 1991. Previously provided accommodation by her employer, Usha was not financially prepared to make a down payment on a private house. While she received a pension that allowed her to pay for necessities, Usha still had to borrow money from her friends for accommodation.

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"I had no financial training or knowledge of how to plan for a nest egg. While my male colleagues were investing in equities or property, I was spending on expensive saris or gold," she said.

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Had she not inherited part of her father's property, she would be still struggling to put a roof over her head. Furthermore, if a friend had not persuaded Usha to buy health insurance, she probably wouldn't have survived a struggle with breast cancer.

Usha's story resonates with thousands of educated, professional Indian women who are entering their senior years with inadequate financial resources and retirement planning.

According to a survey by financial consultancy Ameriprise, a lack of prioritization is an issue, as 79 percent of middle class women do not consider retirement planning among their top three financial goals.

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The inability to make financial decisions was another contributing factor; a 14-city survey by DSP Blackrock this year showed that only twenty percent of single working women in India – excluding divorcees and widowers – make their own investment decisions. Among married women who claimed they were involved in financial decision making at home, 52 percent said they were informed after their fathers, husbands or brothers had made such decisions.

"It is a curious case that even when women are earning and contributing to household incomes, they see financial planning as the man's role," said Kapil Mehta, Managing Director, SecureNow Insurance Broker.

Traditional roots at play

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The story of financial dependency among India's women starts in the social ethos before manifesting in old age.

Indian women tend to choose less financially-rewarding careers. Even when women pursue lucrative jobs, family puts their work life on a different growth trajectory than men.

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, 36 percent of India's college-educated women voluntarily quit their jobs for a period of time for childcare or work-life balance purposes. As many as 73 percent take a "scenic route," opting for part-time work, flexible work or a position with fewer responsibilities, compared with 58 percent in the U.S. and 36 percent in Japan.

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When women do have the opportunity to make financial decisions, they prioritize their children's education or family essentials like health expenses or house loans. "Women will usually compromise their long-term security for the well-being of their children, even if they are adults," SecureNow's Mehta said.

Longevity worsens the issue, with Indian women tending to live more than three years longer than men according to United Nations life expectancy forecasts. Widowhood is as high as 59 percent among elderly women compared with 36 percent for elderly men, according to the UNPF report. In the event that an elderly woman becomes a widow, the financial burden increases.

"In case of death of the male member, the financial situation of the wife is a real mess. In rural areas, it's even worse," said Surya Bhatia, managing partner of Asset Managers, a private wealth management company based in New Delhi.

Widowed women are also less likely to be able to afford private treatment for myriad health issues that they're more prone to including arthritis, hypertension and osteoporosis. Instead, they have to rely on unpaid or cheap sources of medical aid, which often proves inadequate.

Signs of progress

Over the past few years, the government, as well as private banks and insurance companies, put together a slew of schemes and steps to specifically address the financial needs of women. In fact, the government will soon launch India's first state bank aimed towards women. The bank will be run by women and will only open to female clients. Private banks like ICICI and HDFC have also begun providing banking and insurance products specifically targeted to women.

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However, given the social and cultural milieu, the lack of awareness and financial education is a major stumbling block to retirement planning for women.

"Women have to think about themselves and start planning early for old age. The attitude, unfortunately, is to cross the bridge when you come to it," said Mehta.

His words echo Usha's thoughts. "If I have any advice to give to younger women, it would be that they should be aware, informed and educated about their finances. Women have to help themselves if they want to secure their future. And they have to do it now," she said.

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