India's prime minister on Tuesday inaugurated the country's first state-owned bank for women, aimed at strengthening their financial security after a string of sex crimes highlighted gender inequality.
Premier Manmohan Singh opened the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women's Bank) in the south of financial capital Mumbai, home to one of seven nationwide branches that are now operational.
The bank was announced in February when India was still reeling from the fatal gang-rape of a student in the capital, which sparked anger and soul-searching over the treatment of women.
In a country where only 26 percent of women have accounts with financial institutions, the bank is focused on lending to women and aims to employ mostly female staff, although men will be able to open accounts too.
"The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, at school, at their place of work and in public places. Their social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal," said Singh at the launch.
"The setting up of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank is a small step towards the economic empowerment of women," he added.
While this is the first such state initiative, there are existing co-operative banks run for and by women, such as the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank in the western state of Maharashtra.
The Mann Deshi bank was set up in 1997 and is now the state's largest microfinance bank with over 185,000 clients, according to its website.
The new Bharatiya Mahila Bank (BMB), with the tagline "empowering women, empowering India", is due to have 25 branches by next March and 771 branches over a seven-year period.
The board of directors is made up of eight women, said Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who set aside 10 billion rupees ($161 million) to capitalise the new bank in his 2013/14 budget.
"It will create more job opportunities for women and it will pay special attention to the weaker and more neglected sections of women," he told reporters at the new Mumbai branch, where employees in blue-and-yellow sari uniforms were present.
Chidambaram said the bank would deal with "gender biases that are built into the system", such as the fact a property title may not be in a woman's name, meaning she cannot offer collateral.
If a women requires small loans of up to around 25,000 rupees ($400), "that kind of credit must be provided without any collateral," he said.
Other products on offer include special loans for women trying to establish catering services or daycare centres.
The bank had a mixed reception among the mostly female audience at the launch.
"Because it's run by women it will definitely help women. It's a male-dominated society," said Usha Kannan, an employee at the Central Bank of India.
A senior worker at another bank, declining to be named, said most urban women already had bank accounts, and the BMB could struggle to reach those most in need in rural areas.
"They're going to have to be very innovative," she said.
The bank presently has 86 employees across the country and more than 55 percent are women, a senior official told AFP on Monday at the Delhi headquarters, on the ninth floor of a glass high-rise in the city's commercial centre.
"This bank was planned for a good cause and because of that we saw scores of eager applicants willing to work here," said the official on condition of anonymity.
The Delhi bank branch and corporate office are expected to open after state elections in December.
The bank, which was inaugurated on the birth anniversary of India's only female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, is to be chaired by Usha Ananthasubramanian, a former executive director of the Punjab National Bank.