Archives for category: Women’s Rights

2012 promises to be a good year for BLISS, says Saba Gul, the Co-Founder & Executive Director of BLISS, Business & Life Skills School. Below Saba writes about BLISS’s new partnership with Sughar Women and her recent visit to their vocational training center in Thatta, Sindh.  This post first appeared on the BLISS blog. 

We’re starting off the new year with some thrilling news: BLISS is scaling to Mirpur Sakro, Thatta in the Southern province of Sindh, where we will start working with 100 women and girls. Thatta was badly affected by the 2010 floods, with devastating effects on livelihoods.

Our executing partner on the ground is Sughar – a program of PDI(Participatory Development Initiatives), founded by the indomitable Khalida Brohi, also an Unreasonable fellow in 2010.

This past weekend, I visited Sughar’s vocational center in Mirpur Sakro, accompanied by Khalida, Jeremy Higgs, Manager of Operations for EcoEnergy Finance, and a dear friend Seher Suleman (who shares with the rest of us a hunger to change the world).

A 3 hour ride from Karachi, much of it on a dirt road with agricultural wasteland on either side, brought us to a large wooden shed that served as Sughar’s vocational center for the village. Men and women from the village filed in with smiles on their faces.

The women were thrilled to be able to showcase their work, which was so beautiful that Seher and I couldn’t resist whipping out whatever cash we had to buy some of it off of them right there and then. While none of them spoke Urdu, Khalida patiently translated everything they said.

In conversations with the women, I found out that none of the girls in the village were enrolled in school beyond the age of 12. The main reason seemed to be a lack of female teachers, without which it was culturally unacceptable for the girls to attend school. The teachers had been sent/appointed by the government, and repeated requests to send female teachers had been ignored. The other reason was early marriages — most girls were married off by the time they were 15. We visited the only school in the village, with one classroom that was used for both boys and girls attending all grades.

Jeremy had a fascinating conversation with the men about selling solar lamps to them, since the village didn’t have electricity. We exchanged some laughs as the men told a story about how their mobile phones were taken to the nearby city every week by one of them to be charged. The women jumped in as soon as Jeremy asked what difficulties the village faced without electricity, all talking at the same time. They wanted to have lights for cooking, feeding their children, doing household chores. Their lives had to be paused from sunset to sunrise.

A few of the men wanted the solar lamps for free, even though the monthly installments Jeremy had worked out for them equalled the amount they spent on kerosene every month. Notwithstanding the fact that the lamp would be theirs to own in 8 months, that they would never have to pay for kerosene again, and that the lamps were far superior to kerosene in terms of the light they produced as well as safety and health-wise. But too many NGOs had come and gone and offered free solutions that didn’t last beyond a few months. Free was still attractive.

Jeremy did succeed in striking a deal with the men, and now has an order from a neighboring village as well.

I left the village as I had left Attock almost two years ago — a little heartbroken at the limited resources this community had available to them, but really excited about the opportunity this presented for BLISS.

I can’t wait for us to work with these women! And with Khalida, someone whose work I’ve admired since I first met her last year. Here’s to new beginnings — 2012 promises to be a good year!


The Palestyle Clutch

(This article was cross-posted with CHUPWhen was the last time you looked down at your trendy-but-questionable harem pants and asked yourself, “Where did these come from?” No, they did not claw its way out of the ’90s, fresh from an MC Hammer video, as much as your friends might like to tell you (don’t worry, they’re just jealous). Aladdin didn’t call, asking for his pants back (honestly, you might need new friends). No, harem-pants person. Those pants were the result of a long and complex value chain, and in some instances, players (often the people making the garments in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan), were exploited in the process. The ethical fashion movement aims to address and remedy some of these issues – many labels using fair trade or ethical practices or producing eco-friendly products. Ayesha Mustafa is the Pakistani founder of Fashion ComPassion, a UK-based ethical online retailer that markets socially responsible luxury brands. In the eight months since Fashion ComPassion was established, she has worked with companies like Polly & Me (with Chitrali women in Pakistan), Palestyle (with Palestinian refugee women), andBeshtar (Afghanistan). Below, she tell us more about her organization:

Q: What inspired you to establish Fashion ComPassion? How did your past interests or background converge for the creation of this innovative organization?

Fashion and giving back to society have been my two biggest passions and Fashion ComPassion is a combination of the two. I had been toying with the idea of creating my own fashion company for awhile, and just decided I needed to make that call and switch careers.

Growing up in Pakistan and the Middle East where one sees discrepancies in wealth, poverty, and a lack of opportunities for girls and women, I wanted to create a platform that could directly support the most marginalized. I also interned at Grameen Bankwhen I was 17 and saw the transformational impact it had on women, their families and society. This stayed with me and throughout my life, I have worked and volunteered with organizations that supported women causes/rights.

Q: Fashion ComPassion currently supports four labels with four different influences – Polly & Me from Pakistan,Palestyle that empowers Palestinian refugee women, Beshtar from Afghanistan, and Savannah Chic, which is designed by African artists. How did you go about forming these partnerships and did you initially want Fashion ComPassion to be global in scope?

The mandate of the company is to create a platform for women artisans in the developing world, i.e Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so from the onset I wanted it to be global but focus on countries that are war-torn and where there is a real need to help and empower women. I started with a vision document about the company and first i approached Polly & Me, and the rest just fell into place with research and referrals from friends and family.

Currently, I have added new brands in the portfolio: (1) Bhalo is a limited edition clothing and accessories label that works with women in Bangladesh. The products are made from ethically hand woven and naturally dyed cottons and silks. Bhalo works with two fair trade organizations, and provides employment, healthcare, child care to women who otherwise would not be employed due to mass production. Bhalo works with the same fair trade organization as People Tree. (2) Lost City is a NY label that works with artisans in Lucknow, India to revive their traditional craftsmanship with contemporary style.

I am no longer working with Polly & Me and Savannah Chic at the moment and in the midst of creating a new online website for the garments and goods.

Q: According to your philosophy, “Not only do we source responsibly from brands that contribute to society and empower women, our aim is to also donate a percentage of our sales to charities that support marginalized women in various communities around the world…” How does Fashion ComPassion do the due diligence in ensuring their brands empower women? What charities do you currently support?

We have strict criteria when we look at brands to partner with and support. Some of the things we look at are:

  1. Why was the company formed? Was it created to address a social problem, and what is the mission or mandate of the company?
  2. Does it have a strong social development ethos?
  3. How is fashion and social development combined to form the label?
  4. Does the brand work or partner with any local fair trade or women right organizations?
  5. How are the artisans paid?
  6. What are their working conditions?
  7. Are the artisans trained and given creative guidance?
  8. Are they given any other assistance in terms of health care or child care?
  9. Does the label support the community and give a certain percentage back?
  10. Can the label provide evidence and documents to support how they are helping and empowering the women they work with?

Fashion ComPassion is also committed to give back 2% of its annual profits to various women organizations that are fostering positive change and impact on women. I am looking at three at the moment, but since I am part of Women for Women International’s Junior Leadership circle, I would like to help with one of the countries they are setting up a Country Office in or a project they are focusing on.

Q: Where do you see Fashion ComPassion in the next year? In the next five years?

In the coming year, I would like to build greater awareness of Fashion ComPassion and its brands by focusing on various events and collaborations with organizations that have a similar mandate. The new website will be launched with an online shop which will allow customers to buy products directly. I am also looking at pop up stores to sell some of the brands.

In the long term, because my biggest industry inspiration is Joan Burstein, the founder of Browns, I want to make Fashion ComPassion follow Brown’s footsteps and be the one-stop shop for high-end and unique ethical fashion.

Q: The convergence of fashion and social impact is a really fascinating marriage right now with organizations like Elvis & Kresse and Goodone, which supply ethical and eco-friendly clothing to fashion stores. In the value chain, how does Fashion ComPassion market these brands to the larger or more mainstream markets?

Fashion ComPassion’s purpose is to bring together high-end socially responsible brands from the developing world and create a market for it in the UK and other countries like the US. We are starting with an online website that will sell to customers globally, we also organize events at galleries, boutiques, and form partnerships with other ethical fashion brands and women organizations. We have also taken part in fashion shows and plan to be part of trade shows for ethical fashion. With time, we plan to supply our brands to other online fashion sites in the U.S. and ethical fashion boutiques there.

Q: What has been the reaction so far to Fashion ComPassion? What has been your biggest success and failure so far?

The reaction so far has been phenomenal. I honestly didn’t except such a positive response from customers, press, retailers and other individuals. I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have had it not been for the help and support of numerous people that have believed in me and the company.

Beshtar Burqa Dress

My biggest success was when Beshtar’s Burqa Dress was one of the pieces of Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge. In less than three months since I started the company, the dress was included in this prestigious selection which included some of the most well-known designers that are working on their ethical lines.

I wouldn’t call it a failure but not being able to find the right socially responsible brand from Pakistan that I can work with and make a name for in the UK. This is something that I am researching and have talked to various individuals in Pakistan both in social development and fashion. I hope that very soon, I can get a brand from my own country and create a positive image of Pakistan through fashion.

You can become a learn more about Fashion ComPassion by visiting their website or joining their Facebook page

MDG5: Improve Maternal Health

When I was little, my mother used to brush my long brown hair before I’d go to school, sometimes pinning my locks back with barrettes that corresponded to the day of the week (hey, it was the 80s), and sometimes yanking and pulling them into a painfully executed French braid. When the boy I liked made fun of me or when I fell and scraped my leg/elbow/insert-body-part-here, my mother would hold me, hugging away my tears. When someone told me I wasn’t good enough, she would push me to prove them wrong. Throughout the years, she has been my biggest cheerleader, my partner-in-crime, the method to my madness, and really, one of my closest friends.

On Mother’s Day, we are reminded of why we need to celebrate our mothers every day. Because damn it, they’re special. And we are better people because of them.

But Mother’s Day should also remind us of the many who grow up without mothers. Today, the issue of maternal health continues to be one of the world’s most pressing problems. According to Every Mother Counts, an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education about maternal and child health, a woman dies every 90 seconds from pregnancy complications. 90% of those deaths are preventable. Pregnancy is the biggest killer of women between the ages of 15-19 in the developing world, with nearly 70,000 girls dying each year because their bodies are not ready for childbirth.

Although the numbers are especially dismal in sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 30 women is likely to die in childbirth, the statistics are also shocking in Pakistan. According to the 2006-7 Pakistani Demographic & Health Survey, 1 in 89 women in Pakistan will die of maternal causes during her lifetime. The highest rate of maternal death is in Balochistan, and the rate is nearly twice as high in rural areas as it is in Pakistan’s cities.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, while maternal mortality in Pakistan is still high,

The percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care and skilled medical care had been increasing, a positive indicator for mother’s health. The percentage of women receiving prenatal care from a skilled health provider (nurse, doctor, midwife, or “Lady Health Visitor”) rose from just 33 percent in 1996 to 61 percent in 2006-07.

However, noted PRB, less than two-fifths of babies are born with the assistance of a skilled medical provider. The UN Millennium Development Goal’s call for at least 90 percent of births attended by skilled health personnel by 2015 “seems unlikely in Pakistan.”

During the flood disaster last summer in Pakistan that affected millions of people, women and children were the most vulnerable, and many pregnant mothers were without access to health care. The UN Population Fund estimated that nearly 500,000 flood-affected women were pregnant, and of that number, 1,700 women would go into labor each day. According to the Population Fund, “More than 250 of them will experience complications requiring medical care.” Organizations like Naya Jeevan and SHINE Humanity worked diligently during this period to help full-term pregnant women deliver their babies safely, with Naya Jeevan instituting a Safe Delivery Initiative and SHINE Humanity offering sustainable solutions and resources, [see this Global Giving page]. But the need was so great, and many mothers were left without access to the care they needed.

I am not saying that these problems can be solved tomorrow. But child mortality and maternal health are two issues that are so pressing that they each merited their own UN Millennium Development Goal. These goals are intrinsically linked, much like a mother and her child. We should not only care about this issue because it’s largely preventable, but because many of us were lucky to grow up with our mothers to nurture and guide us, to raise us the way their mothers did. That’s why we should remember that every mother, not just our own, counts.

Below is my favorite video in honor of Mother’s Day – from Acumen Fund’s Search for the Obvious campaign:

What’s Association for the Development of Pakistan (ADP)?

I first heard about the Association for the Development of Pakistan (ADP) back in graduate school during a conversation that most Pakistanis have when living abroad. I was talking about the sense of despair and helplessness I faced every time I read about Pakistan’s numerous development challenges. My friend, Natasha suggested I look up, Association for the Development of Pakistan, a volunteer-driven philanthropy that evaluates and funds innovative development projects run by local NGOs in Pakistan. She had been volunteering with ADP for about a year and found it a great way of channeling Pakistani expat restlessness into concrete results. As part of her ADP assignment, Natasha had (at the time) recently finished evaluating a proposal to establish a computer lab in Ghotki, Sindh.

Launched in 2003 by a group of students and young professionals in Boston, ADP aims to bridge the gap between concerned donors and various small development organizations operating below the radar screen in Pakistan. To date, ADP’s volunteers have identified, evaluated and funded seventeen projects across ten Pakistanis cities, disbursing over one hundred thousand dollars.

What makes ADP unique in Pakistan is the fact that (a) it’s primarily volunteer-run, and (b) it goes beyond traditional charity by performing extensive due diligence to identify and fund projects “where the impact is crucial and measurable”.  ADP also emphasizes its support of social entrepreneurship and innovative models of development:

We prefer to fund innovative projects that may not receive funding from other sources. Encouraging passionate social pioneers and volunteerism can give a boost to development and improve the prospects for significant, lasting impact.

ADP’s utilizes its highly educated volunteer base to apply their time and skills towards objective evaluation and monitoring of projects. The ADP board has pledged to cover operating costs so the donor money is then used entirely for project grants.

ADP’s potential was unveiled following the 2005 earthquake when within a few months, it was able to disburse more than half a million dollars as part of disaster relief efforts. In addition to channelizing funds, ADP also oversaw the reconstructions of hospitals, homes and schools as part of its earthquake rehabilitation program.  During the 2010 floods, ADP once again rose to the occasion by working with UNHCR to set up temporary shelters and collaborating with NEEDS to provide clean drinking water. ADP’s focus however, remains on sustainable development at the grassroots level. As a result, even its current flood relief projects are partnerships with organizations that are working towards providing long term sustainable solutions to affected areas.

Case Study: Microfinance for Poultry Farming

What further drove me to feature ADP on TC-P this week was an update on their most recent project, Microfinance for Poultry Farming. Although finance + poultry do not make for a glamorous combination, through in-kind micro loans to low-income women in Charsadda, ADP’s latest project is impacting the community in two critical respects: (1) creating income-generating opportunities in a flood affected area and (2) bringing micro finance to women who previously did not have access to it.

Going into the details of the initiative, ADP is working with the Network for Education and Economic Development Services (NEEDS), a small nonprofit organization based in the Charsadda district to provide low-income women with the opportunity to establish small poultry and livestock businesses in the area through microfinance. In-kind loans (yes, by this they mean chickens and roosters) are made to women headed households earning up to Rs. 5,000 to allow women run home-based poultry businesses, breeding chickens for sale. The loan will be recovered from beneficiaries through small installments, and this funding will be revolved back into the project, thus providing the same opportunity to many other women.

NEEDS assistance to the female entrepreneurs however, doesn’t end here. The organization will be providing critical training to the women on how to work with poultry, the business aspects of running the business and how to manage profits and expansion.

The NEEDS project is a perfect illustration of how ADP incorporates innovative, sustainable projects into its larger rehabilitation approach. Charsadda has been severely impacted by the floods.  People here need  income-generating opportunities to rebuild their homes and the community. An added bonus to the project is that currently eggs, hen and meat are imported from Peshawar and sold at marked up prices. The project will help bring down the price of poultry in the immediate area.

It is estimated that it will take about one year for the project to become sustainable. ADP plans that at least 20% profit will come to the organization, to be reinvested in the pool of investment capital. If the total revolving fund (worth Rs. 500,000) is disbursed then the estimated annual profit will be Rs.100,000.

NEEDS is also instituting several mechanisms to minimize the default rate. For instance, by providing in-kind support to clients, it is helping ensure business establishment. It is also working with their clients to encourage savings and establish market linkages (Read our related post on Bringing Good to Markets).

As the project progresses into its second phase, we at TC-P are excited about learning about the initiative’s results and what we can further learn from ADP’s innovative and comprehensive approach.

To learn more about ADP’s Microfinance for Poultry comprehensive assessment and project plan, visit their project page. If you’re interested in supporting ADP, you can donate here.

The following post has been contributed by Khalida Brohi, who founded Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) – working within tribal customs in Balochistan to empower women. A fellow of the Unreasonable Institute, Khalida Brohi has demonstrated the ability of passionate young people to enact change from within their communities.

Looking back it seems like forever when living life according to my own choices has been a very ordinary and possible thing for me. I can easily count myself to be among the regular modern girls with almost every necessity of life but the truth is in this liberated life of mine when I receive a book to read, hundred of girls in my own community go without any education at all and when I am asked about what I want, girls in my family are given off into marriages without their slightest knowledge and choice…

Life offered me much more then I could ever imagine, I got my freedom, education, opportunities and power of decision making that no other girl in my family or community could get, I lived my life distributed between two very distinct realities: one my original inheritance, the second my gained identity.

My original inheritance is that I belong to a tribal community in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, to a society where traditions fix the fate of each girl to a family, where the birth of a son is celebrated with gunfire while a daughter’s birth is mourned. But luck turned out that I became the first girl in my community who could get her education in Karachi, and I was provided every opportunity to grow and learn and encouraged to speak my mind. In other words I became a fortunate recipient of getting a very different fate living inside a circle where there was no escape from customs that enforced seclusion, male dominance, wata satta (exchange marriages), arranged marriages, child marriages and even giving off girls into marriages as a means to settle tribal disputes.

Growing up I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between my life and the life of my own cousins and I had a constant intention to use my freedom as a source to make sure other girls in my community are as lucky as I am. But while already surrounded by disheartening realities, at the age of 16 I witnessed another heinous crime veiled in the name of customs. It was the murder of a girl in the name of so-called honor who chose her own marriage partner. That was the year I finally came to know about honor killings.

But my question was; could culture go as far as to murder women?

So it was, hundreds of women were being murdered under a veil of custom called honor killings for their actual or perceived “immoral” behavior and for bringing shame to their families. That behavior could be marital infidelity, refusal to submit to an arranged marriage, asking for a divorce, or flirting with a man. According to the United Nations about thousands of women are killed in the name of honor each year.

Being at such a young age and exposed to a brutal reality among many others that I already lived in, I took to doing whatever it was in my power to stand against traditions that enforced such laws for women and girls.

I didn’t know what exactly to start with, and what to do first. I started going house to house in my village and talking to girls to join me, and it was in 2005 I helped found Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) in Balochistan, to empower other Pakistani women to have an equal, powerful say in the decisions of their life and provide socio-economic empowerment to girls and women to enable them a strong leadership in their households as well as in the society.

But challenging the patriarchal hierarchy is a daunting, and sometimes dangerous, undertaking. Realizing that tribal elders and mullahs would never allow me and my team to directly contradict the tribal traditions that lead to wata sata (arranged marriages), child marriages, and honor killings, we adroitly worked on changing perceptions from within. PDI soon established an innovative program called Sughar (Skilled and confident woman in local language) to promote and preserve the positive traditional customs of embroidery, music and tribal languages; while raise awareness of women’s issues by organizing wildly popular cricket matches and street theaters in villages; and empower women with income-producing Embroidery and Basic Education Centers, where women can learn, talk, share stories, and support each other while they work. By working within the traditional culture we were able to get villagers to accept and participate in our program, while we delivered messages of women’s empowerment and equal status.

Often times it has been debated that how could PDI expect good results when so much of opposition stands guard at the deep roots of any tribal community in Pakistan.

The truth is unlike other organizations PDI refuses to disrespect the existing ancient traditions and without standing against the tribal customs PDI directly engages the tribal leaders at village level by promoting three positive aspects of traditions such as traditional music, language and embroidery, thus to emphasis on the positive aspects and later discouraging the customs like wata satta, honor killing and child marriages PDI is able to convey a more clearer message then to create a chaos of opposition. This not only allows us admittance in the tribal setups but their full participation in our activities.

PDI further provides socio-economic opportunities to women under the Sughar program by establishing Women Learning and Skill Development Centers. We establish these centers in selected rural communities where each center gives an 18 month course to tribal rural women on value-adding and renovating the traditional embroidery and also provide basic education and literacy skills and raise awareness of rural women which builds their capacities towards decision making and contribution in their households and lives. The embroidery is later marketed via various means including Marketplaces of PDI and various exhibitions and stalls around Pakistan. Each course offers a minimum loan to each woman after graduating to initiate Primary Production Units (PPUs) at their homes, which are linked to the main market outlets established in three cities of Pakistan that is Karachi, Quetta and Khuzdar.

In this whole process PDI also educates men and advocates for the rights of women by various means such as organizing cricket tournaments, interactive theater, SMS, FM radio, Info- activism, digital advocacy and other media sources.

To date PDI is running the program Sughar in several districts of Balochistan benefiting about 2000 women.

While in 2008 PDI launched another of its programs in Sindh Province called Land for Women (LWP) when according to Benazir Bhutto Government Land Distribution Program, Sindh Government started distributing land among landless peasant women in Sindh. PDI took charge of monitoring this process in 2008 and when the program resulted in huge flaws and corruption, a large-scale advocacy and awareness campaign was launched by PDI with the support of Oxfam to enable tribal women in Sindh receiving their full right.

LWP raised awareness of the Government Land Distribution Program in various unreachable areas of Sindh by FM radio and other local procedures, distributed free application forms to thousands of women, helped in filling out forms and even provided transport to the open katcharies where land was to be distributed. PDI also offered legal support to hundreds of women who ended up with litigation matters upon them after receiving land. Eventually within three years, the Land for Women Program of PDI directly helped provide land to about 50% of the 3000 women from Sindh that have won lands.

It has been a long journey at PDI till now, while a longer one still awaits us, but everyday that moves ahead we grow as a team with much inspiration, persistence and dignity. Because in the end of each long day we do see smiling faces of women and girls with growing leadership powers and believe me that’s exactly what keeps us going.

I would never forget the day Zeenat wrote to me her name for the first time ever in one of PDI Women Learning and Skill Development Centers, going with a long, loud and proud pronunciation of Zee…naaaaa….thhh….

The ThinkChange Pakistan team has compiled some articles we’ve been tracking throughout the week, just in case you missed them.

  • This week saw the launch of the Education Emergency campaign, highlighting the need for reform in Pakistan’s education system.
  • Salman Khan (of the Khan Academy) gives a TED Talk on using video to reinvent education.
  • DC for Acumen is hosting the “Dignity DC” photo exhibition and auction on 31st March. Tickets can be purchased online.
  • IDEO announced and the Residents Programme for social entrepreneurs. Exciting work with one of the world’s leading firms designing products for the BoP.
  • The Harvard Business Review discusses the 3 trending innovation challenges.
  • The Acumen Fund is weighing in on a competition to design innovative ways to get the message out there that maternal health is a right, and not an option. Join in the competition!
  • NextBillion regularly posts available jobs:
  • Fellowship applications are closing soon! PopTech and Skoll Awards

Have we missed something ground-breaking this week? Let us know!

No conversation on Pakistan’s fabulous women is complete without Roshaneh Zafar, the founder and managing director of Pakistan’s first microfinance institution, Kashf Foundation.

Following a chance meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, Roshaneh quit her job at the World Bank and launched Kashf as an action research program in 1996. Following two years of intensive research on the needs of clients, and learning about products, systems and processes, Kashf has grown into a formidable force, providing financial services to over 68, 000 clients through a network of 30 branches.

So what exactly does Kashf Foundation do?

For those not familiar with microfinance institutions, MFIs are institutions that provide financial services to low-income clients that traditionally lack access to banking and related services. Aside from the fact that it was founded by a female social entrepreneur, what makes Kashf Foundation such an appropriate pick for this week is also because of the fact that it specifically targets women from low-income communities.

The heart behind Kashf is poverty alleviation. Kashf Foundation’s mission is to:

“Alleviate poverty by providing quality and cost effective microfinance services to low income households, especially women, in order to enhance their economic role and decision-making capacity”

In order to further put the conversation into context, it is estimated that nearly 56% of Pakistan’s population is excluded from the formal banking sector. Out of this 32% access their money informally (PMN 2008). Formal institutions are often reluctant to extend credit to low-income individuals, as they have few assets that can serve as collateral (Qadir 2005).

Why does it matter?

While a detailed discussion on the virtue of microfinance is beyond the scope of the post, the key take away is that the poor need access to credit. In times of need, they have to turn to shopkeepers and money enders that provide loans at exorbitant rates. Going back to our #socent spotlight on Naya Jeevan, as Asher pointed out  “a sudden, major illness such as a stroke or cardiac arrest could trap a family in a vicious cycle of debt”.

In addition to providing low-income families with a much- needed safety net, microfinance helps provide individuals with the resources to take the first step towards establishing their businesses, which brings us back to Kashf’s mission of enhancing poor women’s economic role and decision-making capacity.

Understanding Kashf

A quick glance at Kashf’s products and services will immediately give you an idea of the scope and idea behind a MFI. Currently, Kashf’s products and services can be listed broadly as follows:

1. General Loan, which is an income-generating loan that focuses on creating sustainable economic opportunities for the household.

2. Emergency Loan, which is designed to provide credit to clients during financially volatile periods (bringing us back to Asher’s point about how a single catastrophic event can trap a family into an irrevocable cycle of poverty).

3. Kashf Business Surmaya Loan, which is specifically geared towards small enterprises.

4. The Home Improvement Loan that strives to improve Kashf’s clients standards of living.

5. Credit for life insurance, which is life insurance for poor clients to help them deal with emergency periods, such as the death of a breadwinner.

In 2008, the Kashf Foundation established Kashf Microfinance Bank Limited (KMBL) – a concentrated push to reach the foundation’s goal of financial services for all. KMBL’s primary lending product is the Kamyab Karobari Karza, which caters to the financial needs of micro and small enterprises. It also has a range of deposit products, which include the Kashf Ahtimad Bachat account, a checking low balance savings instrument and the Kashf Sahulat account, a non-interest bearing current checking account.

Can Microfinance Save the World? Kashf’s successes and challenges

It was heart-warming to read Kashf Foundation’s numerous success stories and how it has succeeded in changing the lives of numerous women through loans as small as Rs.13,000 (approximately $150). From Naheed in interior Punjab who following her husband’s spinal injury set up a successful beauty salon to Jamila in Kasur who was able to escape a vicious cycle of poverty and domestic violence by setting up a mini loom factory, a venture that began with a second-hand small spindle machine.

But as Kristof neatly sums it, “Microfinance is sometimes oversold as a silver bullet – which it’s not”. Simply put, microfinance is hard. Businesses do fail and sometimes borrowers do squander money. Global recession and rapid inflation in Pakistan has complicated matters even further.

In her interview with CHUP, Roshaneh acknowledges that Kashf’s growth has definitely slowed as a result of the recession. It has disrupted the gains made by microfinance by decreasing the purchasing power of low-income households and compromising the ability of users to make payments on their existing loans. While economic hardship has escalated the demand for microcredit, it has also increased the refinancing risk for microfinance providers.

Roshaneh also touches upon growing political intervention in the field, which presents its own set of problems: “uncertainties stemming from the political set-up have adversely affected the economy, especially microfinance providers”. Her comment is the perfect segue way to the current crisis in Bangladesh, where Muhammad Yunus has come under a multi-pronged attack by the Bangladeshi government. The government has asked Yunus to resign from his position as head of the bank following a Norwegian documentary which alleges that the Grameen Bank has been evading taxes. (P.S. The controversy is the subject of another post altogether).

The current Grameen situation illustrates the importance that microfinance has acquired in the past decade. It has changed the way policy, development professionals and governments think about poverty alleviation altogether.

But with widespread attention comes great controversy. The more attention successful microfinance providers receive, the more susceptible they become to political attacks. Aside from Grameen Bank, another illustrative example is SKS Finance in India, which came under ferocious political attack after its public IPO made millions for its founder.

The debate over discomfort with MFI’s high interest rates, profitability and aggressive recruiting practices visa-a-vis their ability to provide a critical service to the world’s under-served is an ongoing one. While it is certainly naive to categorize microfinance as the panacea for world poverty, as Kristof notes, “Done right, it can make a significant difference”. With specific reference to Kashf, he highlights how, “An outside evaluation found that after four years, Kashf borrowers are more likely than many others to enjoy improved economic conditions.

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