Honorary doctorate for Roshaneh Zafar, Pakistani microcredit pioneer

When women earn an income, they can change the world

Courtesy Kashf Foundation

Roshaneh Zafar: ‘We used to provide more microcredit to women’s groups, which also broke through their isolation. Today we work more with individual clients.’

The University of Antwerp is awarding four honorary doctorates today (28 March). One goes to Pakistani Roshaneh Zafar, who is trying to improve the lives of tens of thousands of women through microfinance. ‘Economic power is a lever for women to take control of their own lives and futures,’ she says.

‘Financial services for all, in a society free of poverty and with gender equality.’ This is how Pakistan’s Kashf Foundation articulates its vision. Anyone can have a dream, but giving hands and feet to such a lofty utopia is another matter. Kashf does the latter with verve.

Currently, the foundation has 600,000+ clients, many of whom are women who take out loans to finance their small business or micro-enterprise. No wonder kashf has since become synonymous with microcredit in many places in Pakistan.

MO* spoke to initiator and managing director Roshaneh Zafar. About women and patriarchy, the turbulences of climate and politics, and the power of money.

Pakistan 145th out of 156 countries in terms of women’s economic participation

Things are not going well for women in Pakistan. The recent Global Gender Gap Index report (World Economic Forum) places Pakistan 145th out of 156 countries in terms of women’s economic participation, 135 for education, 143 for health and 95 for political empowerment. It seems hard to find a more difficult place to find yourself as a woman. Why is this so?

Roshaneh Zafar: The inequality that hits women so hard in Pakistan obviously has several layers. That is also what makes it so difficult to combat. First of all, there is the “resource inequality” and it arises from unequal access to education, food and healthcare. It is inequality that takes shape within the family and family.

Then you have “vital inequality” that manifests itself mainly in terms of physicality or sexuality: when girls marry, who they marry, how many children they have, whether there are reproductive rights and whether they have access to them. Both the first and second inequalities are reinforced by social inequalities, not specifically linked to gender, such as class or income.

Underlying this, however, is the “existential inequality” resulting from the social norms and cultural taboos produced by the patriarchal culture that considers women fundamentally inferior to men. This inequality is not abstract but very tangible, for example in the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed on girls and women.

To protect them, it is said, women are not allowed mobility as freely as men. This means, among other things, that girls often do not go to school, if that school is outside their own village. For boys, this restriction does not apply or much less. And that while parents do want education for all their children.

“Existential inequality” results from the social norms and cultural taboos produced by a patriarchal culture that considers women fundamentally inferior to men.

This may also explain why only 23 per cent of employed Pakistanis are women?

Roshaneh Zafar: Indeed. Pakistan scores as one of the worst countries in the world in that regard, and that low female employment rate has been stagnant around that same 20 per cent for decades. With all its consequences, for the entire society. Because when such a large group of people are excluded from productive processes, society pays for it in the form of less prosperity and progress. At the same time, today we see that 65 per cent of all university and college graduates are girls.

This contradiction is not new in Pakistan, where visible and strong women like Benazir Bhutto, Malalai Youzafzai or Asma Jahangir share history and country with masses of marginalised women.

Roshaneh Zafar: Every country and history is made up of contradictions, right? And maybe these are not contradictions, but rather examples of the potential that is being lost en masse? Women who are given opportunities, supported and don’t have to face discrimination all day long can achieve a lot.

Photo courtesy Kashf Foundation

Roshaneh Zafar: ‘If such a large group of people as women are excluded from productive processes, society pays for it in the form of less prosperity and progress.’

Who is responsible for the disconnect between ambitious and educated women and a male-dominated job market? Is it that patriarchal culture, is it religion or is it the government?

Roshaneh Zafar: The government has passed good laws but fails to translate them into daily practice. Often I feel that we are running fast while not moving, or even going backwards.

The Pakistani state has invested far too little in human development. In the field of education, for instance, the Pakistani government clearly falls short, with a lamentable 3 per cent of GDP — yet we know that it is one of the best tools to combat gender inequality.

Bangladesh has a much better record in this regard. Their barefoot approach — with less emphasis on school buildings and more on quality education and good teacher training — is bearing fruit: rapidly declining population growth, increasing and high employment rates for women, good access to health care, reproductive rights and maternity counselling…

In Pakistan, there is also quite a high demand for birth control, but the government does not provide an adequate and accessible supply. As a result, some 500,000 children are added every year, and then the government fails to provide proper education for all those children.

Is the lack of education or other opportunities especially a problem for girls in rural areas, or is it equally true in the urban context?

Roshaneh Zafar: There are certainly differences, and not only between urban and rural areas, but also between various provinces — which is linked to differences in policy and culture. In the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, for example, health insurance was introduced, making access to healthcare there noticeably better than in the rest of the country.

You do not refer to religion as a source of gender inequality, however conservative Islam has gained considerable political weight in Pakistan. Doesn’t that play an important role?

‘Discrimination against women is not a theological question but a matter of cultural translation and externalisation of forms of faith mixed with tradition.’

Roshaneh Zafar: I am not getting into the many possible interpretations of Islam or the different legal schools and whatnot. What I observe is that discrimination against women happens on the basis of social norms and customs. In other words, it is not a theological question but a matter of cultural translation and externalisation of forms of faith mixed with tradition.

Take dowry, for example. This is not an Islamic custom, but Muslim communities in South Asia also practice it, with very profound consequences. Because the bride has to pay the dowry, a girl is seen as an economic risk from birth, while a boy is welcomed as a potential asset. Again: with all the consequences for food, education and healthcare, as well as misogyny and oppression as consequences.

By calling the organisation Kashf, surely you are explicitly linking it to the universe of Sufi Islam, from which the term comes?

Roshaneh Zafar: Kashf refers to the kind of revelation you get by believing fully in one’s own potential, by starting from the belief that God is in each of us and shows himself in our talents and abilities. How that Sufi Islam evolves further within Pakistan is not important to us. We have created our own space and inhabit it without complexes, telling our own story and spreading it. For us, religion does not matter.

If patriarchal culture is the source of gender inequality and family choices ensure the reproduction of both underlying culture and everyday inequality, how do you break that cycle?

Roshaneh Zafar: Income and economic power are crucial to give women more say in the strategic choices made in a family. And that’s about everything: education, work, health… Money really does matter.

‘Income and economic power are crucial to give women more say in the strategic choices made in a family.’

Once a woman has an income of her own, she also acquires a say in whether her daughters go to school, for example. And the observation is, time and again, that the answer is affirmative: yes, women want both their sons and daughters to go to school, and they make sure they do if they have the chance.

Of course, that also presupposes that women have control over the money they earn. That does not come naturally. Microcredit organisations have paid too little attention to the transformation that needs to take place for the full potential of economic progress for women to be realised. Focusing on the difficult transformation rather than the easy transaction also teaches us that we need to shift our perspective to medium-term.

And perhaps more work needs to be done with men too?

Roshaneh Zafar: Change is relational. Equality between men and women is not only a struggle of women, that is clear. In Kashf, we therefore look first at the household as an economic unit, then at the economic position and potential of women, and we include men in the conversation and therefore in the change. Meanwhile, we also offer pregnancy counselling and birth control talks for women as well as men.

Are there enough role models in Pakistan for the change you seek? The upper middle class, where girls are given more opportunities and where women have fewer children, is accused of being westernised, while the voices of diehards of tradition and dogmatic faith are getting louder all the time.

Roshaneh Zafar: The context is difficult, but that does not take away from the fact that there is always hope, or that you have to provide hope. That is also why we became active in mainstream media. After all, we found that we were shouting against a swelling storm. All our painstaking work from the bottom up on child marriages or domestic violence, with community theatre and family education, was thwarted by popular series in which toxic relationships and macho men kept setting the agenda.

‘There is always hope, or you have to provide hope.’

So in 2012, we produced the first drama series with child marriage as its central theme. Other series followed, with themes such as child abuse or child trafficking. We are currently working on a series in which gender norms are questioned, in which men show their emotions and women work self-consciously on their careers. By showing these series on commercial channels, we are creating broad debates and social impact.

All this sounds pretty far removed from what people usually imagine microcredit to be. You have abandoned the Grameen model, based on group loans and social control?

Roshaneh Zafar: That is where we started from, because it was clearly the best available approach in the 1990s. Group formation not only ensured better repayment of loans but also broke the isolation that many women suffered from. It simultaneously provided economic progress as well as liberation from oppression. So it was an effective approach, until 2008.

By then, a lot of women were fed up with mandatory fortnightly meetings and taking responsibility for each other, and on top of that, inflation was booming and the country was facing a deep financial and political crisis. This created the need and opportunity to adjust our approach and start working more with individual clients.

Traditionally, the contention was that overhead costs would then become too high in relation to the very small amounts common in microcredit.

Roshaneh Zafar: That is true and we had to temporarily raise interest. But thanks to the use of technology, we have regained control of those costs and are back to the 12 per cent of before.

Do your clients also have problems with excessive debt — a problem that has arisen in many places with the advent of and competition between various microfinance organisations?

Roshaneh Zafar: Indeed. That problem was also one of the additional reasons why so many clients failed to repay their loans in 2008. We think 30 per cent of our clients were over-indebted then. Meanwhile, we do our own screening and there has been government regulation. With every credit application, we can now check the applicant’s debt situation. We will not extend credit if we are the third borrower, for instance.

‘75 per cent of our lending is for productive investment’

The loans you provide are meant as productive investments? Or can people also borrow for hospitalisation, school expenses or purchases?

Roshaneh Zafar: 75 per cent of our lending is for productive investment, to which health insurance for the entire family is attached via a small additional premium. We also have consumer loans, renovation loans, livestock loans … With our financial products we do not reach the poorest of the poor, for whom the need is so high that they would immediately use any loan for immediate hunger relief. Rather, we are there for the working poor, people with monthly incomes between 10,000 and 50,000 Pakistani rupees (35-165 euros).

‘The long-term lesson from the floods is that climate risks should always be included and insured.’

You mentioned 2008 and the financial crisis as a turning point for Kashf. Will the 2022 floods have a similar impact? I suppose many people lost their assets, and hence their ability to repay loans?

Roshaneh Zafar: That is certainly the case. Of the 50,000 clients we have in Sindh, fifty procent had to flee the rising waters. We helped them through new repayment schedules and new capital, among other things. The long-term lesson from this is that climate risks should always be included and insured. We also need to focus more on what each family can do to be better equipped and prepared for the impacts of climate change. After all, we know that floods, droughts, new diseases, agricultural crises… are coming our way.

This crisis and the covid crisis that just preceded it also taught us that people are better off putting their savings in the bank than keeping them in the form of goats or sheep. You lose the livestock after a flood, savings are not washed away.

Roshaneh Zafar receives an honorary doctorate at UAntwerpen “for her exceptional role as a development activist. Promotor is Rector Herman Van Goethem.

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