Unique Lives that Inspire Asia
Image Credit: McKay Savage

Unique Lives that Inspire Asia


Women comprise nearly half the world’s population and yet continue to face large-scale inequity worldwide, including in the fastest growing region—Asia. The CIA World Factbook re-stated in a recent update, for instance, the well-known fact that increasingly skewed sex ratios in some Asian countries are the result of sex-selective abortion and infanticide resulting from an often still-prevailing cultural preference for sons. Sadly, these imbalances will in the future affect both genders when, according to the agency, there will eventually be ‘unrest among young adult males who are unable to find partners.’

Meanwhile, this year’s United Nations report on human development in the region (2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report) has drawn the sombre conclusion that while countries of Asia and the Pacific have experienced notable economic success, this hasn’t been ‘duplicated…in the realm of gender equality.’ UNDP Administrator Helen Clark has stated clearly the problem this situation presents to nations throughout the region, saying, ‘Empowering women is vital for achieving development goals overall and for boosting economic growth and sustainable development.’

To help better understand these key issues, The Diplomat spoke with three women who not only have roots in Asia, but who all continue to use their connections to the region to empower and enrich the lives of the women, children and men living in it.

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Roshaneh Zafar is a microfinance pioneer who helps women secure their rights and value in society through economic independence. Sheema Kalbasi is a poet and activist who fights to inform a global audience about human rights violations in the Middle East. And Dien Yuen is an experienced philanthropist who works to bring well-meaning donors together with those most in need throughout Asian communities. All three of the women we spoke to spearhead projects that aim to do nothing less than alter the direction of societies in Asia.

Roshaneh Zafar

1. Roshaneh Zafar, Microfinancier

Roshaneh Zafar is the founder and president of Pakistan’s Kashf Foundation and Kashf Microfinance Bank Limited. Prior to her current post, Zafar spent several years working for the World Bank in Islamabad and at one point even aspired to become an investment banker. The trajectory of her career, however, was significantly transformed by a chance encounter with Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize winner and ‘the father of microfinance.’

Inspired by the success of Yunus’ Grameen Bank, Zafar established the Kashf Foundation in 1996. Kashf was the first specialist microfinance institution in Pakistan and the first microfinance institution targeting only women from low income communities. After a decade of success with this venture, the Kashf Microfinance Bank Limited (KMBL) was established in June 2008. Its aim is to become Pakistan’s leading microfinance bank, helping facilitate a prosperous, equitable and poverty-free Pakistan.

When and why did you initially go into your current line of work?

I’m economist by training and my initial work was with the World Bank to assess the impact of social sector investments, like water supply and sanitation schemes, on women. I got to travel across Pakistan and many parts of South Asia to gauge the impact of such investments and also had the opportunity to speak with thousands of women. I remember sitting in a remote rural community in Kalat, Balochistan, speaking with this old lady, on whose face one could read the etchings of history itself, telling me about the importance of women’s economic empowerment. That conversation stayed with me for many years, until I had the chance opportunity of meeting Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. As a result of this conversation, I left my job with the World Bank and headed out to Bangladesh to experience for myself the miracle of microfinance. I returned to Pakistan in 1995 and established the Kashf Foundation.

The economic situation in Pakistan is still extremely dire—and appears to become graver by the day. In light of this, how does microfinance banking alleviate the plight of the poor in Pakistan?

Microfinancing is certainly one tool for alleviating poverty, and it’s certainly not the panacea. The current environment in Pakistan has become even more vulnerable with the unprecedented floods that we’ve been facing recently and more and more households have been pushed below the poverty line. For an economy to grow sustainably, development with a pro-poor growth approach needs to take place at all levels. On a micro level, microfinance leaves a strong foot print. For example, we’ve seen in our latest impact assessment that incomes of microfinance clients were 35 percent higher than those who were not availing such facilities, while in a majority of cases women’s self esteem received a major boost both in terms of how they viewed themselves and how others in their families viewed them.

As a female entrepreneur in Pakistan do you, in your opinion, encounter hurdles that you might perhaps not otherwise?

This question is more a matter of perspective and how one perceives oneself and one’s work. On the surface, I’ve never faced professional discrimination. Perhaps a lot of it has to do with my own headstrong nature, which simply refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, or perhaps it had a lot more to do with the fact that my family has always supported me in every possible way.

But there have been hurdles and these are hurdles more of mindsets, rather than of a quantifiable nature. I still remember in 1999 when we wished to rent an office for our first branch and had a really difficult time of it, for no one wanted to rent a space to a women’s NGO. However, since then things have changed for the positive in Pakistan.

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