Roshaneh launched Kashf Foundation in 1996, with an overarching vision to financially empower women by developing a female centric approach to the provision of microfinance services in her own country, Pakistan. Today, Kashf Foundation is one of the biggest specialized non-profit microfinance institutions in the country, empowering women, men and their dependents with the means for entrepreneurship, sustainable growth opportunities as well as with the spirit of positive affirmation. Before establishing the Kashf Foundation, Roshaneh worked with the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme (1990-1994), as a Consultant for the Swiss Development Corporation (1995), and as a Consultant for Action Aid Pakistan (1995). Roshaneh has done her BSc/BA Finance/Economics from The Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania, USA and Masters in International and Development Economics from Yale University. It is for her ability of redefining boundaries in development and pioneering a new holistic approach to the empowerment of women that Roshaneh was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (2005), one of Pakistan's highest civilian awards, by the President of Pakistan. Here are some of the excerpts from her interview:
You! How did the idea come about to launch the Kashf Foundation and what difficulties did you face when setting it up?
Roshaneh Zafar: I had always wanted to work in a field through which the issues and challenges women face in our society could be alleviated. My work in the World bank also focused on reviewing the impact of social sector investments like water and sanitation on women's lives. While I was working at the World Bank I got the opportunity of meeting women from far flung areas of Pakistan and across the board they mentioned that if they had improved economic opportunity, they would be able to address many of the constraints they face within their families. This process of engagement led me towards the idea of establishing a sustainable opportunity through microfinance for women from low income households along the lines of the Grameen bank. This was of course further strengthened by my chance meeting with Dr Yunus in 1992, where his simple mantra: "take money, to earn money" made so much sense to me and allowed me to question the very basis of financial markets as they exist today, where poor men and women are discriminated against and they cannot get access to financial services.
You! What are the aims and objectives of the foundation?
R.Z: Kashf Foundation was established with the basic aim of economically empowering women and their families through access to sustainable financial services and other capacity building programmes in order to alleviate poverty. Since poverty is one of Pakistan's major issues, it is important to replicate and scale up programmes that can provide sustainable support to the millions of poor families living at our below the poverty line. Microfinance is one such development tool that not only enables low income hoseholds to enhance their income but also enables them to invest in the future of children through education, health and better nutrition.
You! Can you give our readers an example of how a woman has been helped by any of your programmes?
R.Z: Our programme has positively impacted hundreds of thousands of women through a cumulative loan disbursement of over 2 million loans and I have personally seen many women transform their lives and the situation of their households. Kulsoom - a client I met recently from the Jorapul area in Lahore told me "I want to spend the remaining years I have with dignity. Kashf has helped me get that dignity back, and I refuse to ever let go of it." Kulsoom's story is typical - her husband was unable to provide a decent living for his family which led to the development of a drug abuse problem. Along with drug use came episodes of extreme violence and domestic abuse. After living with this abuse for 6 years Kulsoom decided she had to take charge of her own destiny for the sake of her infant son. She had heard about the Kashf programme and took her first formal loan from Kashf Foundation and set up a small shop, and from then on, there has been no looking back. Kulsoom has progressively grown her business multifolds, and today Kulsoom is a successful entrepreneur. Kulsoom manages to sell most of the items she keeps in her shop on a daily basis, which provides her with a substantial source of income. She uses the income to meet the education expenses of her son, improvements in her household, and re-investment into working capital for business. Kulsoom believes that her decision making role within the family has improved greatly, as being the primary bread-winner has earned her the respect of her husband, her son, and her family. She is now planning to send her husband to rehabilitation for his affliction and has re-discovered the strength to live her life in a fulfilling manner.
You! How have other women received your work?
R.Z: Our work has been received very positively by the various groups of women in Pakistan and abroad. Our model is essentially holistic, i.e. it works for the transformation of lives of low-income households through various financial and non-financial products and services and we have been able to synergize with other organizations and group to leverage our efforts towards the development of women.
You! Tell us about some of your most defining projects?
R.Z: Kashf was the first specialised microfinance institute in Pakistan working exclusively for low-income women, we were the first ones to mainstream insurance for poor households in Pakistan, and the first institution to put clients at the centre of product design. Recently, we were lauded for our contributions to Responsible Finance i.e. scaling up a client protection system. In the future I see Kashf growing more innovatively and venturing into education and healthcare.
You! What is the most important advice you can give to women?
R.Z: I think one thing I would like to say to all women is that they must believe in themselves and their capacity to fulfil their dreams. I am also particularly saddened when talented and qualified women stay at home and do not follow their innate potential, this is a waste for society in general and the individual and her family in particular. We can all choose to realise our dreams, it all starts with the first step.
You! Any lessons learnt the hard way?
R.Z: Yes too many to share, but one basic rule is that you can't take anything granted in life. Life is all about striving, about struggling and about trying to make sense of things as they happen! Plus you can't plan everything, some things will happen when they have too!
You! What's your mission in life?
R.Z: To do the best I can at all moments in my life and be humble enough to know that I don't have all the answers to provide solutions to bigger problems.
You! How do you unwind?
R. Z: By reading a good book or watching a movie or playing with my niece, Miraal.
You! What's your biggest accomplishment to-date?
R.Z: Having helped over 1 million low income families invest in the future of their children and impacted directly on the mind set of young people in Pakistan through the 1,800 young men and women - the Kashf team - that we have in the field.
You! Do you think general mind set of our society is changing?
R.Z: Yes, absolutely. Some trends are positive, where for example 50% of the graduates from universities in Pakistan are now women and there is engagement of women in all spheres of the economy. Some trends still worry me, like the insurmountable barriers women face when they pursue careers - simple things like transportation often hold women back. Why can't women in Pakistan ride motorbikes? That question continues to confound me, while every other country to the East of Pakistan starting from India has no such issues.
You! What are the challenges, in your eyes, are facing by Pakistani women today?
R.Z: I mentioned some of these above, but I think the biggest issue facing women is changing the mind set of men in society about women's economic space. This should start from childhood onwards where women's engagement in society should be seen in a positive light. I mean I am shocked to see the kind of ignorance that we are falling prey to about girls and women - I quote the recent example of the father who buried his daughter alive and stated that it was his daughter and he has a right to her life. We need to build an enlightened, moderate and tolerant society that moves away from thinking of women as objects and considers them to be human beings. I am pretty sure this will happen and that there are latent shifts taking place to move us in that direction. Unless we engage 50% of our population gainfully, Pakistan will never progress.
You! What do you think are the main ingredients or traits essential to attain success?
R.Z: Having a clear vision, being able to take the risk to translate that vision into action, being a strong communicator so that you can bring others along with you when you implement your vision. And last but not least being able to practice what you preach!
You! What are the positive points of being economically independent?
R.Z: Economic independence has positive impact on several levels; it helps women become more aware about their potential and helps them through self-actualization build a better self-image and improved self-worth. It also helps women lead better lives in terms of standards of living, this especially applies to the living conditions, food intake, and expenditure on health and education for their families since women are more likely to invest in the long term well being of their families especially their children than spend earnings on consumption. It helps build respect for women in their families as these women are seen as role models instead of being viewed as dependents.
One of the clients of Kashf Foundation