FinDev Interview

Combating Restrictive Gender Norms in Pakistan

Roshaneh Zafar of Kashf Foundation shares how her organization is tackling key barriers to women’s economic empowerment
Roshaneh Zafar, Founder of Kashf Foundation in Pakistan, sitting at a desk.

Roshaneh Zafar is the Founder and Managing Director of Kashf Foundation. She established Kashf after meeting with Dr. Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. Ms. Zafar has won many awards and recognitions for her contributions to the field of social entrepreneurship and women’s development.

Inspiration for founding the first women-focused organization in Pakistan

FinDev Gateway: Congratulations to Kashf Foundation on being a finalist for the 2022 European Microfinance Award, focused on financial inclusion that works for women. When it was founded in 1996, Kashf Foundation was the first women-focused microfinance organization in Pakistan. What was the inspiration for taking such a leap?

Roshaneh Zafar: Thousands of women in rural and remote communities in Pakistan were my first inspiration. At one of my first jobs after college, working with the World Bank in Pakistan, I got to meet so many of these women, and I realized that they had the same aspirations as any other woman, regardless of their background. They wanted to have a better future for their children. However, they lacked economic opportunities. I realized that until women had economic choices at their doorstep, there would be no real change.

Then, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank and review Grameen Bank operations in Bangladesh. That was when I decided to establish Kashf Foundation, with the guiding philosophy that women were a huge opportunity when it came to poverty alleviation and sustainable solutions. They are actively involved as financial managers within their households, budgeting expenses, utility bills and children’s fees, and most importantly, running home-based businesses to support their families. Supporting women’s goals is a win-win for all.

Thousands of women in rural and remote communities in Pakistan were my first inspiration... I realized that until women had economic choices at their doorstep, there would be no real change.

Fighting patriarchal norms with training programs and social advocacy

FinDev: While Kashf Foundation is a microfinance institution, your work goes much beyond the provision of financial services for women to include several different training programs as well as social advocacy to create awareness about various important issues for women. How did these non-financial services come about?

Roshaneh: Microfinance is not only about giving loans to individuals; it is meant to change the mindsets of communities to enhance their ability to earn their livelihood and live with dignity.  Financial services alone cannot change the attitudes and norms that hold women back. For instance, loans would be given to women to build up their businesses but would then be used by the male members of the family because in a patriarchal society like Pakistan, men hold the decision-making power.

Research with Kashf clients has highlighted the following major challenges that women face:

  • Low education levels and self-confidence, leading women to avoid risks by taking smaller loans and limiting themselves to certain business sectors.

  • Limited exposure to markets, reducing their ability to match products to market demand, access cheaper raw materials, and sell outputs for higher prices.

  • High dependency on male family members due to limited mobility and lower decision-making agency.

  • High burden of unpaid care work, limiting the number of hours they can spend on work/production.

  • Limited access to health care facilities owing to socio-economic constraints and preferential treatment of males.

Non-financial services were therefore necessary to fight against the patriarchal norms and practices which exacerbate the challenges that women face. Widespread systemic discrimination against women at all levels restricts their economic, social and political progress. While the status of women varies considerably across classes and regions, women are disadvantaged at every level compared to their male counterparts.

FinDev: How do Kashf’s social advocacy programs attempt to address these restrictive gender norms which are still very pervasive in Pakistan and limit many women’s lives?

Roshaneh: Advocacy is a key component of Kashf’s microfinance plus approach and we use multiple media to highlight various socially relevant issues and create dialogue and awareness for different stakeholders.

At the community level, Kashf undertakes community outreach on social issues through interactive theater performances with clients and their family members. Some of the topics covered in the past have included the importance of girl’s education, discouraging child marriages, women’s inheritance, the importance of savings and COVID prevention strategies.

At the mass public level, Kashf is the only microfinance provider in Pakistan that has used the medium of television dramas to address issues including age at marriage, child sexual abuse, acid crime, domestic violence, human trafficking and mental health. These shows have received widespread critical and popular acclaim for positively highlighting women’s economic and social contributions to society and creating female role models.

For example, the 2016 TV show Udaari aimed to educate audiences about the prevalence of child abuse in the country. After the show aired, we commissioned an impact assessment study, which found that the series had helped viewers, and in particular child sexual abuse victims, to realize that the abusers were the ones at fault – not the victims - and that abusers needed to be punished. It put power back into the victims’ hands to allow them to move forward as survivors. It also helped many women become more comfortable with discussing such issues, as well as taking preventative measures like talking to their children and educating them regarding sexual abuse.

We have a leadership pipeline for women which addresses specific women-centric leadership gaps such as self-confidence, decision-making and negotiation, with the aim of equipping staff with the confidence and technical skills to apply for promotions and grow.

Supporting women's careers and leadership in the workplace

FinDev: As an organization which advocates for societal change and gender equality, Kashf Foundation makes it a priority to try to live up to these values internally as well. Can you tell us about how you do this?

Roshaneh: There are multiple ways in which we work on combating restrictive gender norms within the organization. We have a leadership pipeline for women which addresses specific women-centric leadership gaps such as self-confidence, decision-making and negotiation, with the aim of equipping staff with the confidence and technical skills to apply for promotions and grow. We also do an annual review of our compensation and performance management system in order to remove inherent assessment biases that may disadvantage women.

Mobility constraints are another major issue which restricts women’s participation in the labor force, as restrictive cultural norms and a dearth of affordable and safe transport options make it hard for women to leave their homes. To address this issue, Kashf provides interest-free loans to female staff for the purchase of a motorbike/scooter, along with training sessions on driving, road safety and getting a driving license.

As women go through life cycle changes, such as marriage and having children, it often becomes complicated for them to continue with their careers. To help women navigate these changes and remain active and grow in their professional lives, Kashf offers paid maternity and paternity leave, branch-level day care, counseling and special programs such as “Not without my mother-in-law” for female staff members getting married. In this program, prospective in-laws visit Kashf for an orientation session and introduction to peer staff members over tea, helping the new family to see and become comfortable with the workplace culture and environment. Flexible working hours, a residential facility and work-from-home policy are also available for providing relief to staff when faced with poor work-life balance.

Up next: New savings products, women's climate resilience and more

FinDev: What’s next for Kashf Foundation? How will you use the European Microfinance Award prize money?

Roshaneh: One of the things that we really want to focus on is savings. We are designing a new commitment savings product based on the way women save. Our clients often set aside a portion of their small, irregular incomes for making larger investments in their businesses or their family’s future. Savings can increase female decision-making power in households and we have seen that when women save, they tend to spend it on education, housing and nutrition for their children.  So, we are making a goal-oriented savings product that will incentivize women to save more frequently.

We are also looking at ways we can build women’s climate resilience, generate income and jobs for unemployed youth and bring more opportunities to female artisans. There is much to do to fulfill our mission of alleviating poverty and helping women to become active agents of social and economic change!

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