Microcredit Hope: Empowering Women in Northern Pakistan

Micro-Lending Circles, Districts of Gilgit and Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

In 2008, in the wake of a global financial crisis and devastating floods in Pakistan, WEIF and WAFA joined hands in a collaborative effort to promote gender equality and alleviate poverty in the remote, mountainous communities of Gilgit-Baltistan. In these communities, thousands of individuals living below the poverty line are deprived of basic health and educational facilities, and women are often barred from economic opportunity. Prior to engaging in a partnership, both WAFA and WEIF had made meaningful, sustainable contributions to education and health in the region; it became clear that empowering women was the next critical step in fulfilling our mission and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our work

The program launched in 2008 with 20 women in four circles supporting each other in their businesses and united by a common goal of acquiring the financial and personal assets needed to create better lives for themselves and their families. The groups obtained micro-level, low-interest loans of approximately $2,500 CAD to establish or expand their business ventures, receive financial literacy training and business support, and open individual savings accounts. WEIF and WAFA continued to hold information sessions on microcredit and the benefits of empowering women in the communities; as our clients began to lift themselves out of poverty and emerged as successful business owners, local interest in the project soared. For the last five years, all of our clients have demonstrated 100% loan repayment—a rarity among almost all other microcredit programs across the world. By 2012, an emblem of the program's success, over 200 of these women graduated from our microloans and, with credit established with WAFA and WEIF's support, obtained macro-level loans from commercial banks to further expand their businesses. All borrowers obtain life insurance policies that cover their businesses to further increase their security.

Despite a rapidly growing clientele, we diligently maintain a highly personal approach to poverty alleviation. Through personal visits with all entrepreneurs, WAFA and WEIF collect their stories and track the success using the Progress Out of Poverty Index designed by Grameen Bank. We understand that an ascent from poverty is measured in more than income; it is seen in children obtaining an education and adequate nutrition, and in the way women transform socially and emotionally with newfound self-reliance. Qualified WAFA staff provide additional training and counseling to meet the specific needs of each entrepreneur, from connecting the business to the best possible markets, to training in basic arithmetic and improving literacy. WAFA's staff are uniquely situated as teachers in the sense that they help borrowers explore their own potential and expand their capabilities.

As of June 2013, WEIF and WAFA have disbursed loans to 735 entrepreneurial women in Gilgit-Baltistan. This includes our recent expansion to the District of Hunza, a milestone for the Peer Lending Circles project and a hopeful indicator for the future successes to come. Local women from the District of Hunza specifically requested that we bring our microcredit program to their area, and we are thrilled by their enthusiasm and the project's success. We will continue to support women’s economic empowerment through Peer Lending Circles, and hope to expand further to neighbouring districts to increase the impact of our work.

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