For College senior Meher Rehman, microfinance is an imperfect method of empowering women in developing countries.
She learned this lesson the hard way. Last summer, Rehman, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Michigan, interned at a leading microfinance institution in Pakistan. She arrived optimistic about this method, which provides small loans to people who do not have access to financial institutions, but left “disillusioned and energized.” During her tenure, she found that women receiving loans from the nonprofit were treated as intermediaries for money by the men in their families.
“Just because they had access to loans didn’t mean they had control over them,” Rehman said. To combat this problem, she helped the organization implement a micro health insurance program that included the option for a maternity and pediatric package.
Rehman is writing her senior thesis in International Relations on how a country’s culture effects the impact of microfinance programs on the women who take part. She also hopes to return to Pakistan after graduation and before attending law school, so that she can work with a smaller nonprofit on a project that will evolve to fit the culture of the nation.
“If we don’t critically look at [the] flaws [of using microfinance to empower women], we aren’t going to be able to see how it can be improved,” Rehman said.
Isa Camyar, an International Relations professor and Rehman’s thesis advisor, noted that in Nepal, where the status of women is higher than in Pakistan, microfinance programs tend to be more effective, which supports Rehman’s thesis.
“There is something deeply personal about [her topic of study],” Camyar added.
For Rehman, the people she seeks to help “are not a faceless people,” she said. Rehman’s desire to empower women of her native Pakistan has been an integral part of her life. Although she grew up in the United States, she feels a deep connection to the girls of the country her great-grandparents helped found.
In high school, Rehman founded a nonprofit called “One Step Forward,” which helps fund a training center in rural Pakistan to teach women vocational skills to earn income. She carried this notion with her to Penn, aiming to figure out the best way to utilize the new resources available to her to implement a program that could fulfill her hefty undertaking.
Rehman visited India through Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India in the summer of her sophomore year to work with Dasra, the country’s leading strategic philanthropic organization.
“It was a soul-altering type of summer,” she recalled. She worked with sanitation nonprofits at slums in Bombay, some of which had only one toilet for every 10,000 people.
“I never thought of going to the bathroom as privileged,” she said. Despite the difficult conditions of the slums, Rehman was surprised by the “determination and humor” with which the women there lived their lives. Her own determination was fueled by this experience.
Frank Plantan Jr., co-director of the International Relations Program, recognized how she has been able to integrate herself into her field of research. “She’s a good example of how being cheerful, positive and applying that personality to work can make a difference,” he said.