By Tamara Vrooman for Vancouver Sun
Tamara is the president and CEO of Vancity credit union, and serves as a volunteer on the Aga Khan Foundation Canada’s National Committee.
At a conference earlier this year, I moderated a panel on the role that values-based banks and credit unions can play in gender inclusion and equality.
The conversation was at times discouraging — showing just how much work there is to be done on this issue around the world — but what stood out for me was a story of both courage and inspiration.
It was about a bank in Afghanistan that opened the country’s first ever women-only branch. There are constant barriers in Afghanistan that keep women from basic financial equality and independence. It’s a reality that adds to the many other challenges women face there, and especially so for those female entrepreneurs who want to get a loan to start a business.
For the women who now have safer access to banking services, this work is monumental.
This story comes to mind this week because The First MicroFinance Bank — the bank that opened that all-women branch — is part of the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance, and the work it does is just one of countless impacts the Aga Khan Development Network is making around the world.
Today, His Highness the Aga Khan is in Vancouver as part of a cross-country trip to celebrate his Diamond Jubilee as spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims. To honour that, I think now’s a good time to pause and reflect on why this work is so important. The Aga Khan is the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network — an organization that has always worked to improve lives in some of the world’s most challenging areas, often with a focus on women and children. Through this, the Network has worked with local organizations, seeking to develop an approach that is right for the community while also building capacity in the local economy.
The Network has also always held true to one very important principle — that people in these parts of the world deserve the same quality of services and support as we do in the developed world.
It comes from a belief that a woman in the remote mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan has just as much potential to succeed as one in the middle of Coquitlam, if both are given access to the tools and resources to overcome the barriers to entry, and by extension, to enable economic growth in the communities in which they live.
That was the case in Afghanistan, where The First MicroFinance Bank wasn’t willing to accept the fact that female entrepreneurs weren’t able to safely access the crucial tools of finance.
As a result, the bank last year created the branch of all-female staff in Kabul, serving just women from the surrounding community. In doing so, the bank created a place where women could manage their finances in a safe and facilitating environment. By all accounts, the branch has been a success — so much so, there are plans to add two more in other parts of the country by next year.
…woman in the remote mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan has just as much potential to succeed as one in the middle of Coquitlam.
For the women who now have safer access to banking services, this work is monumental. For the Aga Khan, it is one achievement among so many his Network has made during the 60 years he has spent working toward goals such as alleviating global poverty and advancing the status of women.
I am inspired by this work, and by that foundational belief that everyone — no matter where you are or what you have — deserves the best opportunities, tools and resources. As a basic principle of international development it is not only rare, but also ambitious and deeply human. It speaks both to equality and to dignity, and to an approach that is making our world a better place to live.