Cross-posted from Ujjivan as part of their on-going series on women leaders in financial inclusion
Vijayalakshmi (Viji) Das began her career in financial inclusion in 1989 with inspiration from her mother and grandmother, who both broke social norms and took on jobs in a society where women were traditionally not allowed to do so. Viji was also exposed to women in Ahmedabad who were taking leadership roles in organizing women.
While writing her post graduate dissertation at the University of Madras about understanding the rural money market, Viji observed the exploitative nature of informal credit that prevented low-income households from climbing out of debt. During her stay in the villages she witnessed how these informal loans often came with prohibitively high interest rates that prevented low-income families from sending their children to school, accessing medical facilities and ensuring food and economic security. Women were especially restricted to informal credit sources because formal banks required documents, such as property titles and other forms of collateral, which women could not produce. As it emerged in the 1970s, Viji saw microfinance as an opportunity for women to access finance without the obstacles imposed by traditional banks.
Viji began her career working for the corporate sector as a management consultant and soon joined Friends of Women’s World Banking India (FWWB India), an organization focused exclusively on promoting low-income women’s access to financial services and nurturing women’s collectives through loan and capacity building support. The founder of FWWB India, Ela Bhatt, became Viji’s long time mentor. Ela is a pioneer in women’s empowerment who established the SEWA Co-operative Bank in the early seventies, which in turn promoted FWWB India in 1982.
Viji remembers the first loan she disbursed from FWWB India to an informal women’s collective and how inspired she felt when the women repaid their loan two months before the due date. Indeed, she finds that across India women have a 100 percent loan repayment rate. To this day, traveling around the country, Viji finds that while women are diverse across India’s cultures they share confidence, commitment and a willingness to take risk.
Starting as a coordinator and eventually becoming CEO of FWWB India, Viji played an instrumental role in defining the organization’s strategic positioning, developing its first business plan and building a committed team. Led by a Board of Women Leaders, of which Viji remains a member, FWWB India operates as an “apex” organization committed to building a network of strong institutions across India providing financial services to low-income women. These organizations combine loans with technical assistance to ensure the sustainable growth of microfinance institutions. Between 1989 and 2010, they reached more than 300 organizations with technical assistance and nearly 200 with loan support. By March 2010, FWWB India had made a cumulative disbursement of approximately 11 billion rupees, benefitting 2.6 million women.
With Viji’s leadership, FWWB India established Ananya Finance for Inclusive Growth (Ananya) to serve as a dedicated entity for microfinance in 2009. As Ananya’s managing director, Viji continues her passion to serve more low-income women with microfinance by accessing a larger lending book and capital base due to Ananya’s license from the Reserve Bank of India to operate as a non-banking finance company.
After spending 25 years in the financial inclusion sector, Viji sees that both formal financial institutions and policymakers now recognize that women have an important role to play in the mainstream economy and ensuring access to resources is critical. Viji believes that the future of financial inclusion lies in offering a full “basket” of financial services that meet different needs of low-income households, including simplified loan requirements and integration of technology such as mobile banking. She recognizes the power of financial inclusion, saying “financial inclusion is an area that you can see the results quickly and you can see the second generation get benefits.”
Reflecting on women’s leadership, Viji says “women should become natural leaders where they are working.” As she has watched women take on leadership roles in collective savings and credit groups, at the household level and in her own experience at FWWB India and Ananya, Viji believes that having women in leadership roles is key to ensuring that the specific needs and aspirations of other women—both as clients and staff—are heard and addressed.