Breaking Barriers: Women Changemakers in Financial Inclusion, Ep. 2 Featuring Viji Das

September 26, 2019

Intro clip (Viji Das):

Women should get the kind of a safe space to contribute to their society. And they have to have equal access to all the resources. This is my dream.



Karen Miller, Host: Women’s World Banking is bringing you a series of podcasts about trailblazing women leaders who are driving change to ensure that women worldwide have access to and usage of the financial products and services they need to build a better life for themselves and their families. I am your host Karen Miller, Vice President of Knowledge and Communications for Women’s World Banking.

Today I have the distinct honor of interviewing Viji Das, CEO of Friends of Women’s World Banking in India. Viji, I could spend the entire podcast talking about your tireless commitment to the empowerment of women in India and what you have accomplished throughout your career. I thought we could start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your childhood and what life was like for you as a young girl.

Viji Das, Guest: Thank you. It was a long time when I was a young girl. So, it was a very happy and contented life I led and a really protected life I had. Both my parents were working parents. But there was lots of discipline regarding the way I grew up. But my mother and father gave me the space to grow on my own. Same thing with my sister also. So, two daughters they have brought up with a kind of freedom and no interference. My parents introduced reading books. Because both of them were working parents, so they said that when you have time read the books. Actually, my father gave me Karl Marx when I was 12 years old. I used to read any book that came in my way. So that was my best companion. And even now I can read for hours. So, I think I was lucky. I had a good education and good schools, good teachers and it was a happy childhood. And then up to my college I had a very good time.

Miller: That’s really interesting that your dad gave you Karl Marx when you were 12 years old. So, you had this happy childhood and books were your friend. When did you actually begin to realize though that gender inequality existed around you?

Das: From my childhood in my own family I saw that my grandmother was a widow. My great grandmother was a widow. And they struggled a lot to establish themselves as economically independent. And it was a tough time they had, which I witnessed as a kid. And I saw that all are not fair when it comes to women and particularly in those days. I’m talking about my great grandmother, maybe a hundred years before. When she became a widow, then she couldn’t take up a job and she was dependent. My grandmother she made her daughter study well after she became a widow and then take up a job, which was a challenge in those days. But economic independence, achieving it was very tough for women in those days. Even now. Inequality existed in my own house. And then I found in the neighborhood too much of inequality. I saw that it also put women at very unequal ground. So, all these things were from childhood you witness around you. That is how I realized that these things are very difficult to break.

Miller: That’s so interesting to see that you saw it from childhood. You recognized it from childhood. So, what then prompted you to focus specifically on the financial inclusion aspect of gender inequality?

Das: I did fieldwork for my dissertation. It was understanding rural money market. So, I spent about three months in a village to understand how the households access financial resources for various activities they undertake. I realized that women cannot borrow from money lenders also. And we, women, we’re not allowed to get formal finance from banks. And they work in the field. They work in the household. But they don’t have access to finance at all. I’m talking about 70’s. So that is how I have decided that maybe if I want to work, I will work on financial inclusion of women.

Miller: Viji, once you identified financial inclusion as a key part of gender inequality, what was your first step then to creating the ideas and the businesses that you had?

Das: So, there were lots of theses and then lots of write-ups that came up in the country about women and poverty. Unless you deal with gender inequality you can’t solve the poverty problems that India had. Thirty, forty percent was below the poverty line. Also, there specific studies that were done by the World Bank and all those things. So, all these materials and research and then articles that were thrown upon me were the one that made my decision to work in the sector much better. But I equipped myself with all the information that was available through these papers and studies.

Miller: And when did you realize then that you had a powerful voice and you could serve as a leader in the financial inclusion activities in India?

Viji Das 02

Das: My powerful voice still is not really as powerful as I want it to be. But being part of an institution that works for women and backed by the kind of peer group which was also looking into the problem of gender. And of course, being part of a global network like Women’s World Banking, gave me the kind of opportunities to raise my voice much bigger. So, over period I gained the kind of confidence to raise the issues. But it didn’t happen in the beginning.

Miller: What obstacles did you face along the way particularly at the beginning?

Das: So, building an organization in itself was a big challenge because you have to have people who are committed to the cause of recognizing the fact that women do not have financial resources as they should have. So, it took me some time to build an institution like that. And of course, I was married, and then I had two daughters and bringing them up and schooling. So, balancing the household responsibility with the kind of responsibility that’s demanded from the sector was also a big challenge. Getting money was not a problem, but to getting people who would work on that area with the commitment which I expected that they would do was a big challenge.

Miller: Was there any adversity to you as a woman building this and being in this space? Did you face any gender discrimination along the way?

Das: No, because my education and my bringing up and all helped me a lot. I didn’t have any problem at all growing in the space. That was not a problem. And of course, microfinance was based purely on women. And the self-help movements that was very unique to India, also had only women. So, the comfort level was really high working in the sector.

Miller: That’s so interesting because I think if you talk to young women today perhaps you might get a different answer in terms of whether they’re facing any sort of gender discrimination. Do you think that’s true?

Das: I also teach lots of working women in the banking sector and all those things once in a while. I find that the confidence my generation had in balancing the household responsibility and the work responsibility is not there among the younger generation. They find it very difficult to balance, with all the support they have. They can dissolve and solve the problem much quicker than us. They have the capability and the technology is with them. So, they can do it.  But I somehow feel they are very weak, many of them. Highly educated women, at least in India, I see them becoming housewives because they find it very difficult to bring up children. So once children bring up you won’t get the job and you can’t contribute to the economy also. I think the confidence level is much lower.

Miller: I note that in the prior podcast with Samit Ghosh from Ujjivan, he talked about flexible work arrangements and being able to understand that there is this balance that you should provide in order to have that type of diversity in your work force. So, how do you think women should be supported today when they are feeling challenged with their professional and household duties?

Das: Samit Ghosh talked about organization, how it can encourage more women to participate by providing a kind of a support system and of a kind of way of adjusting the working times and all to help them in continuing the job. But I’m also worried about the women who are in the field. Who have to work like agriculture laborers, and then farmers, and then women entrepreneurs, and all. They still are struggling with the kind of a support system that is absent in the economy that can provide them the kind of support that is needed for them to continue the job. Like say for example, in the construction laborers. There are lots women who are construction laborers. They bring the child to the site. There is no provision of support to their children to be taken care of. Crèche, it is there in some places, but they don’t provide that kind of hygienic facilities that is needed. So, you find the working women bringing the children to the work site and then try to manage. So, it is important that you can work with educated women and then provide the kind of support system. But not for the working women who are the majority. So, unless we deal with that, women will have problems in contributing to the economy.

Miller: So, Viji if you were going to give advice to any of these young women or men today about being a leader in gender equality and economic empowerment, what would it be?

Das: The youngsters whether it is men or women should spend more time in the field to understand the kind of real status of women and the issues that are related to gender inequality that is in the society. If they’re ready to do that, they can do it.

Miller: Given everything that you’ve seen and given your engagement with young women today is there a motto that you personally live by?

Das: To me the Gandhian model is the best model dealing with the financial exclusion of women, how to deal with that. Gandhian values and Gandhian model is the best.

Miller: Now that’s really helpful input there. You have much more to accomplish, I’m guessing, in your career. What do you hope for in the future?

Das: I would like to see in the future there is no poverty. And women should get the kind of safe space to contribute to their society. And they have to have equal access to all the resources. This is my dream. I hope that it comes true.

Miller: And I hope so also. Was there a moment in your career that stands out in particular, that’s something that you will always remember?

Das: The day I met Ela Bhatt that is one of the moments which made me change from corporate life to come and work in the development sector. And the other thing that my father silently came and took care of my children to express his solidarity and his willingness that what I am doing is the correct way. So that helped me a lot to continue in the sector. My husband also, a very silent partner. So, these three things helped me to continue working in the sector. And still I have that kind of support. So, it’s very important for women.

Miller: And I think that having your father, your husband, and Ela Bhatt seems like a very good trio of people to be surrounded by.

Das: Yes.

Miller: Viji, this has been such a wonderful discussion. A couple things I think that I heard: 1) The power of books in your life is really tremendous. And actually, I do want to ask the question. Do you have a favorite book?

Das: I go back to My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas Gandhi, and the Karl Marx. I still feel that they have picked upon the kind of questions that still bothers the world economy.

Miller: Viji that was really so interesting. I love hearing about everything that you’ve been doing. And your childhood in particular, which does sound quite unique, I would say. But perhaps not. That’s really good insight into what drives you and helps further all of the work that you’ve done. Viji, I want to thank you so much for taking the time today. This interview has been enlightening. And I want to thank you in particular for doing so much in the space of financial inclusion for women and driving so much change specifically in India. So, thank you for joining us today.

Das: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Miller: This episode was produced by Jessica Bodiford. Thank you again to Viji Das for sharing your powerful story with us. For more podcast episodes and to learn more about Women’s World Banking, visit