Penn Student Harnesses Power of Micro-Finance to Empower Women

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460February 4, 2014

University of Pennsylvania senior Meher Rehman is building on a mission she began while still in high school: working to empower women in developing parts of the world through micro-finance projects.

“As a young Muslim, Pakistani woman, I hope to be a strong voice for reform in women’s rights in the Middle East and South Asia,” says Rehman, who was born in Pakistan and is from Grand Rapids, Mich.

She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Penn. 

Rehman has been involved in work to help vulnerable populations in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia. She says issues of social and economic empowerment of women can be contentious in both countries.

“For me, growing up in these two places, it was always clear how much potential there was for change through women. My friends, their mothers and sisters, all the women I knew had ideas and opinions on what should change,” she says.

As a high school student in Michigan, Rehman founded a non-profit organization to facilitate development projects in rural Pakistan. The organization’s name, One Step Forward, speaks volumes about its mission. It enables Pakistani girls and villagers to take one step forward from poor living conditions into better lives through different development initiatives.

In one program, young women from rural areas in Pakistan receive vocational training at a local center. They learn to sew, bead and make handcrafted pieces that they sell to earn money for themselves and their families. Rehman helped raise thousands of dollars for the women though U.S. sales of their handmade bookmarks.

At Penn, Rehman has honed her economic-development skills and gained knowledge about new ways to sustainably solve poverty. 

Her senior thesis centers on using micro-credit to empower women. It draws on her experiences from two summer internships.

The summer of her sophomore year, Rehman worked in a summer internship in Mumbai, India at Dasra, India’s leading strategic philanthropic foundation. Rehman worked on projects to addresses sanitation problems in the the slums of the city. Her internship was made possible through Penn's School of Arts and Sciences' Center for the Advanced Study of India student programs. The summer of her junior year, she helped launch a series of micro-health insurance packages for women, their children and the elderly, as an intern with a leading micro-finance institution in Pakistan.

“I worked to pioneer micro-health insurance for poor women,” she says, “in a country where opportunities for the poor to insure themselves are practically non-existent.”

On campus Rehman has served as co-president of Penn International Business Volunteers, a student-run group that organizes and implements projects for students to consult with non-governmental organizations in developing countries. She has also worked with the Social Impact Consulting Group, a student-led organization sponsored by the Wharton School, in which students provide pro-bono consulting services to NGO clients in Philadelphia.

“I’ve advised clients in a wide variety of sectors, ranging from sanitation to organic food,” Rehman says. “I was also privileged to serve as a board member of the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation, which provides low-interest loans to people who need aid in financing assistive technology devices.” Wheelchair accessible ramps, specialized computers and similar devices are often not covered by health insurance.

As her days as an undergraduate wind down, Rehman says that she’s learned the difference between “high-level assumptions” and “on-the-ground realities” in development as well the value of NGOs in making a differences in women’s lives.

Rehman realized early that access to capital is an integral part of the process to break cycles of poverty and powerlessness in women in developing nations. After she graduates, she hopes to go to law school to pursue more avenues to effect change in the lives of disempowered women around the world.