India today got its first all-woman bank, which will be universal in nature, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launching the Bharatiya Mahila Bank as a small step towards empowerment of women.
The bank, a pioneering initiative announced in the Union Budget, was launched with a corpus of Rs 1,000 crore and will have seven branches in major cities to start with.
Coinciding with the 96th birthday of late Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the first branch at a function here in the presence of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, coalition leaders Sharad Pawar and Farooq Abdullah, besides Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
Singh said women lag behind men in areas such as entrepreneurial skills, employment, literacy and health.
"The setting up of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank is a small step towards economic empowerment of our women," he said.
"The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, school, at their places of work and in public places. Women's social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal.
"We have gathered here to witness the beginning of a unique institution," Singh said, adding, "The bank will provide financial services predominantly to women and women self-help groups."
Chidambaram said the Bharatiya Mahila Bank will be a universal bank which will have unique products designed for women and devote special attention to the funding needs of over 60 lakh self-help groups.
The idea of an exclusive lender for women was mooted at the Jaipur Congress plenary last year.
Pointing out that women account for a paltry 7.3 per cent of total credit in the financial system, Congress President Sonia Gandhi hoped the new bank would emerge as a catalyst for gender justice and equality.
The bank has drawn on a majority of cadre from state-run lenders, with Usha Ananthasubramanian as the Chairperson and Managing Director. In another first, the Bharatiya Mahila Bank has an all-woman, eight-member board.
The board consists of a business graduate sarpanch from Rajasthan, Chhavi Rajawat, Dalit entrepreneur Kalpana Saroj, who turned around a tubes business, retired public banker Nupur Mitra, academic Pakiza Samad, private equity