Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday said it is a 'sad reality' that women in India face discrimination at home and workplace and that their empowerment remains a distant goal.
"We had a woman president and now have a woman speaker of Lok Sabha, a woman leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha and two women chief ministers.
"The president of the largest and oldest political party in India is also a distinguished woman leader who we are privileged to have in our midst. A recent global top 50 businesswomen survey included four Indian women.
"However, all this does not reflect the average reality of women in our country. The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, school, at their places of work and in public places," he said, speaking at the inaugural function of India's first all-women bank, Bharatiya Mahila Bank, in Mumbai.
"Women's social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal," he said.
"We have gathered here to witness the beginning of a unique new institution," Singh said, adding, "the bank will provide financial services predominantly to women and women self-help groups."
"I compliment my friend and colleague finance minister P Chidambaram and his team for conceiving the bank and making it a reality within a very short period," he said.
"It is befitting that the bank is being inaugurated on the birth anniversary of the great woman of our country Indira Gandhi, among the tallest leaders our country has produced. She was a source of inspiration for all of us," he said.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Chidambaram and Union ministers Sharad Pawar, Farooq Abdullah and Praful Patel were among those present.
A lot more was needed to be done to empower women and ensure their safety, the Prime Minister said.
"We have strengthened the law to provide for harsher punishment for sexual offences against women but much more needs to be done. It is an acknowledged fact that access to finance and banking not only helps to empower women but also broadens the social base of development," he said.
Sonia Gandhi said "today, there have been many events to commemorate the birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi but nothing can be more appropriate a tribute to her than the inauguration of this bank."
"This bank will provide financial services to women in general and women self help groups in particular," she said.
"Indira Gandhi had an abiding concern for the women, the poor, tribals, minorities. Empowering women was an important goal she set for herself and her party. Her own life was a testament to what could be achieved by a woman," she said.
"I am very happy that the motto of the new bank is empowering women, empowering India, I am sure that this bank will act as a catalyst for ensuring greater gender justice," she said.
It is appropriate that the bank's chairman is a woman besides being a noted banker, she added.
"I understand that only a small number of loan accounts in public sector banks are in the names of women and that the credit extended to them is roughly 7.3% of the total," she said.
"Only a fifth of bank employees are women. Clearly, there are social and cultural barriers that prevent women from access to banking services," she said.
She handed over papers to five women account-holders of the bank, while Singh gave loan sanction letters to five women beneficiaries.