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Pakistan

Web Desk
March 9, 2019

The Future is Female

Pakistan

Web Desk
Sat, Mar 09, 2019

By Azka Zia

The struggle for gender equality continues as men and women across Pakistan and the globe get ready to march in support of International Women’s Day. Women empowerment is central to gender equality. Research has for long supported that investment in female education, their empowerment, and vocational training build economies. This is of course based on the recognition that women’s rights aren’t a luxury to be bestowed, but a right refused for centuries. Pakistan is a stark reminder that there is a long way to go, but given the opportunity, given adequate support, women come up as winners in their lives and their communities.

According to the UN, gender gaps can cost economies at least 15% of their GDP. Globally women earn only 77% of what men earn. In developing countries such as Pakistan, the figure is estimated to be higher. Last year, Pakistan ranked second to last in the Global Gender Gap Score given by the World Economic Forum. Women also spend around 2.5 times more time on ‘unpaid care and domestic work’, which the UN says could be measured as much as 10-39% of a country’s GDP. And one of the sharpest reminders that there is a long way to go towards gender equality? Women’s starting involvement in entrepreneurships is half or less than half in 40% of economies globally. These facts are just a small indication of the difficult road ahead for the socio-economic equality of the sexes. Female involvement and investment is critical to a thriving economy. The country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, knew this all too well, when he said at the Muslim League’s meeting in Aligarh in 1944: "I have always maintained that no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world. One is the sword and the other the pen. However there is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”

We have become saturated with the struggles that women face, so instead, I want to switch the focus to three women in our country who are making their mark despite difficult odds. They show that resistance can come from your own birthplace- and so can support. What does it mean to be a woman in this world, in Pakistan? One must wade through gendered biases, harassment, the subtle sexism, the unfair battleground. The journey is a profoundly isolating one without a mentor or other fighters, but what is critical is that an opportunity is provided.

Pro-poor agencies, like the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, then play critical roles in creating elbow room for these endeavouring women from vastly different social backgrounds. Opportunities translate into success stories that encourage others to follow suit. Consider the story of Kiran Irshad from Rojhan, Punjab. The conservative-minded city imposes various barriers on women. Despite this, Kiran labored onto address poverty in the city through promoting education, particularly female education. She mobilized local women to realise their importance in a society that traditionally discouraged them. With PPAF’s help, Kiran secured a Prime Minister's Interest Free Loan (PMIFL) through which she established her boutique business, creating a link between her community and other businesses by creating a market for traditional products. With the help she had from the PMIFL loan and PPAF, she expanded her business, going on to hire workers and in the process providing for the livelihoods for other families beyond her own. Kiran began from working with Balochi embroidery at her home to having her own training center.

Then there is Nasreen Bibi from Ladhana who began her advocacy by identifying women in her village who she could form a community organization with for the locale’s financial uplift. She contested for a councillor’s seat and canvassed for votes. PPAF provided her with initial monetary support under the Livelihood Enhancement Project, following which she learnt to grow her innovative venture. Nasreen went on to gain more funds for road repairs, an ambulance, and a lady health visitor for her village. She also helped in identifying families in need of PPAF-support and became proactive in identifying the challenges her village faced by working with the Punjab government on initiatives to eradicate extreme poverty in the region.

There is also the story of Nabila Qazi, who began running a primary school in Kasur, with the financial assistance of PPAF, under the SOS Rural Support Programme Kasur project. After the project completed in 2012, she took over the school, supported by a motivated community. She upgraded the school to matric level and also increased student enrollment. Nabila collected 1 million in donations for a new school building, which has now been upgraded to college level. Her work has provided for the socio-economic growth of hundreds of young people and their families.

So, what does it mean to be a woman in this world? In Pakistan? Once you have waded through gendered difficulties, investments offering support translate into success stories. The woman has control over her resources, over her body, and can attest to a sense of agency and meaningful participation in her community. The success stories of the women from low-income backgrounds here, whose passion and determination gave them a means to earn income to sustain their livelihoods and inject a greater sense of meaning in their lives, tell us that support in the right direction, and to those deserving can go a long way, so there can be more Kirans, Nabilas, and Nasreens.