While most women in the urban areas have been able to defy archaic gender roles, the same cannot be said about the rural women. We often forget about the thousands of women in villages who are still suffering due to patriarchy and lack of education. During my recent tour of Sindh – a part of a book research and registration of the Association of Rural Women Entrepreneurs – I reflected upon these issues and wondered what could be done.
I have always felt that there was a need for an association that truly empowers them and allows them to break the vicious cycle of poverty, dependence, exploitation and helplessness. However, the NGOs working in such marginalised communities’ areas always come in for ‘hand-holding’ which doesn’t do much. There is such huge disparity between the urban and rural women because the existing organisations do not pay enough attention on entrepreneurship. It is time that these women are given more opportunities to hold their own.
There have been studies conducted to observe the enterprising behaviours of rural women, their capacity to handle marketing for their businesses and finally the factors that influence their decision-making environment. The world is embarking on promoting the rural entrepreneurship among women in order to control the economic imbalance in the society and also to empower women socially and economically. Chambers also promote independence – personal and financial – which opens them up to their fundamental rights.
In Pakistan, the phenomenon of rural women entrepreneurship is fairly new and the policy strategies to stimulate the rural women interest in entrepreneurship are not rightly directed. In the absence of a base line research, findings suggest that lack of, or no understanding about the entrepreneurial process is seriously affecting the enterprising capacity of rural women entrepreneurs.
Having worked with village women and indigenous craft for more than a decade, I have already established many links in areas across Pakistan. I believe that women can provide a vital platform that can change the role of rural women – from one of vulnerability to that of effective change makers – by building linkages and partnership models which are concrete in deliverables and outcomes. By establishing and joining a Chamber of Commerce, one can demonstrate economic clout and force the government and big organisations to pay attention to women’s special needs in business.
For this, we require an institution solely devoted to this cause. Once the association is established, demands can be made with through one pertinent platform; technical support and guidance can be provided for trainings in policy documents to facilitate women; moving apex bodies like FPCCI to promote projects specifically designed for women from the Export Development Funds (EDF); or maybe setting up of a small office in Dubai or other parts of the world, where women could showcase their products and get orders from foreign markets.
Moreover, the aforementioned association can also help override cultural barriers. Since business women will share similar problems and issues, this will automatically promote a camaraderie over the cultural differences and language.
Formation of women’s chambers is perhaps the best thing that happened for women entrepreneurs in Pakistan. Despite comprising 51 per cent of the population, until 2006, women didn’t have a voice in the economic policy development. Now, there are registered women’s chambers to speak on behalf of their members. However, being young chambers, they need to improve their structure to be more active, but they are learning fast.
However, there needs to be regulations implemented such as that it should be a prerequisite for each member of the Chamber to possess a national tax number. The updated law should now allow women entrepreneurs to become members of the chambers on the basis of their national identity card alone. This in itself will be a positive step in the right direction they can easily register with the Director General Trade Organization (DGTO). Rural women can be tax filers when their enterprise flourishes and be sustainable.
While my article foresees no debate to the advantages of bringing women to the forefront, the infrastructure needs amendments. The DGTO that was established in 2007 after the promulgation of Trade Organisations Ordinance, 2007, it was enacted in the shape of Trade Organisations Act, 2013 on February 22, 2013 as a regulatory body to implement provisions of the aforesaid ordinance. The core function of the directorate is the registration of trade bodies, overseeing the election office bearers and executive committee members of trade bodies ensuring all rules are followed. My recommendation to the Commerce Ministry is to reassess the role of the DGTO as well especially towards women chambers by building its role of handholding and capacity building trainings and an easy accessible and facilitation body.
There are 17 registered women’s chambers in Pakistan with an approximate membership of over 3000 women business owners. As a part of capacity building programmes, the Ministry of Commerce and various foreign-funded agencies conduct workshops to help members learn the necessary tools to ensure sustainability, increase membership and conduct effective policy advocacy. While there has been a rise in the number of memberships, they still lack governance and service delivery. The Ministry planned to continue working on these areas but it seems to be done on a snail’s pace.
Furthermore, the prevailing geo-political crises and the pandemic has affected the social and economic growth transition in Pakistan, making individuals and their families vulnerable to fight for their survival. Women entrepreneurship development seems to be an apt solution to rejuvenate the social and economic structure of the country. It will also improve the living conditions of women residing in remote parts of the country. Considering women’s chambers as effective platforms for empowering women to increase participation in economic policy, these chambers are now being involved in policy debate. I feel that to be able to advocate effectively, we need to strengthen our membership and governance within our respective organisations. We need to build partnerships with like-minded chambers to amplify the voice for women entrepreneurs in Pakistan. Commerce Ministry, FPCCI and foreign-funded NGOs can be instrumental in capacity building of Women’s Chambers and Associations.