Her energy is the tip of the iceberg, and yet she remains the most underrated and underutilised part of human capital in Pakistan. Even today, there remains a big question: how to consider the involvement of women in economic development.
Any society that fails to harness the energy and creativity of ‘the other half’ of its population suffers huge losses. Pakistan has to take effective measures to bring the country’s most unrecognised and dormant human capital into play.
The phenomenon of the non-involvement of women in economic activity prevails all over the globe. The global gender gap in the workforce, which has narrowed only marginally over the past 25 years, was reported at 27 percent points as of 2020 – according to a UN report titled ‘World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics’. Last year (2020), more men (74 percent) participated in the labour force than women (47 percent) around the globe, according to, the report, which compiled 100 data stories that provide a snapshot of the state of gender equality.
In a country like Pakistan where we have deep cultural and religious roots, the topic of women’s participation in the workforce is highly sensitive and needs appropriate handling. A lot has already been done for women’s empowerment. Even though numerous NGOs and public departments have been formulated to bring our women into the workforce, they have not been successful in bringing tangible results in women’s status or the economy.
The role of women as a breadwinner is different in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, there is no concept of a ‘working woman’ or a ‘housewife’. A rural woman has to actively participate in the economic activities of her everyday life – looking after the cattle, working on the fields, etc – and, later, get domestic tasks done – cooking, washing, raising children, etc. In urban areas, women’s economic activities like working at an office always remain controversial and a point of debate.
In urban areas, teaching is one of the few professions that are largely accepted for women. In certain situations, people don’t object to women’s home-based small-scale businesses. With the passage of time, in urban areas, there has been some change in accepting women’s participation in the workforce. A large number of our population comprises women who largely remain a non-contributing entity on the economic horizon.
But this analysis does not ensure that women’s participation is giving its hundred percent in the rural economy. In fact, this participation is a clear example of ‘disguise unemployment’, which means that more than the required people are engaged in a particular field – here, it is agriculture. With an increase in the engagement of additional labour in agriculture, their marginal productivity declines, and, at some level, it becomes zero or negative. We have to put this additional non-productive workforce into the right channel to maximise their productivity to positively contribute to the economy.
Similarly, women in urban areas, to a large extent, have cultural and social restrictions to work outside their homes. These restrictions are manifold – less education, societal pressures, unnecessary dragging or misinterpretation of religion or, if nothing holds true, it is simply male dominance or insecurity. In villages, where extreme poverty is rampant, the concept of working women has gained wide acceptance.
Keeping our deep cultural, religious and societal norms into consideration, we have to devise a strategy that revises the role of women as people whose work can benefit not only them but also the country. Women should be encouraged to come forward and work in an environment that is conducive to our cultural mindset. This calls for introducing the idea of “khawateen/meena bazaars” in secured places so that women can explore their skills with ease.
Initially, such women-only markets or bazaars should be established in small- and medium-sized towns. A number of donor agencies and NGOs have already started giving microcredit facilities to women to establish their own businesses. It will ease in creating room for women to work outside their houses. Such a marketplace, with the safe mobility of women customers, would be beneficial to small entrepreneurs to sell their products. The inhibitions of women’s respective families would then reduce to a great extent. The uniqueness of such a market would attract more attention and opportunities that would, in turn, be beneficial to stakeholders.
In every town or city, the government has some land that can be transformed into a marketplace for women. Infrastructure facilities – that are a one-time investment and constitute fixed costs – can be provided. These places can have access to uninterrupted supply of electricity and water and a proper sewerage system to avoid any inconvenience. Consequently, it will enhance the morale of workers and help small entrepreneurs to price their products in a competitive market.
In the first piloting phase, small-sized shops, stalls, cabins or structures should be provided that could be improved on an incremental basis by entrepreneurs. Women could be encouraged to establish their businesses.
With time, businesses will gradually grow and create employment opportunities. Since these markets will be guarded and secured, they will reduce risks and be proved to be encouraging for other women who will walk into the footprints of such successful women entrepreneurs.
These markets can address women from poverty-stricken areas like urban peripheral fringes or rural-urban merger towns where women are generally less privileged. Women who are forced into prostitution belong to such poverty belts. Intense hunger and a lack of education, financial support and opportunities force them into such a profession.
These women-oriented bazaars or markets can be linked with microcredit finance support programmes and funding. As most women are inexperienced and untrained in such matters, starting a business with a small amount could prove beneficial to them at a given place.
Back in 2008, the PPP government had initiated the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) that was formulated to financially support women who were poor and the only earning member of their families. The target was to address deserving households across over 140 districts across Pakistan. At that time, close to Rs30 billion was allocated, which was nearly doubled in the following year.
This programme suffered a lot of accusations; for instance, a monthly stipend of Rs1500 was not enough to impoverished families above the poverty line, and there were issues in transparency too. I was also criticised on the grounds of lack of conditionality for recipients. Conditional cash transfer programmes experience a greater degree of success as recipient families must meet certain requirements like education and health before receiving a cash payment. It was additionally gathered that only 50-60 percent of beneficiaries received cash payments under the BISP.
There is no denying that the authorities should take care of the people, but monthly stipend programmes could be limited to women who are old, physically disabled or unwell and are unable to earn their bread. The age limit can ensure transparency. But a monthly stipend for young and energetic women is not a viable option. These finances should be diverted to revise the role of women as an entrepreneur.
Women are naturally endowed with the gift of multi-tasking. The concept of establishing a designated commercial street run by female entrepreneurs shall trigger her inherent energies. Although somewhere, at some level, such small bazaars do exist in remote villages, the concept is still unique and innovative in character for our country.
It will be a step forward for our women to come out of their houses without any inhibition and fear. If the idea is properly conceived, the role of women could be redefined. They would no longer be dependent or reliant on people but become highly motivating and proactive members of their families and the country.
The writer is a Lahore-based urban planner, economist, and artist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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