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Women – Pakistan’s Real Strength

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Pakistan’s women make up 48.8% of its total population. Imagine a force of over 100 million, who if rightly supported, can drive the future of the country. Imagine a 100 million putting their energy together to overcome challenges. Imagine a 100 million just focusing on building a nation.

Women, however, face multidimensional challenges. These are captured by the Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks Pakistan 143rd out of 144 countries, only ahead of Yemen. It measures gender equality against indicators of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Only 25% are active in the labour force in Pakistan whereas the world average is 48.7%. That means 41 million women in the age group 15-64 are not being counted as contributing members to the economy. The female literacy rate is as low as 48%. In 2017, only 7% women had a financial services account, compared to 36% in Bangladesh and 77% in India.

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The reasons are many, including cultural and social obstacles. Though no measure of their capabilities, it does indicate towards their positioning in daily life. It indicates the effect of daily life opportunities on esteem, self-belief and eventually willingness to create impact. The requirement then is for women to be nurtured as active social and economic members from a young age.

Action needs to be taken on both an individual and a larger societal level. On a local level, we need to scan our networks to identify women we can support and help grow. They need to be instilled with confidence so they explore themselves, discover their skill-set and work towards building on it. But how does this happen? Schools and homes, as two institutions, have a role to play that is driven by values and steered by policy. Where clarity of thought develops from the values instilled at home, educational institutions add focus by providing exposure.

Entrepreneurship is one means of doing so. Women and entrepreneurs are both natural problem solvers. Therefore, the steps required are skill identification through activity-based learning, skill enhancement through trainings and active economic participation. Their entrepreneurial ideas need to be supported so they become economically active and therefore, drivers of socioeconomic impact.

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Pakistan has a heterogeneous and diverse population. The underlying differences and relative sensitivities must be respected while drawing up policy and forming initiatives. Social safety net programmes such as BISP cater to the extremely poor. Though successful in countries in Latin America, it does not convert women as active agents. One challenge faced by women aspiring to start a small-medium business is access to finance. With limited decision-making power domestically, even less for financial matters, they do not have personal savings. That’s where the role of microcredit institutions comes into play. Some 2.7 million active microcredit borrowers are women. For them to emerge as change-makers, their business acumen needs to be further developed. Women entrepreneurs who have exposure of the global startup arena, can play an active role in connecting with micro entrepreneurs. Additionally, opportunities for creating stronger value chains may surface in the process.

Women of Pakistan have a huge responsibility. They have to start believing in themselves to become active agents. Pakistan is in need of Parks, Bandaranaike and Mother Teresa. We have an exemplary female role model in Hazrat Khadija — a successful business woman, a nurturing mother, a supportive partner and a believer.

Jinnah publicly depicted his idea of women as active nation builders. The new government has also shown a commitment towards investing in women as an asset. For our nation to move forward socially as well as economically, it is essential that this significant half of our population is given enablement to become economic contributors and help change Pakistan for the better.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2018.