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Economic space for women

By: Sadia Khan

AT the recent South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium in Dhaka, 120 women participants from 11 countries came together to create cross-border linkages between women entrepreneurs and leaders in South Asia.

After two days of deliberations on the challenges and opportunities for women entrepreneurs in governance, technology and trade, delegates from different countries presented their respective country strategies. The Pakistan Country Strategy took cognisance of the circumstances in Pakistan hindering the development of entrepreneurship in general and women’s development in particular.

Current population estimates place two-thirds of the population of Pakistan under the age of 30. There are four million entrants into the job market every year with increasingly limited employment options.

Entrepreneurship needs to be given a fresh impetus if our country is to provide a means of livelihood to the millions seeking jobs in the coming years. The alternative is obvious. We will be faced with a tidal wave of the relatively uneducated, unemployed youth with all the trappings of deep-seated social discontent.

Due to the persistent poor law and order situation, weak governance, corruption, the unavailability of seed capital and lack of encouragement from society, the rate of formal business start-ups in Pakistan is the lowest in the region.

The environment is no more conducive for the female population which despite a 51 per cent representation in the demographic data has a mere three per cent representation in the formal economy. The recent Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan 132 out of 134 countries.

For a strategy to be effective, it has to be rooted in pragmatism. No one panacea can cure the myriad issues that plague women’s development in Pakistan.

Our target group may have to be limited to the relatively educated women in Pakistan, who with the right enabling environment, would be able to move themselves and their families beyond their current income tiers.

Providing basic education has to be the goal of a much more comprehensive national strategy, and perhaps one that can be positively impacted by the right demonstration effect with our limited target group.

With this basic assumption in mind, the following goals need to be achieved in any strategy targeting women entrepreneurs in Pakistan.

Encourage women’s participation in non-traditional sectors: It is important to give women an opportunity to break out of their comfort zones and be better equipped to meet the emerging business demands. The focus on relevant subjects at secondary school and college along with career counselling can help to refocus the girls’ attention on subjects hitherto preserved for the male domain.

Showcasing the few role models of successful women entrepreneurs who have made it against the odds in running manufacturing, construction or logistics firms will help to attune their minds to the possibilities that exist or that they can create for themselves.

Risk mitigation funds with incubation centres for early phase start-ups will undoubtedly help to reduce the fear of failure so endemic in our society. Franchise opportunities for small local businesses will provide relatively easy market access to women choosing to re-enter the job markets after an early marriage.

Procurement quotas reserved for women-run enterprises by the larger corporations will give them a chance to compete in a male-dominated marketplace. These are just some of the many possibilities that exist to encourage women’s participation in a much wider economic space.

Combat corruption: A number of international studies have pointed to the positive impact of women in the workplace, not just in terms of enhanced efficiency but also in inculcating ethical practices. We need to build on this by encouraging all women-run business (and indeed all others) to sign a pledge to say ‘no’ to corruption. All educational institutions should be encouraged to introduce a course on ethics as part of their mandatory curriculum. A volunteer group of women lawyers can create a helpline to provide guidance and support to women entrepreneurs for the many cases of extortion and bribery that have become commonplace in our business environment. An active media campaign is needed to bring awareness about the rampant plague of corruption in the country.

Increase regional trade: South Asia has the lowest regional trade in the world. While India-Pakistan trade will hopefully get a boost from the recent rapprochement between the two countries, we need to ensure that our future relationship is grounded in solid business dynamics.

The momentum created by the symposium in Dhaka needs to be maintained by a follow-up symposium, hosted in Pakistan in 2014. A trade exhibition organised on the fringes of this symposium will give a chance to women entrepreneurs from the region to showcase their products.

Regional chambers could be approached to arrange business-to-business exchanges and facilitate e-trade by creating a uniform payment system across borders. Finally cross-border information on the ‘ease of doing business’ can be compiled in collaboration with various chambers and trade bodies.

Create an enabling environment: The wish list presented above cannot be possible without some basic enablers in place. Of this perhaps the most important is the access to finance.

There is a need to encourage financial institutions to create loan mechanisms that mitigate risk without the need for onerous collateral. There is also a need to train bankers to change their mindset towards cash flow analysis and appreciate the business case for funding female entrepreneurs.

Changing mindsets can be a long and laborious process, but can be expedited by making women part of the decision-making process. Pakistan needs to follow the global drive to recruit more women at the board level.

Prioritisation of key objectives is critical to effective implementation. Commonality of purpose will spur the change but only active engagement with all stakeholders will ensure sustainability.