By Jonathan Pratt
More than 20 years ago, Zahida Kamri, a single mother of six, became Pakistan’s first female taxi driver — a job that took her from Islamabad to the country’s remote provinces. As a pioneer among women entrepreneurs in Pakistan, Zahida persevered in the face of criticism and her accomplishments resonate to this day. Two decades later, female entrepreneurs like Hira Batool Rizvi illustrate just how far the country has continued to progress since Zahida’s first taxi run. Hira is a graduate of the WECREATE Centre, Islamabad, a start-up incubator and accelerator that was initially funded by the US State Department. In 2015, she launched She`Kab, Pakistan’s first shared taxi service for working women. She employed more than 100 people in the first few months of her company’s operations, creating jobs and directly addressing the unmet needs of working women. Hira’s success corroborates what data has long shown, that there is a strong business case for supporting the rise of women in the economy — as entrepreneurs, employees and consumers.
Entrepreneurship is a key component of economic growth worldwide, including in Pakistan. Entrepreneurs identify business opportunities in underserved parts of the economy, utilise more of the country’s human capital, and contribute to technological, intellectual, and service innovation. Women’s entrepreneurship also provides a crucial way for women to enter the workforce and help expand the economy, circumventing many of the barriers they face when seeking traditional employment. Technology further enables this trend by providing more flexible work arrangements and job opportunities. The World Bank has underscored that the economic inclusion of women is indispensable to Pakistan’s growth. Women’s participation in the economy is important for the country to make full use of its rich human capital, as well as to provide the needed income to households at all levels of society. But entrenched social norms, barriers to political participation, legal restrictions and gender-based violence prevent women from accessing economic opportunities in Pakistan and around the world. To address these gaps, Pakistan’s Vision 2025 development strategy has announced steps the government aims to take to increase women’s labour force participation. Improving women and girls’ access to education, health care, justice, law enforcement, social services, banking and financial services, and childcare are a few of the pressing priorities outlined under Vision 2025. The ultimate goal is to increase women in the workforce from the current level of 25 per cent to 45 per cent over the next nine years.
That’s why President Barack Obama dedicated a full day of last week’s 7th Annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) at Stanford University to women and youth entrepreneurs. Hira was one of 150 entrepreneurs who participated that day in training sessions, meeting with mentors and investors, and connecting with peers who share common ambitions. She was part of a group of 21 delegates, a majority of them women, representing Pakistan at the GES. Pakistan’s delegation — the largest from any country outside the US — joined more than 700 entrepreneurs from around the world, along with investors and business leaders to exchange ideas and best practices for how to start and grow their businesses. These Pakistani entrepreneurs are building the networks and acquiring the skills to be competitive in the global marketplace and shape a bright future for their country. Engines of economic growth, the private sectors in both Pakistan and the US, are critical to expanding economic opportunities for women. The US Pakistan Women’s Council is working with Coca Cola, Engro, PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble to lead ground-breaking hiring-and-supply-chain gender diversification efforts, and USAID has partnered with several multinational corporations on projects that support women’s agricultural micro-enterprises in Pakistan, in some cases increasing incomes by as much as 50 per cent.
Pakistan is poised to support its first Women in the Economy Forum, which will bring our governments and private sector partners together to propose solutions to remove barriers to women’s economic participation. The US will continue to fund programmes that promote gender equity, and increase women’s access to information, economic opportunities, and ability to participate in civic and political institutions. These programmes include the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to empower 200,000 adolescent girls through improved access to quality education. Hundreds of young Pakistani women have travelled on educational, entrepreneurship and leadership training opportunities funded by the US because we believe in their immense potential to bring positive change to their country and build bridges between our societies. These investments in Pakistani women are much more than feel-good acts of corporate social responsibility. They are strategic investments that will help increase Pakistani companies’ efficiency and innovation — an acknowledgement that businesses have much to gain when women go to work. But donors and the government cannot meet this challenge alone. By joining forces with the corporate sector through public-private partnerships such as these, we can accelerate Pakistan’s progress by harnessing the untapped drive and talents of its women in business.