It is often argued that women’s contributions to the labour force can be an important driver for economic growth in Pakistan. This is represented not only in government reports but also by transnational organisations and NGOs. Indeed, one of the major themes driving girls’ education campaigns in the country is that educated girls will be able to secure jobs and thus contribute to GDP.
According to the latest available data (2014-2015), female labour force participation in Pakistan is at 22 per cent. Given that nearly 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty, it is likely that actual figures are much higher, implying significant participation of women in the informal economy.
While women’s entrance in the workforce and their economic independence are worthy ideals to pursue, it is also critical to inquire into the kind of work available to women and their actual ability to experience empowerment through work. In fact, research shows that it is not ‘waged work’ in and of itself but the ability to save and create wealth that is emancipatory for women. Likewise, the 2014 World of Work report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts emphasis on the quality of work as key to alleviating poverty.
What then are possible pathways for women in Pakistan? And how can those pathways be made secure so that women can participate and thrive in them?
We often hear about entrepreneurship as an innovative avenue not just for women and girls but also for men to make an income. Rural women are advised to hone their skills and create a business at home. While this may be the pathway for some, it is not ideal for all.
In fact, according to the ILO, workers employed in family businesses are twice as likely to be “trapped in a vicious circle of low-productivity employment, poor remuneration and limited ability to invest in their families’ health and education.” This, in turn, “reduces the likelihoodthat [their] current and subsequent generations will be able to move up the productivity and income ladders” (emphasis mine).
During a recent visit to Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), I learned about how middlemen from metropolitan cities such as Karachi as well as outside Pakistan exploit poor women in home-based cottage industries. These women are dependent on middlemen for bringing their products to market, which limits their ability to negotiate better rates for their toil. They are thus compelled to sell their products at unfairly low per piece rates, with the additional margin accruing to the middlemen. This finding, unfortunately, is not new. Anita Weiss’s work with women workers in Lahore during the late 1980s points to similar uncertainties for women.
What’s required thus are mechanisms that protect the interests of these women and provide alternative means to access markets. The Aga Khan Rural Support programme in G-B, for example, provides crucial mentoring services to women and gives them an opportunity to take their products to exhibitions in cities. The state needs to not only encourage such efforts but create additional channels, including leveraging technology so that women can market their products online. In addition, programmes that enable women-run businesses to obtain capital, tax codes that are favourable to women, efforts to create pay equality and access to affordable childcare for women are all measures that can significantly enhance women’s ability to progress economically.
When supported, women can thrive not only in small businesses but also in professions dominated by men. Consider the Aga Khan Cultural Services’ Women Social Enterprise project (recently renamed CIQAM) in G-B, which models yet another pathway for women’s economic empowerment. In the village of Altit in Hunza, the project trains women in professions dominated by men, such as carpentry, furniture making and woodwork. Entrance in these male-dominated professions translates into better incomes for these women than would otherwise be possible in feminised professions such as teaching.
Projects like CIQAM, however, are rare in Pakistan because they not only require initial capital but also extensive effort in the community to create an authorising environment for women to work in otherwise male-dominated professions. Such projects call for a commitment that is long term and participatory, and thus require state involvement to achieve scale. The government can replicate such successful models of training and development elsewhere in Pakistan. This would entail not only creating new training programmes for women but also leveraging local social mobilisers and agents who can circulate messages about women’s contribution at the grassroots level.
If we want women to be economically productive members of society, we have to create an enabling environment for them to flourish and thrive. Low-paid, contingent, exploitative wage-work is not the answer to women’s economic empowerment.