Notes from the Field

From Pakistan: Women Entrepreneurs

March 4, 2009

In the face of economic hardships and social pressures, some women in Pakistan, with support from The Asia Foundation, are finding innovative ways to participate in their communities. Some have been gaining momentum in finding jobs in traditionally male-dominated sectors like carpentry, food processing, and fiber glass molding for construction. Others, empowered by business skills training, have become entrepreneurs.

With training, other women are using more traditional skills, such as cooking and sewing, to design and produce products for markets in larger villages throughout Pakistan, and in some cases, internationally.

Still others, such as Ms. Musarrat Bibi, are using new business training to create small enterprises that create employment for more women. Ms. Bibi, who comes from the conservative and security-sensitive Northwest Frontier province (NWFP), is a widow and sole breadwinner for a family of four. While she was accomplished in embroidery and stitching, she was not able to generate enough income to support her family from these crafts. She joined a local women’s group and attended an enterprise development workshop where they learned about pickling, packaging, and pricing. The women’s group then started a pickling business and was able to expand their business to sell their products nationwide.

Other women entrepreneurs have sent their products to the Pakistani port city of Karachi – and as far away as Kenya. Women from semi-urban and rural areas achieving this feat are extremely encouraging for the staff and partner organizations contributing to the success of this project.

Women entrepreneurs’ success in Pakistan is heavily dependent on family approval, and programs are effective only if they creatively engage family and community members. Project coordinators have found that it is especially important to target people who are most likely to oppose expanded opportunities for young women, including mothers-in-law and local religious and community leaders. Project coordinators have devised innovative ways to build support for women entrepreneurs among these “gatekeepers” in the community. For example, in some cases, mothers-in-law were invited to accompany the women entrepreneurs on their site trips, acting as chaperones. Local religious leaders were asked to arrange spaces in their mosque’s courtyard for enterprise development training, while headmasters of schools were asked permission to use the school’s lawn for a technology fair, thereby giving them a sense of ownership in the project from the start.

Linking this women entrepreneurship program with other projects The Asia Foundation is implementing, such as the Mainstreaming Women in Governance project and Alternative Dispute Resolution, will further strengthen support for these women struggling to rise out of poverty and overcome the multitude of challenges that women face.

The current economic crisis and other challenges in Pakistan add to the trials nascent women entrepreneurs face. In light of significant constraints to women’s access to education and mobility, it is vital to increase support for programs that give more women the skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs. A recent national survey titled, “Women Entrepreneurs: Challenges and Opportunities in Pakistan” shows that increasing women’s earnings not only results in higher enrollment of children in school, but also expands their businesses to other villages and provides more and better goods, ultimately contributing to economic stability in Pakistan.

Zehra Zaidi is a Program Officer at The Asia Foundation’s office in Islamabad. She can be reached at zzaidi@asiafound.org.

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