October 16, 2022
In a country where rural areas have a significant share of the population and where women’s empowerment and gender quality remain one of the biggest challenges, it seems complicated to fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The government has failed to provide basic facilities like health and education to the people living in rural areas, especially to women who not only have limited access but are restricted from by the men in their family from accessing these facilities.
However, rural women are key players in achieving sustainable development’s fundamental economic, environmental and social changes. Given the prevalence of women in agriculture worldwide, empowering them is essential for the well-being of people, families, and rural communities and for overall economic production.
To highlight the importance of rural women, in 2007, during the United Nations General Assembly, the 15th of October was proclaimed an International Day of Rural Women every year. Since then, the International Day of Rural Women has been celebrated in many nations worldwide. It honours these women’s resilience and accomplishments in ensuring the continuity of rural homes and the community, despite hardships and prejudices.
For a country like Pakistan, where there are much more challenges for women, especially in rural areas, let’s highlight some of the critical regions, people and organizations that have been working on giving a voice, an identity and a chance to earn a living for their families.
The importance of rural women
In Pakistan, despite making up 49% of the entire population, women only participate in the workforce at a startlingly low proportion of 21%, and just 25% of those with college degrees are employed. The majority of middle-class homes in Pakistan only have male wage workers, so the yearly per capita income has fallen over time.
Women across all economic sectors must actively participate in improving this condition. For instance, rural women’s involvement in agriculture work is typically unpaid and regarded as a component of household responsibilities. On the other hand, Pakistan has the lowest proportion of business owners in the whole globe, with just 8% of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) being led by women.
The untapped potential needed to spur growth and development, which is crucial for recovering a stalled economy, may lie in empowering and integrating women into the economy. If the female labour force catches up to the male labour force, Pakistan’s GDP might rise by 60% by 2025.
Entrepreneurship in rural areas
Becoming an entrepreneur in a rural area is not an easy task. They come up with a long list of challenges in their journey of becoming an entrepreneur, especially for women. The limited access to connectivity, whether digital or physical. Like apart from the internet access, how difficult is it to reach your area or get your product out to potential customers? Or for rural women, are they allowed to go out, get an education, work and do business meetings? Not accessible in Pakistan.
Despite all the challenges, some women have stepped forward and made efforts to empower not only themselves but create opportunities for other women in the same area.
A woman that has faced all the challenges broke the barriers, became an entrepreneur and ended up building ‘The Institute of Entrepreneurship’, an institution to give entrepreneur training to rural women. This is the story of Dua Sukhera, a woman from a small town in South Punjab known as Arifwala, is what may inspire many, but this was not achieved easily. She struggled and suffered a lot just to empower other rural women.
Living in a small town with limited facilities, she could only get the education up till matriculation. To study further, she had to move towards the city of Lahore, which was difficult. However, after convincing her parents, who wanted her to become a doctor, she went to Lahore, where she acquired her FSC degree. “In Southern Punjab, 1 out of 10 families allow their daughter to pursue education and less than that allow to do jobs. So getting out of there and following your dream is almost impossible for a woman,” said Dua.
In 2013, she was introduced to the Global Social Entrepreneurship Foundation (GSEF). A foundation helps young students become freelancers and then donates $100 from their earnings to the foundation. The founder of GSEF, Muhammad Siddique, came to Pakistan to hold an event with all the graduates from his foundation.
Dua was the only female at the event out of thousands of students. This indicated the need to promote women’s entrepreneurship and raise awareness of this way of earning. Dua, after holding multiple seminars in universities and giving online lectures, learned about many women who cannot get an education because of the restrictions to leave home, or many who have degrees like MMBS were not allowed to do jobs.
This was when Dua decided not to keep this freelancing and entrepreneur skill limited to herself. In 2017, her brother announced the formation of The Institute of Entrepreneurship. Following his brother passing away in the same year, the dream was halted. She continued her struggle, and in 2019, she was able to put the foundation of the plan she and her brother saw.
She developed the institute in her hometown as this was the area that needed to be provided with the facilities. She made the institute and gave the people the facilities that were not available. She installed computers, the internet and a workplace where people aged 16 and above were invited to learn the top eight trending skills online in three-month courses. The courses offered included; Graphics Designing, Digital Marketing, Video Editing, Content Writing, Website Development, Amazon, Shopify Expert, and youtube monetization.
Soon she was able to attract the students and housewives who were not allowed to go outside and could earn by staying at home. Now she has expanded her services to all the regions of Pakistan. She was also invited by the AJK government to educate their women. Most of her students are from the rural areas near her hometown and in other regions too.
Working more, earning less
Another challenge that Dua indicated was the payment she and others used to receive through international remittance. “In my early days of entrepreneurship, I used to work a lot, but when the payment arrived, I used to get only a minimal amount. For example, if I did work for $25, after deductions, I would get only $5. A 25% of the earnings were deducted from the freelancing platform Fiver and the rest through the exchange rates and payment platforms,” she explained.
She said that this was a significant problem and a hurdle to convincing rural women to begin doing online work. “The hurdle of going to the banks to withdraw money seems difficult for a woman, so we shifted to JazzCash, partnered with the international payment platform Payoneer. This was a huge step in my cause. This helped the women to get their payments directly into their mobile wallets and withdraw from any nearby agent. This played a huge part in the success of my institute and in convincing the parents to send their kids to learn skills. As they were getting what they were working for,” she shared.
JazzCash is the leading digital financial service, serving over 16 million users in the country. They parterned with Payoneer at the beginning of 2020 to provide instant international payments to the budding freelance community.
Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises offer several advantages for rural women: flexible hours, location in or near women’s homes, ease of entry, and links with local markets. However, rural female entrepreneurs face challenges entering new and lucrative markets and expanding their businesses.
Nausheen Barkat co-founded Asqurr, Pakistan’s first women-led organic honey brand, with her mother, Shams ul Malook. She is based in Danyor, a city located on the outskirts of Gilgit-Baltistan. The idea of Asqurr came to Shams because her own family was fond of honey. After the birth of Nausheen’s special needs child, she decided to turn the most challenging part of her life into an opportunity and bring her mother’s dream to reality by turning her passion into a business with a humble set-up.
One of the struggles this MSMEs face is the logistics and marketing of the product to expand their business. While Shams leads the team for honey extraction (comprising local women), which is sourced from different regions of Gilgit, Nausheen looks after marketing, packaging and deliveries.
Their team extracts raw and natural honey in its purest form, directly packed into glass jars and shipped to customers. Asqurr regularly trains local women to join their teams and be able to earn for themselves. After building a considerable demand for their brand within Gilgit-Baltistan, they decided to expand, for which they listed themselves on the e-commerce platform Daraz to reach consumers on a national level in a more accessible manner and receive logistical support.
Daraz, Pakistan’s leading eCommerce platform with 20 million active users, was a key platform for Nausheen to expand her business and get her product out of her district across the nation. Daraz, on the other hand, has kept rural upliftment and women empowerment as core pillars of their business outlook in the country and introduced several initiatives to empower women to build a stable income through their platform.
They have invested more than $100 million, including offering female sellers incentives such as lower commissions, free access to online selling and eCommerce courses from Daraz University, and sharing marketing insights and business performance tools from Daraz Seller Marketplace.
This enables women from any country to receive training without physically travelling anywhere. To drive participation in the digital economy by women who want to start their entrepreneurial journey but are still unbanked, the platform has also entered into strategic partnerships with leading financial institutions to remove obstacles.
Muhammad Ammar Hassan, Chief Marketing Officer, Daraz, while sharing their work for female sellers, especially in the rural areas of the country, told The Express Tribune, “We are very proud of the fact that Daraz has over 4,000 female sellers on its platform, who contribute to almost 20% of our annual Gross merchandise volume (GMV). We feel that entrepreneurship provides women with the flexibility to tailor their work lives around their needs, which is especially important to uplift rural communities.”
He added that if one were to start a business in traditional retail from scratch, it would require a lot of capital and bandwidth. “It gives us great happiness when we find out that a female seller is earning over one million through our platform regardless of whether they are based in an urban city or rural area, which is why we feel Daraz is a great equalizer. We constantly take into account the hurdles women from rural areas encounter and try to incorporate changes and introduce initiatives that would support them in addition to providing training for every aspect of online selling,” he added.
While International Day for Rural Women is celebrated every year, developing nations like Pakistan are one of the most important countries to work on spreading awareness of online businesses where they can make stuff at their home and sell it online to millions of people. This will not only empower the women but will also help them play an essential role in uplifting their community and sharing their culture worldwide.
Originally published at tribune.com.pk