The holy grail of national development cannot be achieved without tapping into the potential of the female population that makes up almost half of the work force. There exists a nexus between women's empowerment and economic development: on one hand, development can drive down inequality between men and women; on the other, empowering women positively contributes to national development. It is necessary to acknowledge the fact that empowerment of individuals inevitably leads to collective empowerment of the society and nation.
Empowerment entails that women are able to become increasingly self-reliant, to make choices for themselves and to employ resources which will assist in challenging and eliminating their secondary status.
Since the beginning of time, women have stood alongside men, not only providing support by taking on the unacknowledged and unpaid role of care-giver, but have also been engaged in economic activities that make not only their own lives better, but more importantly, lives of those around them. History is witness to the fact that to turn the dream of national development into a reality, every developed nation has had to engage its women. And so it is absolutely vital for Pakistani women as well, to engage in economic activity not only to benefit them but to also contribute to the progress and development of Pakistan. But the truth is that even today the contribution of women in economy leaves a lot to be desired.
While we do see a lot of very successful women who run their own businesses or are engaged in a variety of jobs, we cannot overlook the fact that getting to this point is usually not very easy. However, there are success stories that have defied odds and serve as inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs. Their journey to success has not been easy but with determination and sense of purpose they have created a space for themselves. Each hurdle and every stumble only gave them a stronger sense of purpose, and success followed. “I feel if you are sincere to your purpose all difficulties shed away and success unfolds open heartedly. It is definitely harder for us women in the workplace but once you jump in any business, you should not seek any concessions for being a woman. We can compete on all levels and our aim should be to give the best product or service to the market,” says Huma Fakhar, a lawyer and entrepreneur. “I learnt that a motivation that is beyond your personal gains is far reaching and sustainable. I fought all the battles because the aspiration was to positively contribute in uplifting of people and society,” she goes on to say.
In this context it is vital that women who have made it help those who are still struggling. Ayla Majid, a financial advisor says, “I have to live by example and create more space for women and prove that there are smart women out there who can contribute greatly to organizations. Instead of falling victim to the situation or waiting for someone to remove the barriers, I take charge of situations myself!”
Running one’s own business is not easy as embedded discrimination curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. This in turn restricts women’s participation in shaping economic and social policies. Ameena Saiyid, Founder and Director, Adab Festival, Pakistan and an entrepreneur, says, “The journey to successful entrepreneurship for women is exciting but one in which obstacles have to be overcome and glass ceilings shattered. It can be both exhilarating and disillusioning depending on the phase but there are lessons to learn along the way which help in building a successful business.” Many a times the frustration caused by a business not taking off makes women give up, as the challenges being faced seem bigger than the yield. But nothing of consequence ever comes easy. Assiduity is needed in order to excel in business just as in any other sphere of life. “The initial years are a struggle for most entrepreneurs, but tenacity of character pays off well. Two ingredients that I found key, at least in my case, were hard work and persistence. It was a long wait and non-stop hard work before I got my first big opportunity,” Fakhar says.
Another problem is that because women are primarily responsible for housework, they often have little time and motivation left to pursue economic opportunities. It is assumed that power comes automatically through economic strength. However, economic power comes with extra burden for women. “The pressures of entrepreneurship are endless. Don’t let the worries bring you down. Every day will be a new battle and every time a new war will be round the corner. To fight this, make practicing spirituality and faith your foundation. Don’t sleep walk through life, live it with deep understanding and engagement,” Fakhar advises.
Moreover, there is the issue of harassment at the workplace that very often becomes a deterrent for aspiring female entrepreneurs. Measures need to be taken for policy making, not just at the societal and governmental level but also at the organizational level to tackle this problem. According to Majid, “With the increasing number of women in the workforce in Pakistan, it has become important to create a safe space at the workplace. Many women come from conservative families and for them the key issue is the environment where they are going to work.” She gives her own example in addressing this issue by saying, “As a woman leader it’s my duty to create environment where my women colleagues feel safe. An active discourse on this matter will be very helpful. Male colleagues also have a huge role to play in this regard by being Male Champions of Change.”
Building a business is no mean task. Along with strength of character, other skills are also needed. One of the most important skills for women who want to enter the field of business is networking, as one might be her own boss but no business can succeed without contacts. While policy-making to tackle bureaucratic issues is essential, it needs to be complemented with being resourceful in order to overcome these hurdles. “It is not possible to work in isolation as an organization does not get built in a vacuum. It is part of an ecosystem and a society, a network of organizations, and relationships that complement, nurture, and strengthen one another. In order to grow a business, we need to explore and look for new ideas, projects, and partnerships and take these forward without bureaucracy. Where something has not worked, the best way out is to cut losses and move on. Business leaders need to cultivate perseverance and possess a never-give-up attitude. Successful entrepreneurs are go-getters,” advises Saiyid.
Just as it is not possible to build a business in isolation, it is not possible to overcome obstacles, brush up skills and polish talent without assistance. Hence it is essential that there should be channels that can help new entrants where they can learn from experience of those who have preceded them. Ayla Majid feels the role of mentors, particularly female, can be highly beneficial. “In a highly male dominated workspace, female advisors and mentors are essential for paving the way by facilitating the important introductions to make connections in the business network. It’s therefore important for us women to create a support mechanism and give a helping hand for those coming after us. Another method to overcome this problem is to have a network of women leaders, in the form of events or social media platforms, which should be focused on work related problems and opportunities,” she says.
The path of empowerment in Pakistan, particularly in the field of business is long and arduous but we have come a long way. If we keep moving forward with a positive outlook and acceptance to the idea of empowering the women of Pakistan, the day is not far when female contribution to the progress and development of the country will be acknowledged globally. This can only be done if policy-making at the governmental level is complemented by active role played by the women who have already made it.
Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home. Therefore, it is imperative that their empowerment be ensured by developing and adopting policies that warrant and facilitate greater participation of women in economic activities. Exclusive focus on facilitating and providing opportunities for women to take part in economic activities without consideration for their role as women will not guarantee real empowerment. The need is to formulate and implement policies in such a way as to make them not only facilitative but also supportive. Policies that are a combination of intervention and external support are more likely to bring about development through empowerment. In the absence of such an approach barriers cannot be brought down as women will not be able to juggle their many roles, effectively and efficiently. Real empowerment can only happen with a combination of confidence and self-esteem, information, analytical skills, ability to identify and tap into available resources, political and social influence. That must happen to speed up the national development and progress that present day Pakistan is aiming for. Women entrepreneurship is expanding, but it needs to go faster to meet the challenging requirements of global market economy that is showing more proclivity towards gender equality.HH
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