Given the high cost of living and prices of basic necessities like groceries, utilities and housing getting out of hand, it has become imperative in this age that both men and women of a household work. Moreover, for Pakistan to break the shackles of poverty and race ahead to development, it is absolutely vital that women, who make almost half of the population, participate in economic activity.
There is a great urge among young and middle aged women to work and contribute for their families. Families are also supportive as they too want a decent living.
There is a great urge among young and middle aged women to work and contribute for their families. Families are also supportive as they too want a decent living. But everyone wants to be hired by government organizations or some other businesses, and don’t want to start their own business because running a business, especially for a woman, is an uphill task. And, when it comes to start-ups even families hesitate to support fearing losses and remain skeptical about their success.
There is no government data available, neither the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority (SMEDA) has any statistics, but a global report calculates that there are twenty one male entrepreneurs for every single female entrepreneur. According to the World Bank’s Pakistan Development Update Report, Pakistan has the lowest comparative rate of women entrepreneurship in the world. Women constitute approximately 49% of Pakistani population but only 22% women participate in economic activities as compared to 68% of men and, only 1% women entrepreneurs as compared to 28% of men. Pakistan also fares poorly on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017 of the World Economic Forum. The report, which assesses women participation in the economy, ranked Pakistan as 143 out of 144 countries in its study. This simply reflects that relentless efforts are to be made to improve economic opportunities for women.
The number of women in Pakistan in the field of business however, is dismal. Pakistan has not tapped into the full potential of gender inclusion as a catalyst for economic growth. Women entrepreneurs face a number of challenges in setting up and running Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) because no significant work has been done for developing gender inclusive economic policies in Pakistan.
Some issues are faced by all entrepreneurs irrespective of gender like structural and taxation issues but there are some that are gender specific due to embedded patriarchy. Women usually start a business when they have lost all options in compulsions, without any training and experience so they face losses and are left in the lurch. Firstly, no one trusts them enough to give loans, even family members and relatives. Procuring loans from banks is a cumbersome and tedious process with too many conditions and requirements attached which they are unable to meet.
Even if they secure business capital somehow, they neither know how to invest nor have any business plans. As they don’t acquire skills to start any business nor are they taught entrepreneurial skills at any level, so they lack know-how about the technicalities of running a business. Approximately, 80 percent women fail even if they are able to start because they have no business plan or strategy and don’t even know the target buyers. Women also tend to work in isolation and don't register their businesses with the government or private organizations and chambers. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Women entrepreneurs are usually less organized and don’t maintain records and money trail which lands them in trouble in some situations.
Women SMEs very often lack information on basic regulations, policies or incentives that can improve their businesses. Currently, one of the major reasons why women businesses run by women do not grow is the lack of resources and policy-led guidance available.
Women entrepreneurs are usually taken for granted and people in the market presume they can fool them easily and get away with it. As compared to male entrepreneurs, females – especially those who come with no strong backgrounds and influence – are taken advantage of in many ways, like giving substandard material, etc. “You need to be big and cutthroat to run successfully a small business,” says Dr. Rakhshanda Perveen, an Islamabad based civic/social entrepreneur.
There are many businesses women run alongside their fathers, husbands or other family members, but there are very few women actually leading and running their own businesses, on their own. Problems are faced mostly by those who have no social backing due to structural patriarchy, as networking is more important than hard work.
That’s why very few women tend to start their own businesses. Majority of those in business, are in traditional areas like textile, jewelry, furniture and food industry. However, these days young women graduating from universities are coming in other sectors like IT, solar energy etc., as well.
Recently, women entrepreneurs with the help of other stakeholders came up with a Women National Business Agenda (WNBA) after thorough deliberations and consultations aimed at bringing women focused economic reforms. The WNBA, for which about 1500 women entrepreneurs gave their input, was focused on advocating steps for gender inclusive reforms in the following policy areas: SME Policy, Strategic Trade Policy Framework (STPF), Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) Policy for Trade Promotion and Facilitation, Finance Policy and Credit Guarantee Scheme for Credit Facilitation.
The movement led by Masooma Sibtain, former Vice President of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FPCCI), has already started to bear fruits after a year’s concerted efforts. It is being made sure that the new trade and SMEDA policies have included gender mainstreaming with measures for female entrepreneurs.
Refinance and Credit Guarantee Scheme for Women Entrepreneurs in Underserved Areas is another initiative made possible by the collective voice of women entrepreneurs. The scheme ensures various incentives for women entrepreneurs of underprivileged areas including loans on relaxed conditions on 5 % interest rate.
But there is a lot more that needs to be done. There is a need to provide incentives for women-owned start-ups to accelerate their growth and encourage them to be competitive with incumbent businesses. Women entrepreneurs also demand tax rebate for women owned startups (currently only technology startups are included in it). Women-owned startups may be given income tax and sales exemptions for an initial period of 3 years.
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) should simplify the requirements to access financial instruments, like the requirement of a guarantor for women businesses. It is also necessary to make loan application forms more accessible and legible.
SMEDA needs to work with provincial governments to establish Women Business Facilitation and Training Centers across all provinces and strengthen existing ones, for technical capacity building and skill development of women entrepreneurs. These centers will act as a common platform for knowledge sharing besides giving them hands on training to run their own small business.
There are some training centers run by the government but they don’t keep up with the emerging trends and demands. But different women chambers often do take initiatives to train women. Recently, Islamabad Women Chamber of Commerce trained about 300 women in rural areas of Sindh and Punjab about business development and strategies.
SMEDA also should create initiatives to encourage more women to participate in the economic system and start their businesses. It should prepare business guidelines for women entrepreneurs, both in English and Urdu language, with pictorial representations. It should publish business tool-kit targeting women entrepreneurs, which describes business registration process, tools and techniques to start and run a successful business.
The establishment of a toll-free SME Hotline, to provide speedy assistance on queries, will also be useful in addressing this issue, as currently accessing SMEDA officials for any queries is quite difficult.
Additionally, a business feasibility report for women-led startups at half the cost of men-led startups will help ease the technical and financial burden for women entrepreneurs.
Currently, there is no forum to address economic challenges specifically faced by women. The establishment of the Women Economic Council will ensure that issues and challenges faced by women are highlighted and addressed promptly.
Despite facing a lot of challenges, many Pakistani women are emerging victorious and making a mark by learning the art of entrepreneurship and climbing up the corporate ladder. Societies like Pakistan will have to take bold steps to encourage females so that they may play a constructive role in the economy. It is not possible without removing their problems, particularly related to incoherent, biased policies and patriarchal structures.HH
The writer is an Islamabad based journalist who writes about health, education and economy.
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