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Increasing margins

THE economic turmoil in Pakistan can be attributed to several reasons including, but not limited to, exclusive institutions and lack of equal opportunities, that have culminated in low productivity and low economic growth. Exclusivity coupled with lack of entrepreneurship, particularly for women, have resulted in the dearth of innovation, limiting investment by the richer segments in non-productive sectors.

Sustainable and inclusive development decrees that equal opportunities must be available for all irrespective of age, gender, religion, etc. Despite this realisation, policymakers have failed to effectively address the issue of gender disparity and financial inclusion, limiting the entrepreneurial potential of women in Pakistan.

With low levels of saving and investment, the primary focus of the majority of the population in Pakistan remains centred on seeking employment rather than creating job opportunities. In terms of entrepreneurship, Pakistan presents a dismal situation for women who toil away, employing their skills and talents for meagre daily wages, or for no pay.

According to the Labour Force Survey for 2020-21, only two per cent of employers in Pakistan are women, representing a mere 0.1pc of the total working female population. Eighteen per cent working women are own-account workers. A staggering majority of working women, around 60pc, are contributing family workers. Not only do these statistics raise alarm regarding the lack of female entrepreneurship, they also underscore the scarcity of decent work opportunities for women in Pakistan.

Digitalisation will give women easy access to markets.

However, these figures, though worrying, are not surprising, given that 70.5pc of these working women have never attended school and only 6.25pc have graduated with formal degrees. While training programnes are in place, those which are reserved for women focus primarily on skill provision such as tailoring, cooking, beauty parlour training, and so on. No counselling is provided on entrepreneurship. Lack of access to credit and/or initial capital prevents women from pursuing and creating decent work opportunities.

Additionally, the lack of options for safe and affordable transportation inhibits the capacity of women to engage in entrepreneurial activities. In Pakistan, a large part of female mobility is controlled — women need permission and an escort. While men have the cost-effective option to commute by motorbikes and bicycles, women either choose to stay at home, or remain dependent on males to accompany them due to cultural constraints. Commuting via public transport poses the risk of harassment, while travelling by rickshaws, Qingchis and cabs is becoming increasingly unaffordable. All this coupled with the atrociousness of the idea of a female travelling by Bykea keeps women restrained at home.

The sheer magnitude of the consequences of these problems mandates serious action from policymakers. Historically, the government has exerted fruitless effort in trying to raise tax revenues by burdening the salaried classes beyond its capacity, but has failed to implement more sustainable and productive ways to raise revenues. What better way is there to increase the tax base than to productively engage more than half the population confined at homes due to fear of harassment, burden of household responsibilities, lack of mobility, cultural norms, or lack of knowledge?

These constraints are not difficult to evade — digitalisation presents an optimum solution to the problem. With the advent of e-commerce forums, it is becoming increasingly crucial to provide digital access to women so they can engage in economic activities from the safety of their homes. To improve digital access for females, measures need to be taken to expand device ownership, internet access, as well as digital literacy. Currently, women in Pakistan remain disadvantaged across all three domains. Through digitalisation, women will have easy access to markets and better knowledge of opportunities for innovation and growth.

Enhancing the accessibility of digital financial services for women is also imperative. In 2022, only 8pc of bank account holders were female, with very few women familiar with digital payment methods. Microfinancing, while available, has only had limited impact on female entrepreneurship since women often borrow on behalf of male relatives. Hence, better regulation and digital payment awareness are crucial to enhancing women’s access to financial services, which can in turn lead to increased female entrepreneurship.

In a nutshell, digital and financial inclusion are the cornerstones of decent work opportunities for women in Pakistan.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad. The views are the writer’s own and do not reflect the SDPI’s position.

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