IN a recent piece, we highlighted the role that women can play in boosting Pakistan’s productivity, and the sociocultural, safety and financial barriers that stop them from joining the workforce. The more interesting and challenging question is how to change this situation and help Pakistan fully achieve its potential.

Much of the current thinking around encouraging women’s economic participation centres around providing skills training and financial incentives. Lessons from Pakistan and around the world tell us that neither is sufficient alone. Experience with skills training offered by the Punjab Skills Development Fund between 2013 and 2016 indicates that business income increases with skills training, but the increase is manifold when trained women are also linked with sales agents. Similarly, grants and loans may be provided to women, but women often have little control over the use of those funds. When the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) converted to biometric verification for disbursement of funds, women were more likely to collect their cash personally (rather than it be collected in their name by another household member) and, as a result, had a greater say in how the funds were to be used.

Changing cultural norms around female breadwinners is tough, but not impossible. Provision of safe and affordable transport is one example of a policy working around a prevalent norm. Evidence of how much safety considerations can constrain female mobility comes from a recent study evaluating a subsidised skills training programme in Punjab. They found women were four times less likely to complete training if they needed to travel outside the village boundary for it.

In India, peer support systems allowed women to learn from each other and feel safer in moving about the community. In Saudi Arabia, men revised their own views about women’s work when they were given credible information about more favourable views held by their peers. Recent evidence from Pakistan, on the other hand, suggests it may be possible to shift attitudes around working women using even softer nudges, for example, by introducing women to other women role models. Since the percentage of women in the workforce declines proportionately with increasing income, this also suggests that efforts to keep women in the workforce need to be put in place across higher income quintiles to foster a change in sociocultural behaviour.

Shifting to a culture that values women’s economic participation will take time.

Yet in the lowest income group, where 24 per cent of women work to augment household income, these women do not fully benefit financially from their work due to lack of skills, low wages and gender disparities. Encouraging women borrowers from these vulnerable households to put loans to productive use could reap significant development gains. It could also be a mechanism to help increase household income and shift mindsets in the immediate term, than trying to tackle gender wage disparities or encouraging formal work at low-income quintile levels, which is administratively fraught with difficulty.

Drawing on Pakistan-specific and available literature, we suggest that the following areas are prioritised.

First, all financial institutions (from banks to microcredit) that provide loans need to put in place gender-related Key Performance Indictors. These KPIs need to be realistic and take into account different sociocultural conditions across the provinces. Yet they need to be monitored and adjusted upwards over time. Ideally, this could be coordinated through the creation of a gender-related advisory committee within the Planning Commission and Ministry of Finance, which could recommend appropriate KPIs, in line with a future vision for Pakistan. These KPIs, in turn, would need to be monitored, publically disseminated and enforced by the State Bank of Pakistan, in line with its regulatory function.

This will help to diagnose the effectiveness of current programmes in achieving their stated objectives. Several well-intentioned public training and financial initiatives have met limited success in promoting women’s economic participation. For instance, men outnumber female applicants for the PM’s Youth Programme by nearly five to one, despite a stated preference to encourage economic participation by women.

Second, with a focus on the most vulnerable households, financial institutions need to develop products to attract more female borrowers, particularly from low-income groups. They also need to design disbursal methods (such as the BISP biometric verification scheme) that reduces misappropriation of women’s funds.

Third, academic institutions and NGOs need to reduce the stigma of a female breadwinner in target communities through information interventions, exposure to role models, and promotion of discussions (via media campaigns and college-based programmes) that discourage gender discrimination.

Fourth, public and private organisations need to implement transport-related initiatives that help increase mobility and allay safety concerns for women, so they can participate more fully in training and/or in the labour force. This could be through the development and offer of new and improved transportation options for women, including group transportation from schools, offices, factories, etc.

Fifth, professional and academic institutions need to encourage the development and implementation of skills training and mentoring programmes specifically for women. This includes encouraging interaction among working women for information and skill sharing, as well as a support system and market linkages to reduce barriers to their mobility.

Six, businesses need to formulate and implement gender-inclusiveness policies. This could include gender KPIs across corporations but also the provision of childcare services to retain women in the workforce, and ensuring equal wages for equal work.

These measures could be implemented right away by government institutions, the private sector and civil society organisations. Over time, results will need to be monitored, measures adjusted for greater impact, and ultimately cemented through legislation and regulation.

Shifting to a culture that values women’s economic participation will take time. In Malaysia, a concerted policy effort for the development of women put in place in the 1990s was particularly effective in increasing female employment. The Quaid pointed out the importance of the role of women even before Pakistan came into existence. But we fall very short after 75 years. Could we achieve the Quaid’s vision, of a nation at its height of glory with women side by side with men, in time for Pakistan’s 100th birthday?

Kulsum Ahmed is the director of Integrated Learning Means and an honorary fellow at the Consortium for Development Policy Research. Farah Said is an associate director at the Mahbub ul Haq Research Centre and an assistant professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This article draws from research funded by the International Growth Centre.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2022

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