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Empowering rural women through entrepreneurship

Updated June 10, 2019

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Rs7 million has been saved over the last three years in seven union councils of Tando Allahyar by around 300 groups. — Shiza Malik/File
Rs7 million has been saved over the last three years in seven union councils of Tando Allahyar by around 300 groups. — Shiza Malik/File

Belonging to a farming community in Sindh, Kaiser Bheel stepped out of her house to work for a non-profit organisation. In her early 20s, Ms Bheel is a community facilitator for the Research and Development Foundation (RDF). Her job entails convincing rural women to save a certain amount each month, even if it’s Rs10, and utilise it for their own betterment.

“I was married when I was 15 and studying in 9th grade,” she recalls. Her mother-in-law disapproved of the idea of Ms Bheel opting to dress for work in an urban environment instead of the community’s traditional dress of ghaghra (frock like dress of Bheel, Kohli and Meghwar community’s women). But Ms Bheel insisted and with her husband’s support was able to prevail.

Under the RDF’s programme, facilitators advise women to form groups to pool money which provides capital for their ventures. The idea is to help women obtain a degree of autonomy to share their male counterpart’s financial burden.

Once a few thousand rupees are collected, the amount acts as a revolving fund offered to any member of the group which generally comprises 10 to 12 women. Each group member can avail the loan facility to start a small-scale enterprise such as a grocery shop, buy a goat for rearing or sell edibles.

Rs7 million has been saved over the last three years in seven union councils of Tando Allahyar by around 300 groups comprising 4,500 women

The borrower repays the debt in instalments while also contributing her savings for the group’s pool so that other women can obtain loans as well.

“Women initially didn’t find it attractive but after multiple counselling sessions, the mindsets began to change. Many females are now a part of it. The purpose is to bring about social change, though on a smaller scale, in rural settings,” said RDF’s Executive Director Ashfaq Soomro.

Through this system, about Rs7 million has been saved over the last three years in seven union councils of Tando Allahyar by around 300 groups comprising of 4,500 women overall. No discrepancies have been reported so far.

Community facilitators like Ms Bheel receive training and a stipend of Rs12,000 from Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist).

A report by the non-profit organisation Social Policy and Development Centre stated that 74 per cent of working women were part of the farm sector in 2009 but were not covered under labour laws. This indicates that rural women are a disadvantaged position.

Women of all ages work in fields, especially as cotton pickers, and have to bear hazardous conditions to supplement the family income. Livestock rearing comes completely under their purview though they face issues of insanitation, easy access to clean drinking water and food insecurity.

These are some of the reasons that women in Pakistan ranked second to last, after Yemen, in the Global Gender Gap Report, 2018. Women constitute of 49pc of Pakistan’s population but make up only 24pc of its labour force.

Only 16pc of women who are part of the formal economy have control over the use of money compared to 44pc of men while less than 20pc of women have a say over household assets or spending, according to a report by Financial Inclusion Insights.

Other than RDF, there are other initiatives seeking to empower women through entrepreneurial ventures. Fatima Arshad, assistant manager communications of a multi-national consumer goods company speaks of one such project that aims to enhance income of disadvantaged females.

Once a few thousand rupees are collected, the amount acts as a revolving fund offered to any member of the group who can then use it to start a small-scale enterprise such as a grocery shop, buy a goat for rearing or sell edibles

Since 2016, 3,200 have been trained under the programme that enables them to run small-scale businesses across Pakistan. The majority are concentrated in Punjab with 1,500 women working there, followed by Sindh that has 1,200 women and lastly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that employs 500 women as part of the project.

Out of these 3,200 women, 1,680 women were trained in December 2018 and January 2019 in collaboration with the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN). This group of women gets incentives for selling company products door to door. Women earn up to Rs20,000-Rs40,000 from products they sell. Many opened their own shops when the company added personal, food and homecare products to diversify their businesses.

Initially, the programme trained over 2,000 younger rural women as salon experts and small scale home business-owner. However, an older age group was later preferred as those who trained as beauticians didn’t start their enterprises for reasons such as family’s refusals to let them work or they got married.

“Using their training, women are now fast building up their businesses that is enabling villagers to become brand conscious. This in turn increases demands for their products,” said Ms Arshad.

“Buyers are generally women, mostly looking for personal care solutions and household items like creams, shampoo, detergents, soaps etc. And involvement of a social partner like RSPN is

helping women build capacity and confidence”, she observed.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 10th, 2019