Shaista Bukhari

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2008
This description of Shaista Bukhari's work was prepared when Shaista Bukhari was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .


Recognizing the link between domestic violence and economic insecurity, Shaista Bukhari is helping women in Pakistan’s region of Punjab to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Through her Women Rights Association, she provides access to social capital, networking opportunities, business trainings, and other resources, while encouraging participants to come up with innovative ideas for new ventures. She then works with women to identify and select a market niche, develop products, and create partnerships for the purchase of raw materials and distribution. To deepen the impact for women socially, she integrates gender-related concepts with entrepreneurship. She has developed an inclusive and supportive network to provide lasting support, which includes men and family members.

The New Idea

Shaista helps women in the socially conservative and male-dominated region of Southern Punjab to engage in entrepreneurial development; providing them with the skills and social capital they need to become financially independent. Based on her experiences growing up in the region and later as a small-scale businesswoman, Shaista realized that providing women with a source of economic independence was a powerful way to reduce their susceptibility to domestic violence. Highlighting the connection between financial autonomy and women’s rights, Shaista couples the trainings with legal and counseling services. Since restrictions on the mobility of women in the region is a leading barrier to engaging them in skills trainings, Shaista established an informal school to teach young women and girls. In her program, Hunarmund (skillful), students learn both basic skills and Micro Business Entrepreneurship. Her business development package assists women to identify and select a market niche, develop products, and create partnerships for the purchase of raw materials, and the sale and distribution of their finished products. When necessary, group members take on large production orders together, to demonstrate their competitiveness. She pairs her trainings with free legal services and information on women’s rights. In an effort to secure their recognition outside the home, she partners with several national and international women’s development networks—including the popular “We Can” campaign against violence against women. Such efforts have been instrumental to enhance their status in the home and provide participants with the necessary protection to expand their work. Shaista’s business trainings have not only helped inspire confidence and self-sufficiency among women, but have also effectively changed the attitudes of men in the community. She opened her trainings to male students at the local university, and through partnerships with local religious leaders, works to encourage men to support their wives and daughters.

The Problem

The Women Rights Association (WRA) is based in Multan, a city in southern Punjab. The region is socially conservative and ultra-religious; women have endured systemic subordination and a long history of gender-based segregation. Purdah, the practice of preventing men from seeing women—thereby confining women to their homes—has created a sharp division of labor. Women are expected to fulfill reproductive roles as mothers and wives, with men in productive work roles as breadwinners and public figures. Because women are considered the “food-makers” rather than the “food-earners,” they are denied the opportunity to start a venture and nurture it into a successful business.

Though education rates among young women have risen, they still have considerable difficulty finding employment. Thus, due to a perceived low-return on their educational investment, families are discouraged from educating their daughters. Moreover, women receive considerably lower pay than their male counterparts, and typically lack the potential for upward mobility. Information gaps and poor networking further hinders women’s entrepreneurial activities: Women are often unaware of modern marketing concepts and market availability; they encounter obstacles due to a lack of mobility, and have limited access to networks.

Women’s secondary status makes them especially vulnerable to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. For example, a Jirga (court) of local elders sanctioned the gang rape of a young woman in the outskirts of Multan, following allegations from a rival family about her brother’s illicit relationships. Indeed, violence against women has become the norm, rather than the exception. But despite such problems, very few organizations are focused on women’s issues, and fewer confront violence against women.

The Strategy

Having participated in numerous training and management programs on entrepreneurship and small business development, Shaista designed her curriculum using the help and insights of various national and international skills training organizations, including the South Asia Partnership. Over time, she developed her own training formats to cater to the specific needs of various women’s groups. Through these existing partnerships and others with various sales associations and artisanal networks, Shaista helps participants maximize their marketability, and sell their products to previously unavailable clients. The women specialize in producing Multani khussa, block printing, food products, jute bags, blue pottery, handicrafts, and hand embroidery bed sheets. By establishing links between participants and other entrepreneurs, the women have been able to refine their products to meet market demand.

Since limited mobility is a key barrier to women’s involvement in social and educational programs, Shaista established an informal school to offer both basic education and a skills training program. She convinced local mosques and prayer leaders that women’s involvement in business activities is not a violation of Islamic teachings and has had considerable support from men in the community. After securing interviews in local newspapers and radio stations, she received a significant number of inquiries from men about how they could participate.

Shaista has partnered with a number of lawyers, social workers, psychology students, and citizen organizations to provide free legal and counseling services to participants who suffer from domestic violence and other related rights violations. In an effort to strengthen the level of legal awareness in Multan and across the region, Shaista has conducted several intensive paralegal trainings; guiding participants about ways to spread awareness. She has made a concerted effort to involve the WRA in the “We Can” campaign against violence against women, giving participants a public place to have their voices heard.

While Shaista works primarily with women from poor families, she also reaches out to councilors of city government and teachers, enhancing the overall ripple effect created by each training. She selects between 20 and 35 women each year from different Union Councils—local governing bodies throughout Pakistan—and provides them with networking opportunities and the latest information regarding product marketing. To strengthen quality-management and recordkeeping, she has created a database to maintain their records. By pairing skilled women with the local Women Chamber of Commerce and related financial institutions, they have gained national and international exposure, calling into question prevailing attitudes toward women.

There are now more than 325 graduates of the program, and Shaista has trained an additional 200 community members to serve as master trainers in Micro Business Entrepreneurship. In next five years, Shaista will establish a model women’s super-market for female entrepreneurs in Multan and adjoining areas, and expand into other similarly conservative regions.

The Person

Shaista was born and raised in Multan. Her father died while she was in college, leaving her family under considerable financial duress. Shaista was urged to get married as soon as possible, so she accepted the proposal of a man twenty years her senior. After five months of marriage, her husband suddenly passed away. When her mother-in-law blamed her for his death, Shaista was left without any share of her husband’s property, and no legal resources to turn to.

At this point she realized the importance of economic independence in conservative societies like southern Punjab. She returned home, and after several months of looking for work, she acquired a contract managing the canteen at a local school. The rewarding experience of running the canteen gave Shaista confidence, and she began to work with local crafts-women. She organized a group of these women and founded a business for embroidering clothes. Her experience working with the women taught her that economic independence was also a significant means of reducing a women’s susceptibility to domestic violence: A lesson that ultimately led her to found the Women Rights Association in 1999. She credits the unconditional support of her brother and sisters for enabling her to overcome the difficulties of establishing a progressive organization in such an environment.

Shaista later took a training course with the Social Development and Policy Institute, Pakistan’s leading non-governmental social research institute. She conducted research and surveys to validate her hypothesis that a leading cause of the high domestic violence rates in southern Punjab and other socially conservative regions had to do with women’s economic dependency. This finding led WRA to design strategies to financially empower poor women living in and on the outskirts of Multan, and through economic independence enhance their social status.