Sabiha combats discrimination against women by nurturing their business ventures, empowering women to spearhead economic growth in their communities as they foster their own initiative and independence.
The New Idea
Sabiha promotes business entrepreneurship among poor women who have traditionally relied on men to lead community development efforts. She offers these women a package of services, including business training, marketing advice, and financing that helps them to take full advantage of opportunities for business development. She organizes neighborhood-level women’s groups to help members support each other as workers and entrepreneurs, and she brings these groups into contact with a wide range of financial and social services. Through networking and continuous education, Sabiha helps women entrepreneurs grow their own businesses.
Sabiha links health and family planning services with education and business development to set in motion a sustainable community-level development movement—one that includes men in the process rather than competing with them. As women begin to earn an income, Sabiha helps them find a firm but collaborative voice in making decisions related to family planning, children’s education, and health issues. Her success in business promotion and social development enable Sabiha to expand her programs throughout Karachi and its neighbors.
Sabiha links health and family planning services with education and business development to set in motion a sustainable community-level development movement – one that includes men in the process rather than competing with them. As women begin to earn an income, Sabiha helps them find a firm but collaborative voice in making decisions related to family planning, children’s education, and health issues. Her success in business promotion and social development enable Sabiha to expand her programs throughout Karachi and its neighbors.
Pakistani society values women’s role in reproduction more than it does their role in production. Poor families invest in the initiatives of males, expecting men to secure income and resources while women stay at home. Women who desire to contribute to family income—or to meet their own financial needs—face challenges including lack of education, stigma and limited options for transportation. Women who do work receive lower wages, confront harassment, and find little social support for their efforts. In urban areas, large numbers of women work in garment factories, but they face harsh working conditions and unstable income.
Mountains of obstacles stand in the way of women who want to operate a sustainable business or choose and build a rewarding career. Among these, the most unshakable is an almost absolute lack of access to financial, legal, or business development services.Poor women desperately need these services to initiate careers, improve their livelihoods, and lessen their vulnerability. Existing services that serve women, like the First Women Bank Ltd. or the many craft training centers run by charity organizations, struggle to attract women from poor neighborhoods.
Sabiha runs the Lyari Community Development Project (LCDP) to provide poor women comprehensive systems of support for their business ventures. She began working at the LCDP as a volunteer in their women’s wing, but creativity and enterprise soon brought her into the group’s lead role. In 1987, she founded a stitching center where women could produce school uniforms at competitive prices for the local market. She put together a team of women who could sew, employed a full-time designer and cutter, and approached the market for orders. She persuaded the LCDP to provide space and a small loan to start the business and agreed to launch a training program that would reach additional women. While the business was and is successful, it taught women that most women were too preoccupied with other worries to be able to commit to full-time entrepreneurial work.
To address these worries, Sabiha incorporated family planning and development into her training programs on business development. She tied discussions on financial success to success in other spheres, including health care and children’s education, and helped women toward a healthy reframing of their lives based on new identities as entrepreneurs. She focused on expanding business training programs instead of microcredit programs, since these were already available from other organizations. To finance the ventures, she approached the newly established First Women Bank Ltd. and persuaded them to open a branch in Lyari, where she, as marketing manager, set up banking and financial services for the poor women of Lyari.
Drawing from these roots, Sabiha’s current work with women remains simple but powerful. When entering a new area, she invites women to a meeting to discuss family problems. Sabiha then introduces the LCDP and begins discussions on how to resolve the problems, highlighting the strengths of her suite of business development services. She recruits women who want to earn income and learn new skills, and enrolls them in a business creation workshop. When cautious women are unsure of how to proceed, Sabiha tells them to go to the market and seek out demand. She guides them in creating a market survey, and the women eventually decide what business they would like to pursue. Sabiha then guides her budding entrepreneurs in finding out the answers to classic questions like to whom they should sell, how to finance their venture, and how much of the price to keep.
This approach has helped over a thousand women in Lyari to set up businesses. Sabiha is now shifting her focus to assist women in the rural areas of Sindh province. Her ability to speak in the local language of the women is a key to the success of this new endeavor. The women of Sindh find most of the information that is available on business development inaccessible because of the language barrier. Language barriers also make them hesitant to go to the market and to ask for needed information. For this reason, Sabiha designs her centers to bring business development services—continuous training and education, marketing advice, and quality production and monitoring techniques—to women’s doorsteps, allowing them to begin doing business on their own terms.
Sabiha chooses roughly 35 business ventures to incubate each year, and this number is rapidly growing. Her immediate aim is to expand her work in Karachi, in Sindh, and to the areas of Balochistan near Karachi. She is now seeking to build an outlet store that brings together products from LCDP business ventures, and to unite these projects under a strong brand name.
Sabiha comes from an enterprising community in Memons. Her father was a leading figure in the community and her uncle was one of the pioneers of self-help development work in Lyari. Combining family inspirations with her own interest, she started to volunteer for LCDP, and quickly found herself devoted to its projects for female empowerment. Since the late 1980s, Sabiha has been the head of the women’s wing of LCDP, serving the organization in many ways.
Sabiha married late in life, waiting to find a person who would help her in her work rather than restrict her. She considers herself to be in a mid-career stage, gaining speed in order to jump orbit and scale up her work.