How One Woman Redefined the Economic Space for Women in Pakistan

Submitted by: Tsega Belachew on 01/28/14

Editor's Note: This post was written by by Sarra Latif, Fall 2013 Associate with the Ashoka Venture and Fellowship Team. Do not forget to sign up to recieve updates from Ashoka Pakistan. Catch up with the latest here.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, only 14.3% of women in the country participate in the labor force. Lack of social and financial support and restrictions imposed on access and mobility serve as major obstacles for women who want to pursue fulfilling careers. In this landscape, Sabiha Ghani has been a game changer who has redefined the economic space for women in her community. She has fostered initiative and independence by founding the Women Development Foundation Pakistan (WDFP) which supports hundreds of women in starting their own business ventures.

A Path For Women from Home-Based Work to Entering the Formal Market

Sabiha’s journey as a social entrepreneur began in a school where she taught. She decided to supply uniforms to the students as a means to enhance equality and social cohesion. This was also a great opportunity to connect women who were home-based workers to the consumer market. Her business model was simple. She attained basic workspace and startup capital of $47, assigned the marketing role to a colleague, used word of mouth for referrals to her outlet, and mobilized home-based workers in her area. With a lot of determination, and only few resources, Sabiha was surprised by how well the venture took off. In no time she was able to recruit the women on permanent basis and her model was being replicated across the city including women in the formal market in their community.

Involving Men and Community Support is Key

While Sabiha had achieved her first goal of creating a sustainable business model for supplying uniforms to schools by engaging the women who were home-based producers, she recognized that income generation alone would not empower women. The existing lack of support from their families and community was a major barrier to success. To address this issue, Sabiha introduced a novel approach where men would be included as equal partners in women’s development. She met with worker’s husbands and garnered their support by highlighting the value women entrepreneurs were adding not only to their households, but to the community. She persuaded men to participate in the businesses by filling roles that were oftentimes challenging for women, such as sales. Sabiha understood that direct involvement in the ventures would allow men to see and respect the technical expertise and business acumen of their wives. Over time, men began taking pride in their work and had increased trust and confidence in the women’s ability. This, in turn, allowed women higher decision making power and more freedom to take their businesses to the public realm.

Building Technical Skill-sets of Women Entrepreneurs

Now that Sabiha had paved the path for women’s engagement in the formal marketplace, she knew that women had to be equipped for the challenges that came with it. For this purpose, WDFP conducted numerous workshops to provide marketing advice, skill development and financial assistance. Simultaneously, the network of women entrepreneurs were connected with service providers so that their personal needs such as legal aid, health, education and daycare services could be met. Finding and fitting together the pieces for overall wellbeing, the women were provided with the ideal conditions for their businesses to thrive.

Sabiha has played a critical role in the social evolution of her community. For the first time, women are able to step out of their houses to implement their business ideas. Once they were exposed to the entrepreneurial world, there was no looking back. From boutiques to schools to banking, these women became the owners of their destiny. After the success of her work in Karachi, Sabiha has expanded the program to other parts of the country. WDFP has partnered with numerous individuals and organizations to provide skill development trainings and education on microenterprise to socially disadvantaged women. Furthermore, over 30 women are supported each year to start off their own business ventures.

Changing Societal Norms by Engaging Culture and Tradition

Currently, Sabiha is working on two projects; one aims to enhance access to education among young girls while the other aims to elevate their social status within marriages. The underlying premise is to challenge the conventional notion that women are economically unproductive and thus a financial burden on the household. Through education, Sabiha hopes that women will be better equipped to demand their economic rights. She also provides financial assistance for wedding ceremonies on the condition that both partners undergo specific medical testing and partake pre-marriage counseling. In a country with a tradition of arranged marriages, the model is first of its kind in that it allows women to assess their marital compatibility with future partners alongside exercising their health rights.

Sabiha’s key to success has been her ability to use innovative approaches to engage and solve traditional social issues. Her approach to tweak the system to accelerate the movement for women empowerment enjoys support from both men and women of the community. Moving forward, Sabiha aims to connect women entrepreneurs to the export economy. By institutionalizing social entrepreneurship, her goal is to attain support of state institutions and the corporate sector. Her recipe for change is to continuously adapting to hurdles along the way. When asked about her message for other entrepreneurs, she said

“Change yourself and you will change the world around you. Take initiative! You will face challenges, and there you will have to make tough decisions- and these alone will take you to the limits of success”.

Having taken on changemaking by directly engaging the school community she worked with, she shows how you can focus on what you have and who you are to bring about change in your community.

image credit: Flickr