Women’s economic empowerment prerequisite

“We make our own destinies,” Shamim Akhtar, Pakistan’s first commercial truck driver said. “If I had sat at home, I would have had no future. I worked hard to get this far,” she added. “You just need courage and confidence to remove barriers and hurdles from your way to prove yourself,” she said, adding that from dishwashing to truck driving, the journey had been long and really strange, but now everyone encourages her. The 53-year-old single mother said that it was imperative to empower women in all sectors of life so that they could be economically independent in their lives. Her work is grueling too, seeing how her journeys also involve her transporting 7,000 bricks from a factory in Rawalpindi to AJK, a distance of 200 km between the two destinations. as a truck driver, a job that earned her as much as Rs. 1,000 per trip.

“If I have to change my life, I must begin with myself. I am not going to accept defeat, I will fight, and there is no looking back now,” Shamim Akhtar further said.

“It wouldn’t work if I left the house thinking that I’m a woman. To compete with men, I had to be like a man,” said Zahida, Pakistan’s first female taxi driver. In 1992, Zahida became Pakistan’s first female taxi driver. Now, aged 56 and with a seven-year-old daughter to raise, she is still fighting to make a living on the dusty roads of Rawalpindi. “My life is one big struggle,” she reflects.


As for Sajjad’s wife, 35-year old Ayesha Naeem, mother of four, she is loving all the attention she gets on the road. With her youngest, a year-and-a-half daughter tucked in a baby carrier harnessed to her chest and her older three behind her, she surfs around town enjoying the thumbs-up and smiles she gets from passersby. She not only drops and picks her kids to and from the school and madrasah every day but also does all the groceries herself now.

“Before I learnt to ride the bike, I would take a rickshaw. The minimum fare I’d spend was Rs100 in a day; today we fill the bike for Rs500 and it lasts us a good 15 days!” says Mrs. Naeem.

24-year-old Nimra Saleem, working as a graphic designer in a software company in Lahore, continues to face a volley of “catcalls” but remains undeterred. “It does not weigh me down; it is pervasive in our society and whether you are in your private car, using public transport, you will have to face this the moment you step out of your home,” she points out helplessly.

Pakistan is no different where women’s mobility outside the home is severely restricted by both social norms and legitimate safety concerns. A study states that 78% of women in Karachi “experienced sexual harassment or felt harassed or uncomfortable.”

At least 50% of the world’s women are in paid wage and salary employment, but Women earn 24% less than men for the same work.

Based on UN’s current estimates, Pakistan ranked number 6 in the world with a population 204.60 billion; which is equivalent to 2.65% of the total world population.

Percentage-wise, males form 51%, female 48.76% and transgender 0.24% of the total population. The gap between the male and female ratio among the population is also increasing. The gender ratio for the whole country stands at 105.07, which means that there are 105 men for 100 women in Pakistan.


0-14 years: 31.36% (male 33,005,623/female 31,265,463)

15-24 years: 21.14% (male 22,337,897/female 20,980,455)

25-54 years: 37.45% (male 39,846,417/female 36,907,683)

55-64 years: 5.57% (male 5,739,817/female 5,669,495)

65 years and over: 4.48% (male 4,261,917/female 4,910,094)

Looking at gender-wise table, it is quite amazing to see a huge number young males and females. According to National Human Development Report (NHDR) report launched by UNDP Pakistan currently has the largest population of young people ever recorded in its history.

However, the Human Development Index (HDI) is pathetic for both males and females.The HDI is a summary measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. A long and healthy life is measured by life expectancy. Knowledge level is measured by mean years of education among the adult population, which is the average number of years of education received in a life-time by people aged 25 years and older; and access to learning and knowledge by expected years of schooling for children of school-entry age, which is the total number of years of schooling a child of school-entry age can expect to receive if prevailing patterns of age-specific enrolment rates stay the same throughout the child’s life. Standard of living is measured by Gross National Income (GNI) per capita expressed in constant 2011 international dollars converted using purchasing power parity (PPP) conversion rates.

The Gender Development Index (GDI) which is based on the sex-disaggregated Human Development Index, defined as a ratio of the female to the male HDI.The GDI is calculated for 164 countries. The 2017 female HDI value for Pakistan is 0.465 in contrast with 0.620 for males, resulting in a GDI value of 0.750, placing it into Group 5. In comparison, GDI values for Bangladesh and India are 0.881 and 0.841 respectively.

Table: Pakistan’s GDI for 2017 relative to selected countries and groups
Life Expectancy
at birth
Expected years
of schooling
Mean years
of schooling
GNI per capita HDI values F-M
Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Male GDI value
Pakistan 67.7 65.6 7.8 9.3 3.8 6.5 1,642 8,786 0.465 0.620 0.750
Bangladesh 74.6 71.2 11.7 11.3 5.2 6.7 2,041 5,285 0.567 0.644 0.881
India 70.4 67.3 12.9 11.9 4.8 8.2 2,722 9,729 0.575 0.683 0.841
South Asia 70.9 67.8 12.1 11.7 5.0 8.0 2,694 10,035 0.571 0.682 0.837
Medium HDI 71.1 67.2 12.2 11.8 5.6 7.9 3,673 9,906 0.598 0.680 0.878

Economic empowerment is the capacity of women and men to participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth processes in ways which recognise the value of their contributions, respect their dignity and make it possible to negotiate a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth.

Economic empowerment increases women’s access to economic resources and opportunities including jobs, financial services, property and other productive assets, skills development and market information. Women’s economic participation and empowerment are fundamental to strengthening women’s rights and enabling women to have control over their lives and exert influence in society. It is about creating just and equitable societies. Women often face discrimination and persistent gender inequalities, with some women experiencing multiple discrimination and exclusion because of factors such as ethnicity or caste.


The economic empowerment of women is a prerequisite for sustainable development, pro-poor growth and the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Gender equality and empowered women are catalysts for multiplying development efforts. Investments in gender equality yield the highest returns of all development investments. Women usually invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men.

Women perform 66% of the world’s work, and produce 50% of the food, yet earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property. Whether the issue is improving education in the developing world, or fighting global climate change, or addressing nearly any other challenge we face, empowering women is a critical part of the equation.

Increasing the role of women in the economy is part of the solution to the financial and economic crises and critical for economic resilience and growth. However, at the same time, we need to be mindful that women are in some contexts bearing the costs of recovering from the crisis, with the loss of jobs, poor working conditions and increasing precariousness.

It will never be a ’quick fix’. Issues relating to women’s economic empowerment are particularly challenging or sensitive. These challenges need to be acknowledged and discussed. It will take sound policies, a holistic approach and long-term commitment from all development actors to achieve women’s economic empowerment

None of the MDGs will be achieved unless there is greater equality between males and females and increased empowerment of females. There are four key areas which will have the multiplier effects.

  1. Financial Empowerment

Females typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men. But they need access to the full range of credit, banking and financial services and facilities essential to more fully develop their assets, their land and their businesses. Their economic participation and their ownership and control of productive assets speeds up development, helps overcome poverty, reduces inequalities and improves children’s nutrition, health, and school attendance

  1. Girls Education

There are evidences that with few years of primary education, women have better economic prospects, population control, healthier children and pf course better chances of sending their own children to school. If girls’ education continues to secondary level, they will be better equipped to make informed choices about their lives.

  1. Family Planning

In Pakistan, one girl in seven marries before the age of 15. Almost 10% of girls become mothers by the age of 16, with the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Pregnancy and child birth are the biggest causes of death. By investing more in family planning, as many as 9 per cent of under 5 deaths in developing countries could be avoided by increasing the spacing between births. Likewise would have lower fertility rates reduce poverty

  1. What could be done?

To achieve the MDGs, it is important to:

  • Make public financial management systems work for women
  • Confront and overcome the cultural and social norms that hold back women and girls
  • Put voluntary family planning back on the development agenda
  • Gather evidence about what works
  • Collect and use sex-disaggregated data
  • Accurately track the proportion and coverage of aid focused on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Reaching the poorest of the poor and women in remote communities


Evidence suggests that the aspects of women’s economic empowerment and tend towards approaches such as micro-credit schemes or supporting women entrepreneurs who would have been successful anyway.

The challenge is to reach poor women who are landless laborers, small holder agricultural producers, cross-border traders and factory and domestic workers and ensure that these women have access to the opportunities and benefits of economic growth and trade. There are specific challenges when working with the poorest women such as:

  • Lower levels of literacy;
  • Lower levels of access to and control over resources;
  • Lower levels of access to networks and people who can assist and support; and
  • Greater vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse at the community level, if not the household level.
Micro Finance

It is often considered as an instrument that promotes empowerment. Whilst it can stabilize livelihoods, broaden choices, provide start-up funds for productive investment, help poor people to smooth consumption flows and send children to school, it can also lead to indebtedness and increased exclusion unless programs are well-designed. Providing supplementary services – such as training, working through groups rather than individuals, or alongside other investments in awareness raising – has been shown to increase women’s direct control over resources.


To increase women’s income-generating activities from survival level into strong and viable businesses, women need access to the full range of credit, banking and financial services and facilities, essential to fully develop their productive assets, their land and their businesses. Banks in developing countries often have conservative lending practices. Consequently, small women-owned businesses face difficulties accessing the credit needed to invest in expanding their activities. Innovative interventions have encouraged the finance sector to deliver gender-responsive products

Comprehensive approach

Women’s economic empowerment, social and political factors have a significant influence on women’s ability to participate in the economy. These include: access to family planning and other healthcare services:

Social protection coverage:
  • Girls’ completion of a quality post-primary education.
  • Improving literacy rates of adult women.
  • Increasing women’s influence in governance structures and political decision-making.

Many of these dimensions are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Cultural barriers, including discriminatory practices and attitudes, also need to be actively identified and tackled.

Culture and tradition:

In all countries, expectations about attributes and behaviours appropriate to women or men are shaped by culture, tradition and history. The general pattern is that women have less personal autonomy, fewer resources at their disposal, and limited influence over the decision-making processes that shape their societies and their own lives.

Education and training:

Educating girls is one of the most powerful tools for women’s empowerment. Education provides women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence they need to seek out economic opportunities. Removing school fees and providing financial incentives for girls to attend school have proven to be effective for increasing girls’ enrolment and completion rates. Key measures include building schools close to remote communities, ensuring that schools have quality teachers – both female and male – and adequate sanitary facilities, and that they are safe places for girls. Well-designed vocational training leads to better paid work, and does not concentrate women in low-wage and low-skill work or reinforce occupational segregation between women and men.


Reproductive and sexual health:

Improving women’s health strengthens their economic empowerment. Access to sexual and reproductive information and services (including information about HIV transmission) and reduced rates of early marriages, increase women’s chances of finishing education and breaking out of poverty. Access to health services can be improved by reducing user costs, providing transport and strengthening the accountability of service providers.

Sharing the care:

Balancing maternity and family responsibilities with work is a daunting challenge. Unpaid care contributes to economic growth through a labour force that is fit, productive and capable of learning and creativity but it also drains the market of its (female) work force. The care economy and its economic value need to become much more important elements in debates within the international development community.

Public Financial Management (PFM):

PFM covers a country’s entire budget cycle from strategic planning to audit oversight. To support women’s economic empowerment, it is essential to incorporate a gender equality perspective into PFM systems. Gender-responsive PFM ensures that resources are efficiently allocated based on identified needs, and revenues and expenditures are structured to benefit both women and men.

Social protection:

Social protection enhances the capacity of poor and vulnerable people to escape from poverty and to better manage risks and shocks. Social protection measures include social insurance, cash transfers and minimum labour standards.

Cash transfers:

Cash transfers are an effective means of combating poverty. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) provide mothers of school age children in extreme poverty with a cash subsidy conditional on children’s attendance at school and health clinics. Well-designed CCTs may give women a steady source of income and encourage a more equitable sharing of caring responsibilities within the household. Otherwise, CCTs can risk increasing women’s time burden and reinforcing existing gender divisions of labour where fathers are not involved in child-rearing responsibilities.Simply targeting women may risk entrenching existing gender inequalities and increase vulnerability.

Trade policies:

Opening up trade opportunities so that they benefit women remains a challenge. Trade liberalisation and the changing characteristics of economic activity have created benefits for women but to a lesser degree than for men. Reasons for this are women’s limited access to resources and institutional and societal factors, determined to a large extent by informal institutions.

Improving employment for women:

Productive employment and decent work in developing countries, including in fragile contexts, are the main routes out of poverty for both women and men. Women’s participation in the labor market can be increased by addressing the constraints and barriers women face accessing work, including public employment programs, and by providing well-focused vocational training. Social protection measures can enhance the productivity and participation of poor women in the labor market by reducing their vulnerability to livelihood risks and economic shocks. Women experience barriers in almost every aspect of work – including: whether they have paid work at all, the type of work they obtain or are excluded from, the availability of support services such as childcare, their pay, benefits and conditions of work, the insecurity of their jobs or enterprises, their access to vocational training. Almost two-thirds of employed women in developing countries are in vulnerable jobs, as own-account or unpaid family workers, as casual agricultural laborers at the bottom of a global value chain, as workers in urban factories and workshops or as domestic servants. Structural and cultural factors make it more difficult for women to access vocational training programs due to their caregiving responsibilities and societal expectations about which jobs are suitable.

Domestic workers:

There are initiatives in a number of countries to regulate and professionalize domestic work as a means of ensuring decent work. Domestic/household workers, who are mainly women, are amongst the least recognized and protected workers. Worldwide they share common characteristics, most notably their isolation, invisibility and lack of recognition and of workers’ rights.

The writer is a freelance columnist and is an educationist by profession. He could be reached at [email protected].

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