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Digital empowerment

Fareeha Rafique profiles Maria Umar.

It is quite possible that not many people out there have heard of a platform called the Women’s Digital League (WDL). That is no surprise, since WDL is one of those enterprises that operate without trumpet-blowing, soldiering on in a slow and steady manner. With a genuine mission at its core, the team behind WDL is driven by the dreams of its founder, Maria Umar.

Nine years ago, this young woman started looking for work from within the confines of her home, armed with little else other than a desktop computer, a Master’s in English Literature and a dream.

Umar initially created WDL to train women to work online from home. “When I started, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would get to this place.”

Born in the remote district of Bannu, Umar first went to school in Dera Ismail Khan.

“Then from Class IV onwards I studied in Peshawar. I did my F.A. and B.A. from FG College and my Master’s in English Literature from Frontier College. I got married while I was pursuing my Master’s and my husband did his CSS after we married.”

Umar’s husband was posted in Rawalpindi for the next eight years and then to Lahore – where Umar and WDL presently operate from.

“The beauty of my work is that I can operate from any location. My team works remotely, my clients are remote, and I use technology to stay in touch.”

When asked whether it was her childhood that provided the impetus for a line of work that does not require a fixed location, Umar says, “not really”.

“I came from a really conservative background and I was not allowed to go out without a male chaperone. I wanted to work but the opportunities were few. I started teaching at a school but they fired me after three years when I became pregnant. I didn’t know what to do, so I started looking online, because I knew my family was not going to allow me to pursue any other profession. I thought nobody would object to online work, but once I started giving shape to WDL, it just grew and my family saw the commitment I had to my work.”


WDL took upon itself the task of disseminating training to women in select groups. Lahore College for Women University was the first laboratory for the purpose, so to speak. The first training conducted was for students who were part of the British Council Active Citizens Programme. Shortly afterwards, WDL acquired funding from the World Bank.


The year was 2009, and Umar was based in Rawalpindi at the time.

“Once I realised the potential of online work, I thought it would be sinful not to share it with other women. It was a challenge initially and a very tough time in my life. When I started, the idea was that since many women were out of work, they could start working by taking up data entry, writing and so on. The problem was that although they had various skills, they had no understanding of how the market worked. It was at that point that we decided to pivot. I thought we first needed to create a pipeline of trained women digital workers who understood what clients wanted.”

WDL took upon itself the task of disseminating training to women in select groups. Lahore College for Women University was the first laboratory for the purpose, so to speak. The first training conducted was for students who were part of the British Council Active Citizens Programme. Shortly afterwards, WDL acquired funding from the World Bank; they wanted to invest in digital freelancing in Pakistan and run a beta programme starting from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Two other organisations, besides WDL, worked on the initiative in which 30 women were trained. It was a success and 80% of the women found online jobs during their three-month training. The programme was extended and WDL was awarded a one-year contract, whereby about 300 women in seven KP districts were trained – Abbottabad, Haripur, Hazara, Kohat, Mansehra, Nowshera and Peshawar.

How successful was the venture?

“I can’t quote exact figures, but approximately 60% of the women we trained have been successful in finding work. The problem is that sometimes the women we train don’t work afterwards. In Hazara, Mansera and Nowshera, the response was tremendous. The women in those areas continued working.”

Over the years, the outreach of WDL has grown. They have trained young women in several universities who had skills but didn’t know how to monetise them. The Ala-ud-Din Academy in Lahore, COMSATS Abbottabad, The International Islamic University and Jinnah College Peshawar are some of the institutions this start-up has worked with in its quest for women’s empowerment through financial independence.

Umar elaborates how her enterprise works.

“As we enable women to work on their own, we give them basic skills such as an introduction to Photoshop, media analytics, how to play with templates, WordPress and so on – so that they can market themselves better. We also tell them that they can opt to start from something easier – for example, there are so many Facebook communities where they can find work.”

WDL’s other role is that of a service provider that links women to online work. After her initial foray into the venture, Umar realised that for the enterprise to work, she had to keep tweaking the mechanics. Early on she discovered that it was not just a matter of educating women to make them independent and that to achieve success as a service provider, a better quality workforce was required.


“The journey, from breaking the mindset that a woman cannot achieve any of this by sitting at home to where WDL is now, has been phenomenal.”


When clients ask to be put in touch with women from Pakistan, WDL makes the connection and charges a 20% commission (of the total order amount); the remaining 80% is retained by the women providing the services as compensation for the work delivered – work which includes photography, editing, design, website development, writing, research, data entry and animation.

“I realised that I needed to find people who understand what online work is. There is a misperception that online work is easy money; yet, it is extremely competitive and has its own set of challenges. Sometimes you may have to connect with a client, no matter which time zone they are located. Also, people have difficulty understanding deadlines and that 10 o’clock means 10 o’clock; it doesn’t mean five past 10, and it is not okay to deliver the next day.”

WDL may be past its nascent stage, but it has been a learning curve.

“Our clients initially came through Upwork (formerly oDesk), but it was LinkedIn which helped bring in real clients. For example, I was connected to the Young Presidents’ Organization and World Presidents’ Organization’s (YPO-WPO) president. Then members of YPO such as the German company Krups started giving us work, and through them, clients from other countries also came in. We also worked with start-ups in Silicon Valley and we have had clients from INSEAD as well.”

Needless to say, Umar’s phenomenal journey has been one full of challenges.

“The first one was getting out of the house and convincing my family that it’s okay if you stretch the rules a bit.”

There were many other challenges.

“In the beginning, the money was very poor; for an article of 500 words we would be paid about two dollars. Explaining this to the woman who had done the work and justifying the time spent was not easy.”

Then the time came when Umar had to go and convince people to invest money in a virtual platform. She found many doors shut because most of them thought what she was trying to do was a fool’s dream. Furthermore, Umar was a misfit because she wasn’t a techie and part of her struggle was to gain acceptance as an entrepreneur in the tech sector.

Umar may have come a long way with WDL – and it doesn’t end there.

“WDL is guiding me, rather than me guiding it. I don’t have plans but I have dreams, and I would love to see WDL go beyond freelancing. I want to see digital livelihood become more entrepreneurial in terms of employing others and growing.”

This young woman with a dream is aware of where it has brought her in nine years.

“The journey, from breaking the mindset that a woman cannot achieve any of this by sitting at home to where WDL is now, has been phenomenal.”

Fareeha Rafique is a Lahore-based journalist. fareeha.rafique@gmail.com