Zeenat Chaudhary reviews initiatives aimed at widening employment opportunities for Pakistani women.
According to Pakistan @100, a World Bank Report released last year, Pakistan needs to increase its female labour force participation from the current 26% (among the lowest in the world) to 45%, if it is to become an upper-middle economy by 2047. The Report states that “Pakistan stands near the bottom of women’s participation in the workforce. This lack of participation is at the root of many of the demographic and economic constraints Pakistan faces.”
Nevertheless, positive change does already seem to be underway, as evidenced by the different women-inclusive opportunities initiated in the last few years – and which are gradually opening up new avenues for female employment and empowerment. Aurora spoke to four organisations to find out more about what led them to take such initiatives and what measures they are taking to sustain (and grow) their female workforce.
1. Women on Wheels (WOW)
This initiative is run by the Salman Sufi Foundation (SSF) and instructs women (18 and upwards) how to ride a motorbike (a relatively affordable vehicle compared to a car) and thereby give them the power of mobility. According to Salman Sufi, Founder, SSF, women account for 49% of Pakistan’s population and most of them are dependent on men and on poor quality public transport. In his opinion, “it is impossible to talk about female inclusivity and financial independence without mobility.”
WOW, which began operations in 2018 in Punjab, have so far trained approximately 6,000 women and last year expanded into Sindh, where there are 7,000 plus registered women (700 to 800 in Karachi alone). There are no prerequisites to sign up with WOW and the registration process is simple. “You fill in your details on the WOW website and we will provide you with a class schedule on a first come, first serve basis.” If a woman does not have access to a motorcycle, she is given one for the duration of the training. WOW also assist women who have passed the test to obtain a driver’s licence, find employment (mostly ridesharing jobs) and connect them to microfinance banks.
According to Umar Shaikh, Manager Communications, Careem Pakistan, “The WOW initiative in Sindh was the perfect opportunity to create a new rideshare category for Careem, which features female-only captains and customers. So far, Careem have on their books over 700 women captains of which 340 are Islamabad based.” He adds that in order to sustain their employment in the long-term, Careem have “designed a separate incentive structure, along with security protocols, different work timings and a dedicated support helpline.” Careem has a programme of its own, known as Careem @Home, which allows people, especially women, to become customer support agents while working at home. All they require is a computer and a stable internet connection; 50% of our agents are women.”
SSF has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Cheetay (an online delivery service) whereby Cheetay has pledged to employ 10,000 riders from WOW. Furthermore, the Sindh High Court Bar Association and WOW are also launching a campaign to provide motorbike training to women lawyers; the bar council will provide free motorbikes and more than 100 lawyers will be trained initially. WOW’s long-term objective is to train 50,000 women across Pakistan by 2025.
2. Thari Female Dump Truck Drivers
Executing the same strategies but targeting lower income, rural areas in Tharparkar, Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC – a subsidiary of Engro Energy) initiated a programme in 2017 under the banner of Thari Female Dump Truck Drivers, whereby Thari women are trained and subsequently employed by SECMC to operate 60 ton dump trucks to clear the SECMC mine of dirt.
Responding to the question of why this programme in particular, Naseer Memon, GM CSR, SECMC, says that “when we sat down to unpack the notion of ‘empowerment’, we realised that to do so, we have to provide women with economic empowerment first. It was a difficult concept to execute and when we floated the idea, no one believed it could happen – a 60 ton dumper plus Tharparkar’s conservative society? Nope.” The first batch of women was recruited after months of holding talks and trust building exercises within the community. “We introduced entire families to the concept (what we do, how our mahaul is).” Currently, 50 Thari women have been trained to drive these massive trucks, most of them aged between 20 and 30.
Once they pass their test, they become full-time employees of SECMC and earn salaries ranging from Rs 25,000 to 30,000, along with medical insurance for their families. Initially the programme lasted 12 months; however to encourage more women to join, the programme has been condensed to six months with the provision of a day-care centre for women with young children. SECMC have also set up reverse osmosis (RO) plants to clean the ground water and these too are operated by Thari women. “We have trained 10 women so far to look after and operate these RO plants. They are taught how to operate the machinery, dispense water, which valves to turn, buttons to press; they are fully trained on health and safety protocols as well.”
3. Sehat Kahani
Whereas the WOW and SECMC initiatives encourage women to enter the workforce for the first time, health tech enterprise Sehat Kahani (SK) works to bring women doctors back into the workforce, and to this end they have established an all-female healthcare network which provides affordable healthcare to rural communities. These women doctors earn an income working from home and remote communities have access to high-level healthcare. According to Dr Sara Khurram, CEO, and Co-founder, Dr Iffat Zafar, SK, there are more than 170,000 doctors in Pakistan of which 70% are women. Sadly, most of them are what is termed as ‘doctor brides’ – women who are qualified doctors but are unable to practice due to either family restrictions or because they have young children to look after. SK recruits these doctors to provide consultations online from their home.
To ensure that they have a certain skill level, SK will not hire doctors who have been out of the workforce for over three years. Furthermore, they are required to take online courses to register with SK. The network consists of 1,500 doctors, most of whom are between 30 and 55 years old and generally belong to middle income and high income groups. “We are working on developing a more formal certification process so that they can be accredited as telemedicine specialists,” says Dr Khurram. At the clinical end, SK partners with local female nurses in rural communities, equipping them with the facilities required to hold online video consultations. “Because a lot of people do not trust an online doctor, especially in low-income communities, we partner with these nurses as they provide credibility for the online doctor,”
Dr Khurram clarifies. The nurses are trained using a five-step protocol system “which includes medical and pharmaceutical protocol, patient communication and soft skills.” SK has 26 such clinics in Sindh, Punjab and KPK, which so far have provided consultations to 123,000 patients.
For Dr Khurram another important aspect of what SK does is connecting doctors with doctors. “We have created an intimate community of women doctors who communicate with each other on a daily basis through our official social media groups. It is a strong community trying to help one another do better.” SK’s retention rate is 100% as according to Dr Khurram, “not one doctor has left us.”
However, as a female-led company, SK faces several issues. Firstly, Pakistan does not have any official policies for digital healthcare; hence SK is in talks with the government to avoid potential issues when the company decides to expand. More importantly, Dr Khurram opines that “Raising investment for a female-led company in Pakistan is particularly difficult. As women working in telemedicine for social impact, we do not check any of the typical checkboxes of a ‘good, investable’ company. Another problem, according to Dr Khurram, is the fact that many people are suspicious of women doctors, especially when it comes to video calls, and potential investors often query the fact that they are working from home. “We train women to become doctors, we probably have women doctors in our own families, yet we don’t trust them. We need to respect healthcare providers on a digital medium, whether they are men or women and to trust technology.”
Dr Khurram and Dr Zafar conclude that the ecosystem needs to be strengthened and there have to be structural change initiatives ranging from creating day care facilities to providing more in-office networking, and most importantly, including women when developing solutions for women-related issues.
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