My journey to becoming a member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment has been a challenging, albeit a promising and surprising one. The HLP on Women Economic Empowerment hopes to present action oriented recommendations, in line with the SDGs and Planet 50/50, to drive sustainable and inclusive economic growth, promote gender equality, female leadership and accelerate poverty eradication. During the inaugural meeting, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the importance of gender equality at a business level, praising my inclusion as a result of the entrepreneurship demonstrated fighting for women’s empowerment through my innovative programmatic interventions at the Buksh Foundation. Through impact investment as opposed to a charity based approach, the foundation selected and trained a female entrepreneur, ‘Roshan Bibi’, to run the solar charging stations in each of the villages. Not only did such an intervention provide clear energy access, but it promoted women as their own change agents towards creating sustainable economic growth.
The HLP has provided me a platform to champion for women’s empowerment, initiating a ‘Call for Action Campaign’ in Pakistan. Under the banner of ‘equality means business’, I urged the Government to create a Women Empowerment Council which would not only be responsible for social equality campaigns and creating economic opportunities, but would oversee how the inclusion of women in non-conventional sectors such as renewable energy and technology can be increased along with providing protection to informal workers. Extending legal protection to informal workers could drastically improve working conditions and economic benefits for women; while many women are working in traditional work spaces such as fields and factories, the undocumented nature of this labour force participation means that they are often paid significantly below the minimum wage further leading to gender wage gaps and inequality.
My work with the Government of Punjab aims to tackle gender equality in both the private and public sector through demonstrating partnerships and increasing both collaboration and coordination between the governments, businesses, civil society and development agencies. Creating a supply of economic opportunities and an enabling business environment is imperative, but the “Call for Action” also reaches out to women themselves; they need to believe in their strength and tap their potential to drive women empowerment and economic justice. While education, skills training and job opportunities are catalysts, these alone cannot enhance women empowerment, there needs to be a significant positive change in mindsets and cultural norms which not only ‘accept’ economic independence for women but actively encourage and mentor girls and women to participate in the labour force, leading to economic prosperity and entrepreneurship. Through gender sensitisation and career counselling, we can work together on capacity building and breaking the rigid gender stereotypes associated with professions such as care work.
The key to economic empowerment is social entrepreneurship among our youth and women. I want to be able to motivate and enable girls and women to reach for their potential, aspire to dream big and commit to their goals endlessly. Societal barriers exist and while a breakthrough will happen gradually, women need to start believing in their own strength today and relentlessly pursue their passions. Being a woman should not be seen as a weakness or a reason to hold you back in the professional field, with the right outlook and enabling platforms to support their voice, women can unleash their potential and not only compete with men but empower themselves to leave their own unique mark in society, independent of any gender boxes. Remember, the only limits you can’t overcome are the ones you set for yourself.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2017.