Strengthening sustainable livelihoods – an urgent need

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed women’s labour under acutely disadvantageous conditions

Sarah B Haider/Muzna Shakeel October 15, 2020


Women’s empowerment is one of the most important objectives of Pakistan Vision 2025. The Vision envisages a country where women’s self-worth will be promoted and they will become agents of social change. The plan also aims to give Pakistani women the right to determine their choices, have access to resources and opportunities, as well as the power to control their lives – both within and outside the home.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), however, these components of empowerment are still outside of the grasp of women in Pakistan, especially rural women. Even though 75 per cent of rural women and girls are employed in the agriculture sector, discriminatory social gender norms are prevalent. Besides, other issues like unfair compensation and blatant disregard for women’s reproductive and care work puts them at a disadvantage.

To top it all off, the impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector as well as the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed rural women’s labour under acutely unfavourable conditions.

Per UN Women, rural women play a crucial role in agriculture, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management, and rural enterprises. And even though their unpaid care and domestic work significantly increased under the Covid-19 lockdown and they had to suffer from restricted mobility and disrupted supply chains, they continued to be at the frontlines of responding to the pandemic.

Under such circumstances, strengthening rural women’s sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing has become more important than ever before.

Speaking on how the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to roll back rural women’s significant contributions as farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, community leaders, UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said that countries must double their efforts to build rural women’s resilience to current and future shocks.

“Already, before the pandemic, women across the world did more than three times the unpaid care and domestic work as [compared to] men. In rural areas, this is exacerbated by lack of infrastructure and insufficient access to clean and safe water, sanitation, and energy,” she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka added that the gender digital divide in rural areas has magnified women’s and girls’ marginalisation, limiting their access to distance education, essential services, digital finance, and life-saving information during the crisis.

The shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls, which has been rising in situations of lockdown, must also be overcome as a matter of urgency. Rural women and girls are even more at risk of experiencing violence, yet less likely to receive the support they need due to lack of essential services, legal remedies, and justice.

“On this International Day of Rural Women, our commitment to leave no one behind has never been more urgent. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to direct attention and resources to empower rural women and eliminate the long-standing obstacles to their progress so that we can emerge from COVID-19 as a stronger, better balanced, resilient and caring society.”

Economic empowerment of rural women in Pakistan

Sajida Jafar, a micro-entrepreneur from Renala, Punjab, told The Express Tribune that the Covid-19 lockdown had adverse economic impacts on several rural families. However, her small shop not only sustained her family but also helped other people in her vicinity who could not travel long distances to purchase daily edibles and other essential items.

Jafar is one of the beneficiaries of Nestlé Pakistan’s Rural Deep Reach Project, a collaboration between Nestlé Pakistan and Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The programme is aimed at the provision of basic income support to rural women which is critical for families living in extreme poverty. At present, the programme has 1,100 women beneficiaries who have been enrolled and trained to become rural sales agents of food, drinks, and other essential commodities across 446 villages in 23 districts of Punjab and Sindh.

Narrating her entrepreneurial journey, Jafar said that she had little investment in the beginning, so she set up a makeshift kiosk on a charpoy through which she sold products to her fellow villagers.

“Later, I received a loan from the Akhuwat Islamic microfinance after which I set up the shop in one of the rooms of my house, increased my product range, and started receiving a good profit,” she said. “This programme changed my life and alleviated me out of poverty. Now, I not only financially support my husband who cannot work due to illness, but I am also sending all four of my children to school.”

Nestlé Pakistan’s Public Affairs Manager Fatima Akhtar said the programme has been helping many rural women since 2017, but it turned out to be particularly beneficial for them during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The sales agents were facilitated with a regular supply of stock by Nestlé Pakistan as many villagers relied on these beneficiary-run shops for basic grocery items,” Akhtar explained. “During this period of high uncertainty, the beneficiaries were not only able to sustain themselves, but they also grew their micro-enterprises and continued to earn a decent living for themselves and their families.”

Finding long-term solutions

Explaining the importance of finding more sustainable solutions for rural women’s economic empowerment, Association of Business, Professional, and Agricultural Women (ABPAW) Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Bushra Rahim, said that the government needs to step up and proactively engage in introducing legislation to empower rural women economically.

“[Even though short-term projects help rural women combat poverty], the government must focus on finding long-term solutions. In my opinion, setting up dhabas or providing women with rickshaws help rural women, but it is not enough and more needs to be done,” said Rahim, who has researched Pakistani women’s economic empowerment.

“Rural women need help beyond financial support and training because these are temporary solutions. To empower rural women in the truest sense of the word, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), research institutions, the private sector, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC), and most importantly, the government – all must show a commitment and play their part.”



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