09/12/2016 10:58 EDT | Updated 09/12/2016 10:58 EDT

The Invisible Women Of Pakistan

Benjamin Madgwick via Getty Images

As a child, I loved wearing dresses. I would run to Najma, my seamstress' house, where she'd be sitting on the floor with her sewing machine surrounded by paper and cloth. With her eyes fixated on her work, she would try to replicate the design from pictures and hand me my dress within three hours in return for US$1.

Najma worked 16 hours each day to earn roughly US$7, which would support her three children and an alcoholic husband. Having seen Najma in action with her sewing machine, I know the dedication with which she worked despite the challenges she faced. Yet, today when I open the labour force statistics of Pakistan, I know Najma is not accounted for.

This isn't just the case of Najma - this is the present situation facing the majority of working women in Pakistan.

According to the World Bank, female labour participation accounts for only 25 per cent in the economy of Pakistan. This low figure has given rise to the debate of the economic empowerment of Pakistani women and the barriers associated with achieving it. One challenge is the lack of the development of skills and technological opportunities for women. Additionally, the low literacy rate. reported by Pakistan's Bureau of Statistics, limits the future prospects of girls in the economy.

Due to the lack of financial and development opportunities, practical skills of local women, like embroidery, remain poor and are therefore insufficient to yield economic gains. There is also a serious technological shortfall in Pakistan, which is especially prevalent amongst women. In fact, USAid research studies show that nearly half of the women in Pakistan do not own a mobile phone. Due to this, women remain alienated with regard to their opportunities and ability to contribute to the economy.

An increase in the female labour force participation would have a positive impact on the Pakistan's GDP.

Another barrier associated with this dilemma is the under-reporting of females currently involved in economic activities. These enterprising, entrepreneurial and gutsy women play a major role in supporting families in Pakistan, yet officially, they are invisible. A large number of these women are often poor and engaged in either home-based economic activity or agricultural work leading to a lack of documentation. This causes statistical discrepancies and more importantly, these brilliant women remain ignored -- a factor that perpetuates the cycle of harsh working conditions and inadequate wages.

However, Pakistan has the ability grow and change. Progress will happen if the government focuses on tackling these problems and improving access to education, training and technology. This can be done through policies encouraging the establishment of vocational centres to enrol and assist women in gaining new skill sets relevant to managing a business. In fact, a report from the World Bank shows that such initiatives have been successful in Sri Lanka and much like the positive impact generated via ICT workshops there, vocational centres have the potential to be the launch pad for a technological revolution amongst women in Pakistan, paving the way for the career development of women. These centres will also help the government in eliminating statistical discrepancies by keeping an accurate record of females engaged in economic activities, and further assist in the implementation of labour laws.

This model is not foreign to Pakistan, there has been some success with the Benazir Youth Development Program. This demonstrates that vocational centers can help Pakistani women get recognition for their work and help them find a voice in the decision-making process. An increase in the female labour force participation would have a positive impact on the Pakistan's GDP. If successful, the resulting impact would lift this curtain of female economic invisibility and transform the lives of families across Pakistan for the better.

By Areeba Saeed, delegate representing Pakistan at the 2016 G(irls)20 Summit in Beijing, China.


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