Towards a better future: Community efforts towards financial freedom for women.


Anwiti singh, Gourav Gandhi, Syed Omer, Yumna Ahmad

According to the world bank, only 27% women in India, and 22% women in Pakistan officially partake in any formal economic activity. Such statistics make it clear that women have largely been missing from the work front in the two countries. According to Development economist Jayati Ghosh, women’s participation in the workspace can be a good indicator of status of women in a particular society. If participation of women in the workforce increases, it will have multiple positive effects. Issues like wage-gap and gender-based discrimination will go down. But that is easier said than done. There are multiple socio-economic, cultural, and religious barriers between women and their financial independence. In both India and Pakistan, lack of proper education or even freedom to venture out on their own are major issues for women, especially in rural areas .

As per the census reports of India and Pakistan, female literacy rate is 64.8 percent (India) and 45% (Pakistan) With statistics like these, participation of women in the formal work-force becomes even more difficult. But entrepreneurship is one area where a degree isn’t necessary. All it requires is one’s own skills and a little financial support. And for the rural women in both countries, one of the most successful ways to save some money or start a venture is the concept of ‘self-help groups’. Self Help Groups (SHGs) are small financial intermediary committees. SHGs promote small monthly savings among their members. The savings are kept with the bank in most cases, depending on their need. This is the common fund in the name of the SHG and the president/cashier of the group may give small loans to its members from it.

But what about the women who are not a part of any SHG? How can they follow their dreams  of entrepreneurship? This is where various non-government organisations come into play. Many NGOs lend a helping hand to the rural women by generating awareness, facilitating loans, or giving direct funding to those in need. Kashf foundation and Abhivyakti are two such organisations that are helping the rural women of Pakistan and India lead better, financially stable lives.

Kashf foundation, based in Karachi, acts like a micro-financing institution and training centre for rural women in Pakistan. Abhivyakti, based in Delhi, works mostly in Northern states of India where they act as an intermediary between rural women and government institutions (like National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development or NABARD). Both of these foundations have one common aim- financial empowerment of rural women.

The micro-finance route for entrepreneurship.

Microfinancing, or microcredit, is a way to provide capital to small business owners who don’t have access to traditional banking sources. This form of loans generally do not involve collateral and can be beneficial for rural women.

Kashf foundation is a non-banking microcredit institution in Pakistan, and the first of its kind according to the founder. The foundation helps women micro-entrepreneurs through a set of financial and non-financial products and services, keeping in view the special challenges and hurdles that women face in low-income communities.

“Our vision and mission is to strive for a poverty-free and gender equitable society. Our goal is to empower women by enabling them to become active agents of social and economic change in the society,” says Kashf founder Roshaneh Zafar.

The main focus of Kashf is microfinancing, where they provide women entrepreneurs with financial support to start their venture. People from the foundation go door to door, asking women if they need loans.

One of the 30,000 women, who have had the opportunity to feel empowered with the help of Kashf, is Khalida, 47 who lives in Thatta with her husband and two children. Soon after marrying her cousin in Punjab, she had shifted to Thatta with her family in search of  a better fortune. 

Khalida KASHF 2Khalida at her store.

“I was always intrigued by the embellishments (laces, motifs and colourful accessories) women put in their dresses, so I went to the market to buy such things. I started selling them through my home. Then, Kashf foundation reached out to me and my life drastically changed,” she said. As she got the first loan, she bought cosmetic items such as face washes, soaps, henna, shampoos and conditioners to sell at her home-based store. She then collaborated with different tailors in the region to make customised dresses for women so that they “would not feel any lesser than urban and modern women.”

She strongly believes women need to stand firm along with their husbands to earn for the family. When she started her business, her brothers criticized her. But now, she is happy to have proven them wrong, as she earns almost as much as them. She plans to take her third installment of the loan from KASHF foundation to set up a shop for her husband. Her children are going to a reputed private school in Thatta. She says she has enough amount left after paying back the loans.  

Like Khalida,  Marvi, 52 also lives in the province of Sindh but in Badin. She started making parandas while she was still an adolescent. She got married at the age of 18. However, she did not give up her passion; she continues to sell parandas to women who live nearby. When she came to know of KASHF, she applied for the loan without thinking twice. As soon as she got the loan, she decided to expand her business to other cities of Sindh. She has recently decided to take the third and last loan from Kashf foundation after paying back her previous two loans. Talking about Sindh government’s Benazir Income Support Program, she says, “Although government representatives came twice, I still have no card and no one ever came to facilitate me with any governmental grant.”

However, the advisor to Chief Minister Sindh, Murtaza Wahab says the government of Sindh has helped numerous women via Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The government of Pakistan led by Pakistan People’s Party had launched BISP in July 2008. It was passed by the parliament in 2010 and was called as the Benazir Income Support Programme Act 2010. “The idea behind BISP was to prepare a list of women living in rural areas and giving them certain amounts through bank transfer so that they could feel empowered,” he adds.  

                  Abhivyakti, teaching women the power of community through SHGs

SHG meeting SamraliAn SHG meeting at Samrali, Punjab, India.

While Kashf helps women by direct financial support, i.e. loans, Abhivyakti in India works a little differently. Inspired by the Gandhian philosophies of his late father, Shailendra Kumar Singh started the Abhivyakti foundation in 2000. The foundation is involved in Health & Sanitation, Education, Women & Child Development, Livelihood, Skill Development programmes etc.  For their skill development and SHG programmes, Abhivyakti foundation has been working with National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD) since 2012.

“It started with our SHG programme in Jalandhar. Now we have multiple clusters all across the state and each has 10-15 SHGs. Our skill development programme was also financed by NABARD. They gave us around Rs. 80,000 as grant and approximately three lakhs as loan (which we paid with interest). With this grant, we started a stitching training programme for Nehru Jackets. Around 25 ladies were trained and we hired the best of them to work at our production centre here,’ says Amritpal Singh, regional director of Abhivyakti, Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh division.

Chandravati, who was trained by Abhivyakti and now works at their production centre in Palwal, Haryana, says she has gained a lot from this programme. ‘I work here, making shopping bags and ladies purses (at the production centre) from morning till afternoon. They pay me anywhere from Rs. 15 to Rs. 50 per bag, depending on its size. And because they gave the stitching training, I take private commissions to stitch salwar-kameez at home,’ she says.  Chandravati is the sole earning member in a family of seven. Her husband was left paralysed after an accident ten years ago.

Abhivyakti’s journey began in Punjab, with their coordinators going around various small villages, creating awareness about the benefits of Self-help groups.  SHGs have emerged as an effective way of promoting entrepreneurship and self-confidence among women, particularly in rural areas. In the small village of Samrali, Punjab, Kulvinder Kaur is a member of Jai Mata Di AF, one of the many SHGs in the area. She always had a knack for cooking, and with a little financial help from the SHG and Abhivyakti, she now sells pickles for a living. “They set up a stall for me at the Suraj Kund Mela. And I made a lot of contacts. Last year, I sold twenty kilograms of pickles because of it.’

Like the many other women of the SHGs, Kulvinder has also taken financial help from the SHG. When her husband was ill, the members loaned her the money from their savings at just 1% interest.

Every member in an SHG contributes a fixed monthly amount to the group savings, in case of Kulvinder (Punjab) and Chandravati (Haryani), it is Rs. 200 per month. There is a cashier and a president appointed by the group which takes care of the savings and keeps the record books. Whenever a member is in need of money, they can inter-loan each other. If they don’t have that amount, the SHG collectively takes a loan from banks, and repays it with the interest paid by the debtor.

Skill development for true independence

A big hurdle in women employment in rural areas is a lack of higher education. One way they can overcome this weakness is by developing vocational skills. Skill development is something both Kashf and Abhivyakti advocate for. If the women have skills, they can choose to either start their own business or work for an existing one.

Since 2014, Kashf’s Vocational skill trainings have been equipping women micro-entrepreneurs with industry level skills to help increase their employability. Their training programmes include- tailoring, embellishment, beautician work and football stitching. Some of their training programmes are supported by the Punjab Skills Development Fund, the Coca-Cola Company, and other corporations.

Abhivyakti started their training camps in 2015, in collaboration with NABARD. In the first year, it was centred around training women to stitch the signature politician jackets popular in India called Nehru jackets. After the success of their first training programme, they conducted multiple training programmes, and set up many production units for jute bags, jacket stitching, canvas bag, and phulkari (a traditional embroidery style of Punjab) all across Punjab and Haryana. Each training programme can last between fifteen days to a month, depending on the art being taught there. Most of the women in these training camps come via the SHGs established with the help of Abhivyakti.

Training programme AbhivyaktiOne of the Abhivyakti training programmes in Moga, Punjab. The production centre here specialises in jute and canvass products.

The future

While NGOs like Kashf and Abhivyakti are doing their best to promote women participation in the workforce at the ground level, we still need the government bodies to be involved at the all the levels. The efforts of NGOs cannot replace a need for a proper government framework. There is a need for policies, schemes, and awareness programmes run by various institutions to promote women employment and entrepreneurship. “As long as the government isn’t taking dedicated steps, the condition of women representation in the work-force cannot be improved. Having a few schemes on paper to support women isn’t enough,” says Jayati Ghosh. In the meanwhile, the conscious efforts of NGOs and general public awareness can help to create a plan for a future where equal participation of men and women in the workforce can become a reality.  


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Dr. Fathima Nizaruddin is a filmmaker and researcher whose interest lies in bringing performance and film practice together to create interventions in the public domain to counter narratives of violence and hate. Her film Nuclear Hallucinations which was part of her practice based PhD at University of Westminster, London has been screened across the world at various film festivals and academic spaces. Fathima prefers to approach film as a process rather than as a text. In her work, she looks for possibilities to use the porous nature of the production and circulation phases of factual filming to create sites of engagement from where multiple actors can approach an issue or topic through diverse entry points. She is a recipient of Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) studentship for doctoral research from University of Westminster, Inlaks Scholarship, Film Fellowship from Public Service Broadcasting Trust, India and National Geographic’s All Roads Seed Grant.

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