Empowering Women and SMEs in Sindh and Balochistan

Pakistan, a nation of im­mense potential, stands at a critical juncture in ad­dressing gender disparities. On the global gender parity index, it ranks a stark 142 out of 146 countries, as revealed in the 2023 World Economic Forum Report. One of the most striking issues is the profound gender gap in eco­nomic participation of women.

The female labour force par­ticipation rate in Pakistan is alarmingly low, falling far be­hind countries with similar in­come levels. Among the most financially vulnerable groups in Pakistani society are rural poor women, who are often financial­ly dependent on their husbands.

In Sindh and Balochistan multiple policies, acts and strategies aimed at enhanced economic activity and partici­pation are either developed and notified or under consider­ation for approval/implemen­tation. But majority of these are not directly aimed at enhancing women’s economic participa­tion and opportunities particu­larly in rural areas.

Amid this backdrop of chal­lenges, the European Union-funded Growth for Rural Ad­vancement and Sustainable Progress (GRASP) Project has emerged as a beacon of hope, which is being implemented by the International Trade Centre in collaboration with Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, FAO, SMEDA and multiple local part­ners in Balochistan and Sindh.

From its inception, the GRASP project has been focusing on women primary producers and Small and Medium Enterprises through active business/rural mobilization, linkages, capac­ity building and access to finan­cial services by the PPAF. It has played a pivotal role in enhanc­ing the quality, productivity, and value addition of products crafted by rural women SMEs in Sindh and Balochistan. Over 6,700 rural women have bene­fited from the project’s support, resulting in increased produc­tivity, competitiveness, and ac­cess to market opportunities.

Policy integration has been a cornerstone of GRASP’s ap­proach to create an enabling environment for SMEs’ registra­tion, access to services, growth, and profitability, particularly those in rural settings and led /owned by women.

A shining example is the Sindh Women Agricultural Workers Act 2019-2020, where GRASP facilitated its implementation by organizing public-private di­alogues and seminars, bringing together experts and line de­partments to gain insights into the act’s potential and address challenges that could hinder its effective execution.

Substantial investments have been made in training govern­ment officials on gender-related issues, particularly those tied to supporting women entrepre­neurs and workers within agri­cultural value chains. Further, GRASP extends its support to Agribusiness Support Providers (ABSPs) and women working in ABSPs and Business Support Or­ganizations (BSOs), empowering them to enhance their service de­livery to rural women SMEs. This approach ensures that the spe­cific needs and perspectives of women SMEs are acknowledged and adequately addressed.

One of the most visible achievements of the project has been its success in creating op­portunities for rural women SMEs’ participation, exposure and linkages development. These initiatives are helpful in increasing women’s economic participation within historically rigid livestock and agricultural valuechains and markets.Dedi­cated steps have been taken to address this issue by imple­menting innovative financing mechanisms and products by forging collaborations with fi­nancial institutions for extend­ed outreach and services espe­cially facilitating women SMEs.

The grant award criteria and process has been kept flexible to encourage and benefit women SMEs, where 30% (87) of 295 grants given so far have ben­efited women owned /led SMEs and 63% (55 of 87) grants in the most recent cycle have been exclusively set aside for women and other vulnerable groups including transgender and per­sons with disabilities

The project by design works to facilitate and strengthen link­ages and networking between financial institutions and SMEs with dedicated awareness and information sessions benefit­ing 1,000s of SMEs in Sindh and Balochistan, helping mobilize PKR 85,013,178 worth of loans for SMEs (47% women owned /led business) in both provinces.

In a country where gender in­equality is deeply entrenched, the project has demonstrated that progress is possible through policy integration, legislation, targeted support and grassroots empowerment. As the project continues to empower women through economic/business participation, it illuminates a path towards a more equitable and prosperous future for rural women SMEs in Pakistan.

KURRAM SHEHZAD