Shazia Bibi working at her sewing machine

The village edge

Shazia faces realities and challenges that are unique to rural Pakistan.
August 29, 2018

By: Isabelle Fortin

Far from major urban centres and main roads, Shazia Bibi spends most of her days working at her sewing machine. As the village dressmaker and wife and mother, she faces realities and challenges that are unique to rural Pakistan.

She lives in Bahawalpur in Punjab province and she rarely goes out. If she needs sewing supplies she has to ask her husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law for their approval, or permission, to get what she needs in the small town closest to her village. Shazia can only go to places they’ve agreed upon and she has to be accompanied by her mother-in-law or her husband.

"She is young. We cannot allow her to go out on her own," explains her mother-in-law in a video profile of Shazia.

“Even young women who go out alone have to ask their elders for permission," her mother-in-law adds. "Men are the heads of the family. They don't need permission."

Watch Shazia's story

Shazia's story illustrates some of the effects of the social constraints faced by many rural women. These constraints affect both their level of education and their progress in terms of economic empowerment.

The participation of women in the workforce in Pakistan is still far lower than that of men (22% compared to 69%). In fact, Pakistan is one of the countries with the largest gender gap in the areas of education and employment.

To address this problem, a team of researchers provided support to the Punjab Skills Development Fund, a government program whose goals include providing skills training to women in four of Punjab's poorest rural districts so that they could have better access to the labour market. In March 2012, the researchers offered vouchers to more than 1,000 women to encourage them to access a free sewing course. These vouchers were offered to women who had already expressed interest in this type of training. However, only 35 of the 1,000 women were able to complete their training. Many had to drop out because of social constraints associated with their mobility.

Ali Cheema, research fellow at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan and member of the team, stresses in a short interview that the problem is "not just the act or the cost of going from point A to point B. It's not paying the bus fare that's the problem, or the bus being there that's the problem. Mobility has within it a set of social constraints."  

Shazia watching the sunset.
Adjacent Possibilities

Taking the results and failures experienced in 2012 into consideration, the research team developed a larger project using comparative trials in 2014. Their study was funded by Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW), a research program supported by IDRC and its partners, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the UK's Department for International Development.

Three ways of reducing the effects of mobility constraints were tested:

  • Training centres were set up in 108 villages in the region.
  • To enable women to attend courses, safe and reliable group transportation was provided to participants whose villages did not have a training centre.
  • Money for transportation expenses was given to participants whose villages did not have a training centre.  

The study showed that when their village had a training centre, an average of 30-35% of the participants were able to complete their training, a percentage comparable to other training programs worldwide. The study also showed that safe and reliable group transportation to training outside the village enabled a smaller percentage of women, around 15-17%, to complete their training.

The research revealed that "when women have to cross the boundary of the village, it becomes very socially costly for them," explains Ali Cheema. Researchers were aware of this, "but we've never had objective evidence about this claim," he adds.

Watch an interview with Ali Cheema

Women who travelled in groups were able to overcome this barrier because this form of transportation allowed them to "extend the protective bubble of their village to an outside environment," explains Asim Ijaz Khwaja, the project's lead researcher and professor of International Finance and Development at Harvard University.

Shazia enrolled in the course and for three days she walked to a training centre near her village accompanied by her brother. However, when her brother was no longer able to walk with her she had to drop the coursebecause her family would not allow her to go alone.

Large sums are invested to provide better opportunities to women like Shazia, says Ali Cheema. "If you don't know their stories and particularly the constraints that they face in their daily lives while designing that investment, you are going to throw money [away]," he states.

The Punjab Skills Development Fund is developing a new skills training program focusing on the links with the market that will take into account the results of this research. The fund seeks to gradually expand the scale of its training programs for women, who number 45 million in Punjab.

Watch a video about this project produced by Harvard Kennedy School

Learn more about Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW)

Photo: Adjacent Possibilities