Throughout the rural areas of developing countries, women have been providing an essential monetary contribution to family survival and wellbeing. However, in almost every measure of development, rural women fare worse than rural men or urban women.Though there are major differences between the Global North and South, most of the challenges remain the same: a lack of infrastructure and services; decent work opportunities; social protection; exclusion from leadership and decision-making; and the detrimental effects of restrictive gender norms. In Pakistan, Nestlé is one organization that is committed to women empowerment and is helping rural women reclaim their financial freedom.
As Nestlé has already learnt from work with coffee farmers in East Africa, economic autonomy is essential to socio-economic empowerment. Financial freedom results in benefits, not just for the women themselves, but also their whole communities and their families for generations to come. It is also necessary for the country’s overall economic productivity, given women’s undeniable presence in the agricultural workforce in Pakistan.
There are 65 million women living in rural Pakistan. Tradition dictates that these women are often unpaid workers engaged in family farming, livestock management or fisheries businesses.
Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), now part of the Ehsaas Kifalat Program, which provides a helping hand, offering quarterly aid (approx. PKR 6,000 or USD 37) to ensure that no woman is left in a position where they cannot make ends meet partnered with Nestlé to help graduate these beneficiaries out of poverty and allow these same women the dignity and independence of earning their own incomes.
Nestlé Pakistan also partnered with the Akhuwat Foundation to provide interest-free microloans to these women to scale-up their businesses. Thanks to the program, women are empowered to take up roles as Sales Agents in their regions: shopkeepers, servicing their communities whilst providing for their families.
Till now, this program has been launched in 23 districts of Pakistan and microloans have been disbursed to over 100 beneficiaries to upscale their businesses.
Nestlé ensuring a prosperous future for rural women
Waqar Ahmad, Head of Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, Nestlé Pakistan, said, “The key premise of the Nestlé Rural Women Sales Program is to work for the uplift of the rural women of Pakistan and put them on the path of prosperity. Through this initiative, we hope to empower our rural women by providing them livelihood opportunities, along with improving their nutrition status and the quality of life for them and their families. This initiative is aligned with attaining the SDG agenda by focusing on No Poverty, Gender Equality and attaining Partnerships for the Goals.”
Shareefa Bibi is one out of 1,500 beneficiaries of Nestlé’s BISP Rural Women Sales Program, launched in 2017 to provide livelihood opportunities to some of the most disadvantaged women in Pakistan’s rural society. During the cruel onslaught of the pandemic, her small shop remained open, an essential provider to the local community. “I was able to facilitate my neighbors as well as help meet [my family’s] expenditures,” she explained, proudly.
36-year-old Shanaz, from Mustafabad faced a lot of opposition from her husband and family when she decided to work as a shopkeeper two years back, but she remained steadfast for her children’s better future. Nestlé’s female representatives spent time building trust with women in their communities in the hopes that they could persuade some to take a brave leap where others would follow.
“Today, my children go to school and have decent meals and on top of that my husband is also happy with me,” Shanaz declared, proudly.
The average earning of each Sales Agent as a part of this program is PKR 5,000-10,000(USD31-62) each month.
Nestlé Pakistan’s Healthy Women Program also offers each new Rural Sales Agent nutrition awareness sessions. Armed with invaluable information on the importance of good nutrition and ideas on how to cook healthy nutritious meals within a budget, the agents can impart wisdom that spreads throughout communities.
“I have learned a lot about hygiene,” said 37-year-old Razia, a residence of Kot Bela village.
“This has also enabled me to give my children fortified food and I also try to keep my house dirt free. I persuade other women to also keep their surroundings clean so that our children don’t get sick”, she added.
The Way Forward
Over the next couple of years, Nestlé plans to scale the program to around 5,000 BISP beneficiaries as Sales Agents.
“In our village the concept of working women was alien,” said 35-year-old Shagufta, a shopkeeper in a small village near Pindi Bhattian. “But there were days when my family ate one meal only. I felt miserable when I saw my children wasting their precious time on streets instead of going to school. Now, all my children go to school and we also eat good food. I am proud of the fact that I am the first Rural Sales Agent from my village and it has encouraged other women to work in a bid to come out of poverty.”
Ensuring a prosperous future is certainly no easy task and change is mostly difficult; but this is also a time of changing realities. Education and ensuring more women participation in the workforce, has the potential to raise the living standards of all communities as well as alleviating poverty and even conflict. Nestlé has taken notice of the abysmal state of rural women’s financial inclusion and is undertaking serious measures in making women resourceful economic agents and we hope that others follow suit.