Putting rural women on the path out of poverty

To celebrate International Rural Women Day, GVS looks at the significant participation of rural Pakistani women in agriculture, food security, and rural development. However, their contributions are often unpaid, which impacts their economic and social rights, among other things. We look at some private sector initiatives that aim to increase economic livelihoods for these women.


On October 15 every year, the United Nations celebrates and honors the role of rural women and their accomplishments around the world. It is an acknowledgement of the critical role and contribution of rural women in enhancing agriculture and rural development, improving food security, and eradicating rural poverty. All the while, these women themselves often stay economically, socially, and politically disadvantaged.

Worldwide over 1.5 billion rural women are involved in the agricultural sector and are responsible for 50 percent of food production. This year’s theme, “Sustainable infrastructure, services and social protection for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” places empowerment of rural women at the heart of fulfilling the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This implies that we need to urgently address the fact that majority of the work done by Rural Women is mostly not accounted for. Despite progress on some fronts, gender inequalities remain pervasive in every dimension of sustainable development; and in many areas, progress is too slow to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Most of these women are used as unpaid labor on family farms, and enterprises, 60 percent of them do not get paid, and scant attention is given to their property rights and economic or social rights. With an average rural family size of 6.8 persons and frequent childbearing, it is clear that the reproductive burden is not only quite taxing but takes a considerable toll on women’s health.

Moreover, malnutrition rates are high, and these women often have poor access to health services. Rural women are 10 percent less likely to receive prenatal care and 28 percent less likely to give birth in a facility or hospital. A radical step to improve their lives would include giving out parcels of government land to landless women farmers so that they can become economically strong and stable.

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They should be facilitated in growing new crops which are more resilient towards climate change, particularly in floods prone areas. The private sector can also play a vital role in this specific training for women in farming, and providing seeds and fertilizers at low rates. Women need skills training in all areas; this is essential so that they have new avenues of income generation for themselves and their families.

Javed Hassan, Chairman National Vocational & Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC), writes in this magazine issue of the importance of this and how the government intends to launch an initiative in this regard to help rural women. He also notes that given the scale of the challenge, it is crucial that the private sector steps in to play a role.

We are seeing companies engage in skills training work; one program is that run by Nestlé Pakistan, which partnered in 2017 with the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), to provide livelihood opportunities to BISP beneficiaries. It’s Rural Sales Program’ is focusing on graduating BISP beneficiaries out of poverty and into earning livelihoods for themselves and their families.

The Secretary BISP, Ali Raza Bhutta, recently said: “Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is the largest cash transfer programme of Government of Pakistan, BISP prides itself to be the fifth largest social safety net in the world. BISP is providing Income Support to more than 5.4 million eligible households throughout the country. Our vision is to enhance the financial capacity of poor people and their dependent family members, especially women, through targeted social protection initiatives. Graduating beneficiaries out of poverty is a key priority area for BISP, for which we have launched various partnerships. One of such partnership is with Nestlé Pakistan, where BISP beneficiaries are working as Active Sales Agents. This initiative is a great example of the role successful public-private partnership can play in the socio-economic development of not just BISP Beneficiaries, but rather for the entire BOP (bottom of the pyramid) population of Pakistan.”

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At the time of the launch former chairperson BISP had pointed out the importance of the program: “I am very proud of this partnership. BISP beneficiaries receive Rs.4,834 every quarter, those who are part of this program are now earning up to Rs.10,000 per month on average!”

The program is a successful Public-Private Partnership model creating a sustainable solution towards addressing some of the key issues that rural women, in particular, face like malnutrition, financial exclusion, and lack of livelihood opportunities in Pakistan. To date, more than 800 BISP beneficiaries have been enrolled as Rural Sales Agents across 12 districts of Punjab and Sindh.

This model focuses on women’s economic empowerment, connecting women to markets, ensuring they have access to financial services, and most importantly helps them lead a more fulfilled life by helping them exercise their economic right. Recently, the remit of the program has expanded as Nestlé Pakistan partnered with Akhuwat, one of the world’s largest interest-free microfinance organization, to provide interest-free loans.

Nestlé has provided Akhuwat with a grant of PKR 2M to extend interest-free loans to BISP beneficiaries enrolled under Nestlé’s rural women sales agents program, to set up or expand their existing businesses. The project is initially to be launched in Pindi Bhattian, Renala, Okara, and Sheikhupura. At the micro-level there are only two ways to alleviate poverty for individuals and families; either improve their skills or provide them capital.

Rural women out of poverty

Dr Amjad Saqib, Executive Director of Akhuwat explained to GVS how giving a loan of Rs40,000 to Rs50,000 will allow these women to make an income of Rs25,000 to Rs30,000 per month. The women will be provided interest-free loans in three areas, either for an enterprise or to use in livestock or in agriculture. One of the key learnings of this project has been when women are able to exercise their economic rights (or earn their own money) everything changes.

Improvements in nutritious food, healthcare, and education are few of the things which lead these women and their families out-of-poverty. Waqar Ahmad, Head of Corporate Affairs, Nestlé Pakistan & Afghanistan said, “Our philosophy of creating shared value (CSV) is unique and a long term approach through collective action, partnerships and support of stakeholders can generate sustainable economic value, in line with UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

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The companies work on the Rural Sales program is important for it, as Waqar stated, “The Nestlé-Akhuwat-BISP partnership is a transformative collaboration which will help us build rural women as social entrepreneurs and contribute to national GDP.” There are many other areas in which the private sector can get involved, which helps the general wellbeing of women.

Rural women out of poverty

It would include teaching women the awareness on the importance of their health for their families, teaching them about nutrition and the significance of education for all their children – girls and boys. An increased focus should be placed on enabling women to enter the digital era by providing them with the tools and training to use these.

A device as simple as a mobile phone can help rural women get connected and be part of the formal economy. Women are using mobile phones, not to just connect but also access services and opportunities and get a chance at financial independence. The private sector on a larger scale can work with the government on creating or running training institutes to teach specific training skills, which will create employment opportunities for thousands.

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