A Reservoir of Capability and Talent: Women’s Economic Empowerment and Increased Political Participation in Pakistan


This post is Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here. Jump to Arbab’s remarks here.

Shamama Arbab, Vice President of the Peshawar Women’s Chamber of Commerce (PWCCI) in Pakistan, is both a director of her own business and a tireless advocate for economic inclusion for women in Pakistan. Peshawar is a city where it is often difficult for women to even leave the home alone, so launching and growing a business can seem like a journey too dangerous to consider. Yet given her own success, she strives to provide similar opportunities to other women. She is focused on fostering women’s economic, social and political inclusion, addressing inequality, building an ecosystem in which women entrepreneurs are empowered, and where women can contribute to the country.

Across South Asia, there are women like Arbab who are both inspirational and transformational. They are changing their countries from the inside out by changing the role that women play as citizens. With this blog series, “Exploring the Connections Between Women’s Economic Empowerment and Democracy,” based on a panel at a March 2015 National Endowment for Democracy conference in Delhi, CIPE is highlighting the work of several such women leaders of chambers of commerce and business associations in the region. Having broken through various glass ceilings themselves, these women are now sharing their success by building institutions and mechanisms to support women across the economy, from all walks of life.

In Pakistan, it was just nine years ago that women first won the legal right to form chambers and business associations. Since then, women’s chambers like PWCCI have tackled a range issues, from helping local artisans market their goods generating income for their families, to helping women rise to managerial roles in existing firms, adding value to their organizations.

Women entrepreneurs have been able to formalize – register their businesses, obtain trade licenses, pay taxes – and operate within the mainstream of the country’s economy, ensuring that women entrepreneurs are taken more seriously. The chambers have helped make the contribution of women entrepreneurs to society and the economy undeniably concrete.

Now, these organizations have begun to work proactively with the government to advocate for change, including through the promulgation of new policies that will lead women to participate more actively in the economy and in political life.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared his government’s intention to take steps to protect and empower women. But organizations like PWCCI must apply consistent pressure so that these promises of change are not mere rhetoric. To accomplish this goal, PWCCI is advocating for policies that can reshape entrepreneurial ecosystems by lowering the barriers that women disproportionately face in the business world. To this end, just a few short months ago, the PWCCI and the South Punjab Women’s Chamber formed an advocacy coalition with the goal of increasing the commercial loan repayment period for artisans – many of whom are women – from 180 days to 360 days, which would be a boon for these businesses.

This is the kind of effort that can slowly transform the political landscape as well. For example, not far from Peshawar, in the city of Dera Ismail Khan, nearly 30 percent of registered women voters cast votes in a recent election —  higher than is typical in rural areas. This turnout reflects the political ripple effects of greater economic participation, even in areas where security in tenuous. As Arbab remarked in Delhi, women represent the world’s “largest untapped reservoir of capability and talent,” with the combined strength to advocate, and to vote, for broad level change.

Rachel Grossman is an Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.