Women participate in a protest against 'honor killings' in Lahore, Pakistan. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivanka Trump Encourages Empowerment of Women in Pakistan

Pakistan’s ranking for gender equality remains one of the lowest in the world

Empowerment of women in Pakistan was the subject of a meeting in Washington which included Ivanka Trump, the US president’s daughter and senior adviser, and Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband and White House senior adviser, also attended the meeting.

According to Radio Pakistan, Ivanka Trump showed a keen interest in working on women’s empowerment in Pakistan. Employment opportunities, vocational training and promoting business opportunities for youth were also discussed. Alleviating poverty will also be part of the empowerment effort.

Pakistan is the world’s fifth-most populous country and the second-largest in South Asia. Women make up 49 percent of the population, but only 22% of the work force.

Dr. Sania Nishtar, chairwoman of the Benazir Income Support Program, told The Media Line that the strategy for alleviating poverty consists of interest-free loans, skills training and the transfer of small assets such as sewing machines, livestock and agricultural equipment to the population. About 16 million people will benefit from the program. She also said that the government is introducing vocational training in girls’ schools throughout the nation.

Pakistan has adopted a number of international and national commitments to protect women’s rights. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s ranking for gender equality remains one of the lowest in the world. Women tend to be poorer, malnourished, illiterate and have less access to property ownership, credit, training, and employment.

While Benazir Bhutto was the first Muslim female to serve as Pakistan’s prime minister, she was not able to increase women empowerment because the country remains a patriarchal society.

Sadia Shamsher Ali Kahn, a Karachi-based women’s rights activist and lawyer, told The Media Line that, “no doubt women empowerment plays a most important role in building democratic societies, protecting basic human rights and minimizing education, health, and economic-related problems.”

Ayyaz Kiyani, an Islamabad-based senior socio-economic researcher, told The Media Line that because the majority of women in Pakistan live in rural areas, empowerment must include a broad range of issues including education, healthcare and social status. “Women are trying to improve their economic situation, but unfortunately their hardships remain undervalued.”

Kiyani added that while progress is being made, there are deep-rooted challenges which need to be addressed.

Shahana Mehmood, a Peshawer-based entrepreneur, told The Media Line that married women entrepreneurs in rural areas face many obstacles to advancement. Married women have to look after their children and husbands before they can pay sufficient attention to their own activities. Women entrepreneurs also suffer from inadequate financial support. Although there are many donor agencies, only women living in major cities can access them.

“Our lawmakers must prioritize legislation so that every woman entrepreneur can easily be connected with international donors,” Mehmood said.

Dure Shawer is a leading Pakistani female entrepreneur and women’s rights activist. She is the founder of the Women Economic Empowerment Network, WEE.

In an interview with The Media Line, Shawer said that a large number of women are working in various industries throughout the country, but only the government in Punjab had increased female participation in the work force from 5% to 15%.

In the last year, Shawer said her organization had trained more than 1,000 poor women and thus enabled them to earn for themselves. Shawer revealed that she plans to launch a digital media platform geared toward bridging the gap between empowerment policies and their implementation.

Dr. Fizza Yasmeen currently chairs WEE in the Sind rural areas. Her program is focused on the rehabilitation of women suffering from epilepsy. Yasmeen told The Media Line that due to low literacy rates in these regions, families shun women with the medical condition. WEE helps these women receive treatment and vocational training in tailoring, cooking and sewing, so they can earn a living on their own.

Yasmeen said that despite recent gains for women’s and girls’ rights in Pakistan, social and gender equality remains a challenge. Millions of women in Pakistan often cannot access education and jobs due to deep-rooted cultural taboos. “Women play a critical but unsung role at every level of nation-building; it is important to recognize their contributions in a more visible way for a vibrant democratic culture and respect of human rights.”

Maliha Khalid was cited by Google for her role in one of the fastest growing startups in Pakistan. She is a founder of the Doctory Health Center, which offers free primary health care services to all Pakistanis, especially to those living in rural areas of the country. Through mobile phones, Doctory connects users with its network of physicians. The center, which was launched last December, receives about 5,000 calls a month.

Khalid told The Media Line that she has a vision of helping women achieve better quality services. “We want to start in Pakistan and then grow globally. Currently, Pakistan ranks 57th out of 60 countries in access to healthcare,” she said.

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