Marked the ‘International Day of Rural Women’ – a day meant to commemorate the role rural women play in the development of their communities as well as to highlight the many challenges they continue to face on an almost daily basis.

Established by the United Nations back in 2007, it aims to direct much needed attention to the various ways in which corporations and governments can ensure that the needs of rural women are fulfilled. For 2018, the theme chosen by the organization to honor the occasion is ‘Sustainable Infrastructure, Services and Social Protection for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls’; i.e. calling for the provision of better public services, including healthcare and education and better laws, policies and budgets that may help rural women improve their livelihoods and well-being.

In today’s world, rural women make an increasing number of contributions that help strengthen their country’s economies. Yet, their potential continues to be restricted as a result of discriminatory laws and social biases, not to mention the rapidly changing economic, technological and environmental landscapes that threaten to render their skills obsolete.

According to data collected by the United Nations as part of a report developed in 2017, agriculture remains the only sector with the highest employment level for women belonging to developing countries and rural areas with the figure standing at nearly 60% for countries in the South Asian and Sub-Saharan African regions.

However, since the agricultural industry falls within the ambit of the informal economy, women belonging to rural areas are offered little to no protection of their labor rights. This leads to a much lower standard of living, poorer wages and health, limited access to social services, an inability to move upward in the economy and a lack of collective voice and agency.

Similarly, when it comes to the provision of quality healthcare and medical services, rural women continue to occupy the bottom rung of the ladder. Statistics from the report show that a rural woman is 38% less likely to give birth with a health care worker than an urban woman is in low-income countries.

Other challenges outlined in the report relate to an increased rate of child marriages, rising illiteracy and a lack of access to the internet, all of which result in a dearth of better economic, educational and healthcare opportunities for women belonging to rural areas.

In Pakistan, the situation for rural women is just as dire, if not more. Representing about a quarter of the country’s labor force, or 24.57%, rural women, on average, provide nearly five hours of unpaid care and domestic work per day, a figure far above the same for men, which comes to around two-and-a-half unpaid hours.

According to activists representing the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA), rural women, who have been making tremendous contributions to their country’s economy for decades, have always been served the short end of the stick by being excluded from the census as well as the calculation for the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Despite the fact that a sizeable number of the total female population in Pakistan, approximately 64 million, reside in rural areas, PODA claims that there exists virtually no documentation of the work done by such women.

For many rural women, though, there is still hope. For the past couple of years, the government has spearheaded a number of finance-related initiatives that are geared towards facilitating such women and guaranteeing the protection of their fundamental rights.

Projects such as the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) along with an increase in the number of microfinance banks within the country have enabled a greater number of rural women to get access to quality financial services. In addition, the government has also assisted rural women with agricultural training as well as marketing for their products.

Chief amongst these enterprises is Karandaaz – a company that helps promote access to finance for micro, small and medium-sized businesses through a commercially directed investment platform along with financial inclusion for individuals by employing technology-enabled solutions.

Ever since its inception in August 2014, Karandaaz has led the charge for greater financial inclusion through a variety of sponsorships, investments and entrepreneurship-themed challenges. So far, it has collaborated with the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund and KfW Development Bank to establish the Pakistan Microfinance Investment Company (PMIC) Limited as an important pillar of the National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS), of which Karandaaz Pakistan is a member.

The Pakistan Microfinance Investment Company (PMIC) Limited delivers quality financial solutions through wholesale lending and strategic investments designed to fill the funding gap and enhance financial inclusion.

Today, PMIC serves more than 20 borrowing institutions including microfinance providers and rural support networks. In doing so, it aligns itself with Karandaaz’s mission of developing a market for MSME financing.

Aside from the above, it continues to facilitate women in rural areas ingrowing their businesses.Take the example of KausarParveen, a rural woman from District Chakwal. One of many sole breadwinners for their large families, Kausarwas finding it difficult to make ends meet. Upon learning about Karandaaz’s microcredit scheme, she took a loan of Rs. 75,000 to purchase an additional buffalo and sell milk on a commercial basis. With the help of her savings, Kausar was able to have a well dug within her house, thereby eliminating the need to travel hundreds of miles for water.

Later, with the installation of a bio-gas plant, she was able to save the cost for wood bought for fuel and also ensure that her children were provided with nutritious, healthy food in a hygienic and safe environment. Thanks to the support provided by Karandaaz, Kausar has been able to increase her household income by fourfold, thereby ensuring a better, brighter future for both herself as well as her family.

With the help of such programs, many rural women today are finally getting the economic boost they need to move up in the economy. Even though we still have a long road ahead of us, such initiatives represent a step towards ensuring that the voices of rural women, whose contributions continue to support Pakistan’s economy, are heard.