A growing number of women, excluded for formal sector, are turning to informal online commerce to earn money
Updated Friday Sep 09 2022
Hailing from a remote village in Punjab’s Mianwali district, Khadjia Malik had only one dream that kept her going through difficult times: to see her four children receive a good education.
The 43-year-old mother was married to a sailor when she was just 18. After marriage, Khadija found work at a clothing factory in Islamabad to earn enough to feed her children. But then in 2020, she lost her job.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, the company she worked for had to cut back costs and as a result sacked many workers.
Out of work and with no other options, Khadija took to taking stitching orders at home. But that was not enough to meet her families daily expenses.
One day, after finishing an applique order for her neighbour, Khadija used the Rs2,000 she had saved to buy three towels, some cloth and a quilt from a local wholesale market.
She embroidered the towels and the quilt and made two separate cushions and pillows. The next day, she decided to have her hand-embroidered products dry cleaned. She was holding onto the bag as she waited outside the school to pick up her children, when a friend noticed. She asked Khadija if she can take the bag home to copy the designs. Khadija agreed.
Soon the word spread. People in the neighbourhood began calling her to ask if she was selling the bedsheets and cushions. She sold them for Rs700 each and made Rs2,100 that day.
Khadija is among those 7.3 million people who lost their jobs during a lockdown in Pakistan between April to June 2020, as per the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Of the 7.3 million, 74% were women working in the informal sector.
When a women loses her job, it affects the entire family, as 46% of low income households in Pakistan rely on the earnings of the women.
The Lahore-based Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), found that only 71% of the women who responded to its survey were concerned about being infected by the deadly coronavirus. The rest feared losing their jobs more.
The World Bank in its report released in 2021 presents an even bleaker picture. As per the report, the post-pandemic recovery for males is faster than women, adding that this could lead to a further decline in women’s participation in the country’s economy.
While Khadija Malik was able to quickly bounce back and set up a small business after being unemployed, Ghania Arsalan didn’t have it so easy.
She had given birth to her fourth child during the pandemic in 2020. At the same time, she lost her job as a teacher at a local school in Karachi. Ghania struggled financially for six months, unsure how she would feed her children, until a friend at a wedding helped her get back on her feet.
“The friend gave me her stock of makeup and jewelry to sell,” Ghania tells Geo.tv, asking her to return the money after keeping a profit.
To promote her business, the mother of four turned to social media, posting ads on women-only groups on Facebook and WhatsApp. After roaring success, Ghania has now expanded her business and also sells clothes, sandals, purses and other household items.
“After the ban on imported luxurious goods, more and more people are turning towards online sellers for low-cost alternatives,” she said, “I now have loyal customers all over Pakistan.”
A growing number of women, excluded for the formal sector, are turning to informal online commerce to earn money.
In 2022, Nuzhat Kamran, 29, enrolled herself in baking classes. Then, she set up an Instagram account to promote her baked goods. “People loved the pictures of my cakes and kept asking me for orders,” she said.
The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a global partnership of more than 30 leading development organisations that works to advance the lives of poor people, especially women, through financial inclusion, has found that women are heavily involved in informal e-commerce.
“This type of e-commerce often enhances women’s livelihoods while deepening their use of digital and financial services, such as mobile wallets and online banking,” it notes in a recent report.
Ultimately, the study found that informal e-commerce could be the path to financial inclusion and economic independence for women in Pakistan and other countries.
But there are drawbacks to e-commerce as well, explains Zunaira Shah, a research consultant for CGAP in Pakistan. According to a CGAP report, Most informal e-commerce businesses in Pakistan are gendered in that they deal with traditionally feminized skills and products. These women-dominated businesses are often undervalued and trivialised, which makes it harder for women to raise investments and be recognised as ‘real’ business owners.
There is also a risk that home-based, informal work could reinforce patriarchal norms by restricting a woman’s mobility wrote Shah, in a research paper.
There are no exact numbers of how many women work in the informal sector, neither are there any on how much their contribute to the economy. Even though more and more women are turning to the informal sector to support themselves.
Khadija, Ghania and Nuzhat are just some examples of women who refuse to return to a daily 9am to 5pm job. For these women, by staying at home, they can save up on the cost of commute and baby-sitting. None of which is provided to working women in the formal sector. Not only that, these women can now work on their own terms.