This article is the first in a series by our new resident columnist, Kinzah Khan. Each column will focus on female empowerment, from movements fighting for women’s rights, to profiles of lesser-known feminists, to court case drama. This piece is on the NGO, CIRCLE, and their work in Pakistan – to challenge a status quo where women are often deemed to be passive, restricted and victimised.
A few months ago, I decided to attend a UCL Careers talk on international development. Indeed, whenever someone had asked me what I wanted to do when I was older, I had always said ‘I want to help with the development of third world countries’ – but I didn’t actually know what that meant. But, after an hour and a half of facts and figures, I finally understood what that entailed and what I needed to do to get there.
To successfully work in international development, you need to have some experience in working, you guessed it; internationally! So, I decided on contacting an organisation in Pakistan and convincing them to let me work with them over summer (Pakistan was my country of choice because, being a Pakistani woman, that’s the country I would naturally set my sights on working with). After the talk, we had the opportunity to network with some UCL alumni who had progressed into the field of international development. One member worked in a sector of the British Asian Foundation and by luck, she was the head of the Pakistan division! So, I did what most people would do: I stood by a group of other students talking to someone else, trying to think of things to say that would make me sound smart. After about 30 minutes, I went over to talk to her. I won’t bore you with the months of communication that followed this interaction but, to summarise, the woman from the alumni event put me in contact with Sadaffe Abid, who then offered me a six-week internship in Pakistan to work for her NGO: CIRCLE.
CIRCLE was started by Sadaffe as a social enterprise focused on boosting the economic participation, empowerment and leadership capability of women in Pakistan. They believe that investing in women is the ‘smartest economic venture of today’. A study by McKinsey has shown that total gender parity would add $28 trillion to the economy by 2015, and a study by Nike Foundation showed that for each dollar a woman earns, she invests 90 cents in education, nutrition and health care. Investment in women not only benefits their individual quality of life, but also allows families and economies to grow stronger. CIRCLE’s work also contributes to the achievement of UN sustainable goal 5 – gender equality – and 8 – decent work and economic growth. CIRCLE has appreciated the complexity of this movement, setting out three main initiatives that address different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds with which they hope to mobilise female participation in industry and leadership positions:
Firstly, CIRCLE brought ‘She Loves Tech’ to Pakistan: the world’s largest start-up competition exclusively for female-led companies. In Pakistan, there are 3 local rounds: Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, which also plays host to the national final. That winner then has the opportunity to fly to China, where they participate in a week-long boot camp, visiting world leading tech companies, working with investors and having other networking opportunities. The competition aims to give female innovators a platform that they would not normally have because of their gender. I had the opportunity to work on the organisation of both rounds held in Karachi. There were inventions that addressed microfinance, sustainable aeronautical engineering, wedding planning, sign-language translation, sexual and reproductive health and many more! The fact that Pakistani women had created pieces of technology that could solve global issues was inspiring.
Secondly, CIRCLE recognises that education is a key component to the development of any country. They have developed an eight-month long programme that teaches technological and web development skills to women (and sometimes men) from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This programme is called ‘Tech Karo,’ which is Urdu for ‘Do Tech’. The programme provides students with skills that will allow them to apply for internships, freelance work and in some cases, create their own online companies. On top of web development skills, Tech Karo students also participate in a ‘Life Skills’ session, in which they learn how to be mindful, confident, and how to perform at interviews. The students are also provided with mentors from tech companies such as 10 Pearls, IBM and Daraz. What makes Tech Karo unusually successful is the incredibly low drop-out rate of students. CIRCLE has high hopes that the success of this first year means Tech Karo can grow to become more inclusive, and expansive across other regions of Pakistan.
The third branch of CIRCLE steers slightly away from technology and focuses on the ‘empowerment’ part of their mission. This branch is called ‘Elevate’. Elevate is directly geared towards achieving UN Sustainable Goals 5 and 8 through promoting female participation in the economy. Elevate was launched in 2016 and has 3 goals they wish to achieve: to increase women’s representation on boards, to have more women led businesses in supply chains and have gender balanced conferences and panels. At the moment, Elevate works to achieve this by holding public events, having conferences and taking commitments from individuals and organisations to only participate in diverse events.
While working within Elevate, I had the opportunity to help develop a concept note to be pitched to universities to initiate a programme that would give women the training and inspiration they needed on how to achieve positions of leadership in the work place, as well as how to deal with sexual harassment or working in male dominated atmospheres. CIRCLE also recognises the importance of having men as allies and encourages men to attend their events.
I left Sadaffe’s organisation with an incredible admiration for Pakistani women. Their determination to contribute to a society that rejects them as well as the intelligence each of them emulated contradicted every stereotype that is typically applied to them as women from an Islamic country. Although the feminist movement is far from being complete there, the work of NGOs such as CIRCLE is bringing us closer to equality, one step at a time. My greatest epiphany came from working on the concept note for Elevate. I asked my colleagues for reasons as to why women should be allowed in the workplace, expecting the typical answers riddled with facts and statistics. But what they said made me re-evaluate my own reasons for wanting to be a successful woman:
As women, we are constantly asked to defend ourselves: ‘why is your skirt that short?’ ‘why are you wearing makeup?’ ‘why are you not wearing makeup?’ ‘why aren’t you smiling?’ ‘why do you want work in a man’s profession?’ ‘why don’t you want to get married?’ ‘why is it necessary to have women in the workplace?’ Although the statistics on economic contribution, innovation and equality are all relevant and vitally important reasons as to why women should be allowed to succeed, the fact that a woman is ambitious, educated and willing to work should be reason enough.
A man would never be questioned on his desire to work because of his gender – so neither should a woman.