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Digital Platform Empowers Women Within Pakistan's Patriarchal System

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, February 5 2014

Barriers to the workforce for women in Pakistan have compelled them to get creative (Leo Reynolds/Flickr)

In Pakistan, where many women are discouraged from working outside of the home, technology has opened up different avenues through which women can enter the workforce. One start-up called the Women's Digital League is helping to facilitate this shift and to get more women working.

Founder Maria Umar was a teacher at a private school with a master's in English Literature, but when she got pregnant the school refused to give her maternity leave and fired her. At home, she found work writing content through platforms like Odesk and Elance, which connect employers with freelance workers.

This was the inspiration for Women's Digital League (WDL), a virtual firm owned and operated by Pakistani women that provides digital services to clients.

WDL trains women in rural areas to perform data entry and data conversion tasks. Because women in rural areas often don't have access to the necessary tools or infrastructure at home they work out of village IT centers. WDL also targets women in urban areas who have been discouraged—either by family members or social norms in general—from working outside the home.

In a recent interview with Elan, a magazine that covers culture and innovation in the Middle East and South Asian communities, Umar said that the only two acceptable professions, for which women can leave the home, are medicine or teaching. Online work allows women to stay at home, work, and maintain respectability. Educated women who want to work without leaving home are vetted and tested by WDL. They perform more complex tasks like writing or graphic design.

Umar was recently interviewed by Elan, a magazine that covers culture and innovation in the Middle East and South Asian communities.

When asked why economic equality is important in the Middle East, Umar explained:

As far as economic empowerment is concerned, I believe in empowerment; I don’t believe in equality per se. If a woman wants to work or pitch in to the household income, she should have a way of doing that without hurting either the social fabric around her or working against her culture. To an outsider, the culture of a particular place may look suffocating, but it may not necessarily be so for the people living within it. But we need to find ways to work within that and find a solution to do what we want to but within those norms.

In a previous interview with Mashable, Umar described the situation for women as a “cement ceiling.” Luckily for Pakistani women she is slowly but surely chipping away at it.

WDL was one of 12 initiatives empowering women in the Middle East recently highlighted by Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs. Many of them leverage technology to connect women to jobs outside the home or facilitate work-from-home jobs. Others are platforms that allow women to sell handmade goods—either traditional arts and crafts or “upcycled” goods—on digital platforms.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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