Bridging the Digital Divide for Rural Women in Pakistan [Opinion]

Written by Meerab Malik

It was reported by the World Bank collection of development indicators in 2020 that 62.84 percent of the Pakistani population lives in rural areas. Higher literacy rates, lower visibility of women, internet connectivity issues, and COVID-19 are likely to result in further marginalization of the rural population, especially for women in joining the future of work and a rising e-commerce market in Pakistan.

This article pitches a proposal to uplift the status of rural women and to link them with e-commerce.

It is no secret that Pakistan has high illiteracy rates that are even more concentrated among women and in rural areas. The Pakistan Economic Survey (2020) revealed that the literacy rate has increased by 60 percent, which is a success. However, a survey by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in May 2021 showed that the literacy rate in children aged 10 has stagnated at 60 percent. This can be blamed on the pandemic that has forced the closure of all the educational institutes, resulting in a shift to online classes.

This is where the problem lies: all the government schools could not shift to online classes because the poor (students and teachers) lack basic equipment like laptops, speedy internet connections, and the knowledge of using the software. The survey also showed that enrolments in schools have started to decrease, which is a threat to development.

The pandemic also highlighted the significance of e-commerce. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) this year revealed that e-commerce’s share in global retail had increased from 14 percent to 17 percent from 2019 to 2020 in the wake of the pandemic. An example of this is China where the online share of retail increased from 19.4 percent to 24.6 percent between August 2019 and August 2020. Therefore, it may be suggested that in order to empower the Pakistani youth, and women, in particular, it is necessary to impart knowledge and training vital for the practice of e-commerce.

This proposal of promoting e-commerce aims to help the economy by instilling independence in women – especially those in rural areas – and empowering them to ensure a better standard of living. The challenge to it is that there are only a few broadband service providers that have extended their services to rural places. There are also no markets and no money to buy laptops and tablets besides the lack of knowledge of how they work. There is perhaps also a lesser will to learn how to do so. Motivated people leave for work in the cities while rural development does not progress. Therefore, it can be seen that heavy investment is needed to bridge this gap.

The Digital Policy of Pakistan in 2018 introduced a scheme to accomplish the stated suggestion.

However, the policies are short-sighted. They are focused more on exporting materials without the formation of a proper landscape for it. PayPal is not operative in Pakistan and international payments can be received via Western Union, but this can be deemed unprotected by foreign purchasers. Pakistan can establish that the promotion of e-commerce for trade is a distant goal.

For the current circumstances, it is crucial to bring the rural population into the field, and to train independent and empowered women who will continue to work and serve the country in the long run. Women in Pakistan are an untapped workforce, and it is high time they are incorporated into the labor spectrum. Only then can Pakistan aim for macro goals.

This leads to the question of how the training should be done.

The first step should be providing seminars to apprise women of the ease with which they can earn and become self-confident. Once they are ready to work, training camps should be set up. As per the digital policy, training centers are to be made in several localities. However, a small camp should be set near a village rather than a big one far away that will cause transportation problems.

Additionally, fast and efficient internet connections should be extended to such areas. As the women learn how to use the Internet, they can upload whatever they have to sell, and initiate the process.

Investment is also needed to maintain a good road network that will encourage deliveries. Training is a supply-side policy and these policies take time to produce fruits. However, it is still faster than education as it targets the polishing of skills rather than the teaching of skills. Once the training is done, the e-commerce business will start to flourish and become more popular, thus generating revenue.

Empowered women will not rely on men for their survival, and this will decrease the rate of early marriages. With women working, the desire for sons will decrease and the population will be controlled. Other issues like domestic violence will also decrease.

However, the introduction of the Internet may also create some problems as attempts to promote e-commerce will expose women to cybercrimes.

Cybercrime is a harsh, growing business. Viruses can be sent to a computer and personal information can be stolen from it. Thus, the chance of falling prey to fraud will increase, and hackers can get credit card information. Trust is integral to e-commerce.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, stated, “For e-commerce, the most important thing is trust”.

So, if customers no longer trust a website, they will stop using it and this will result in losses.

Cybercrime also includes cyber harassment. With a profuse use of the Internet, women are more likely to be subjected to bullying and abuse.

The solution for this can be an active cyber rescue. Pakistan has started establishing cybercrime wings, and they should be made in rural areas too. Additional initial precautions such as with addresses and a card verification system should also be taken. Women should be taught all such measures beforehand in the training sessions.

E-commerce is the future. It takes small businesses to become large scale, and encourages entrepreneurship. It is essentially needed for rural women in Pakistan who lack the education to land a job but have the skills to earn money otherwise.

About the Author

The author is a student of the SICAS DHA campus, Lahore.