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Accelerating Women’s Economic Participation in the Urban Slums of Rawalpindi

Forty years old Uzma* starts her every week with a visit to the Raja Bazaar. The market lies fifteen minutes ride away from her residence in Dhok Hassu, a downtrodden urban slum in Rawalpindi. She purchases a bulk of cosmetics and feminine hygiene products from one of the shops, which she will later take door-to-door to sell to Afghan/Pathan women in her neighborhood.

Figure 1: Streets of Dhok Hassu

Few months back, Uzma did not feel she had the confidence to even socialize with someone outside her close family circle. Today, she runs her own door-to-door retail enterprise and has a regularly stream of clients who trust her with their orders of products that they otherwise shy away from purchasing from male shopkeepers. She credits her success to the skills and exposure gained through the business trainings attended under the Roshan Aaj Program of Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC).

Figure 2: Selling femcare products via door-to-door sales

For the past two years, AHKRC has been bridging barriers to women’s economic participation in Dhok Hassu. So far, more than 50 women have been trained to earn a sustainable livelihood. The article shares the three strategies that have enabled AHKRC to reach out to these women and empower them to take charge of their destinies.

“When we started out, women were not willing to get out of the comfort of their home; it took much handholding and mentorship in the beginning to make it happen… Many of these women now run their own small-scale enterprises such as parlors and tuition centers, earning revenues of Rs. 3000 to 15000 a month” — Nudrat, Social Mobilizer AHKRC

1. Building Trust through Women’s Safe Spaces

Similar to other low-income settlements, there are limited avenues for recreation and social interaction in Dhok Hassu. The few public spaces, such as chai dhabas and net cafes, are off-bound for women. The field office of AHKRC serves as a safe haven for women where they can reach out for facilitation related to employment, business, mental health, and learning opportunities. The office is located in a central location which enables women to visit without concerns of safety. The field staff, majority of whom is female, regularly engages the community to build trust and local partnerships.

“I learnt about the program through a community session in our Muhallah. I discussed the opportunity with my in-laws who were reluctant at first to let me work. But then Basharat bhai (Social Mobilizer at AHKRC) convinced my husband that an additional breadwinner in the family would enable a better future for our children. This played a major role in changing his perspective” — Samina

Figure 3: Beneficiaries with project team outside AHKRC’s office

2. Localizing Enterprise Trainings for Low-Literacy Women

AHKRC, with support of Mera Maan, has designed a basic-level curriculum to teach business skills to low-literacy women. Local language and case studies enable women to grasp difficult business concepts — e.g. entrepreneurial qualities would be taught through Asma’s story who has just completed a beautician course and wants to use her skills to earn money. Women are encouraged to seek support of friends/family in areas they themselves struggle. For-instance, Amna, who herself cannot read and write, engages her educated daughter for help with bookkeeping, while Mehrunsia has her older son get her business supplies from nearby bazaars.






Figure 4: Participants pitching their startup idea to a panel of judges


3. Promoting Community Ownership for Sustainability

The idea of the “Urban Right from day one, AHKRC’s team emphasizes its role as a “partner” rather than as a charity. The idea is to reduce dependency by playing the role of a “facilitation hub” that connects communities to information, training, mentorship, and resources, thus empowering them to lead their journey towards a dignified livelihood. AHKRC builds linkages with local influencers and grass-root organizations so they can all work collaboratively to bring income-generation opportunities to women.

“The driver of the Roshan Aaj Program is foremost the community and AHKRC is a partner in people’s journey to enhance their lives and seek economic well-being” — Dr. Ayesha Khan, CEO AHKRC

Figure 5: FGD with CreditFix to introduce m-finance in Dhok Hassu


AHKRC regularly documents lessons from the urban implementation site to enable replication of similar model in other communities. The latest reports can be accessed at: Addressing Multi-Dimensional Urban Poverty and The Urban Lab: One Year On. To learn more about our projects or to get involved, reach out at ayesha@khans.org.

*Some of the names have been changed to protect privacy of the individuals.


Contributed by: Sumbal Bashir