Claiming rights for women in Pakistan’s informal economy

Hadia Majid General, New Urbanism

Urban growth in Pakistan brings new challenges for women and new gender inequalities. Hadia Majid and Ammar A. Malik  identify key factors which could help women workers in the informal economy to advocate for better recognition, greater access to services and a larger share in economic growth.

Pakistan is the sixth most populated country in the world and it is estimated that by 2020 at least two in every five Pakistanis will be living in urban areas. But, as in the rest of South Asia, rapid urbanization in Pakistan is messy and hidden; large scale informality and poor public service delivery is dampening the potential productivity benefits of agglomeration.

gender disparities in Pakistan are considerably higher than the regional average, which along with the feminization of poverty in cities, makes women in Pakistan’s urban informal sector particularly vulnerable.
Seventy eight percent of nationwide non-agricultural jobs are in the informal economy, some 22 million people are in such roles and the majority of them are women. The majority of an estimated 8.5 million mostly unregulated domestic workers, are also women.

Underdeveloped and unenforced work regulations make women disproportionately more susceptible to exploitative working conditions. They are poorly compensated and forced to work in hazardous circumstances without proper social or legal protections. Being out of the ambit of taxation, they are seldom considered productive economic agents and are relegated as secondary contributors to the economy.

These issues with urbanization and informality are not unique to Pakistan, all South Asian countries showcase similar problems. But, overall gender disparities in Pakistan are considerably higher than the regional average, which along with the feminization of poverty in cities, makes women in Pakistan’s urban informal sector particularly vulnerable.

In a recent report co-published by Oxfam, we explored these vulnerabilities in four of Pakistan’s major cities, focusing on identifying intervention opportunities based on voices heard on the ground. While we found a need for diverse skills development and collective bargaining capacity, it was the lack of access to healthcare, education, energy, and public transport above all else that was seen by women as mostly adversely impacting their economic security. In particular, women lack access to public transport, mainly due to fear of violent street crime and abuse. This directly hinders their ability to access jobs and reduces earning potential. As a result, a disproportionate share of women’s commuting in Lahore is on foot which severely hampers access to jobs.

How can women in the informal economy more effectively advocate for improved access to services and better bargain for collective interests?

  1. Membership of worker organizations
    One key difference we observed among respondents was that women who are members of worker organizations are significantly more aware of their rights. Yet, we also found that increased awareness does not always translate into better wages, or improved access to public services. In this regard, community involvement and adequate leadership is vital to ensure the accountability of local government.
  2. Increased connectivity and bargaining capabilities
    Being home-bound reduces workers’ bargaining power. It forces women to rely on middlemen or worker cooperatives to connect them to the market and means that women have poor broad-based networks of access and communication because of limited physical mobility. Workers who regularly leave their homes, such as domestic workers, also face substantial difficulties linked to lower than average educational attainment. Here, the use of mobiles, and social media could go a long way in not just increasing connectivity but also in disseminating information.
  3. Access to national identification documents
    Lack of national identification documents is a major barrier in informal female workers’ ability to improve their livelihood opportunities. Interventions in partnership with the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) to create specialty registration procedures for women facing these challenges, where affidavits from community and family members could substitute documentary proof, are means to alleviate this constraint.

The emerging home-based and domestic worker rights movement in Pakistan provides an opportunity to create stronger informal worker associations. By working with major private industries the associations could enable formal integration of workers into global value chains. This would create a much larger tax base and improve revenue generation. This revenue could, in turn, be channelled into improving public infrastructure, law enforcement and access to basic services including national documentation. The potential success of this system would create even greater buy-in from women and communities, facilitating more participatory forms of urban governance.

Following a decade-long gap, the recent reinstatement of local governments is a great opportunity to introduce these much needed reforms.

It is time for the benefits of economic growth and the social protection of informal workers to be seen by local political leaders as complementary policy objectives.


Shawna Wakefield


Amy Moran