US-Pakistan symposium

Panelists discuss women’s economic empowerment in Pakistan Thursday at the U.S.-Pakistan Symposium on Women in the Economy, held at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center on the Texas A&M campus.

About 65 scholars, professionals, students and representatives from the U.S. State Department and the Pakistani government gathered on the Texas A&M University campus Thursday for a daylong symposium designed to further the mission of supporting women’s economic empowerment and advancement in Pakistan.

The summit was an initiative of the U.S.-Pakistan Women’s Council, which is a public-private partnership between Texas A&M and the State Department, according to Executive Director Radhika Prabhu. She said the council is jointly based in Washington, D.C., and in Pakistan.

Prabhu said that the council’s recent initiatives include a Million Women Mentors program and a program to connect women to corporate supply chains in Pakistan.

“Our primary goal is to accelerate women’s entrepreneurship, access to employment and access to educational opportunities and bring more women into the economy in Pakistan,” Prabhu said. She said that the council and A&M began working together earlier this year.

“Our focus is looking at the next generation and how we can move them up and move women into the economy in droves,” Prabhu said. “Women are graduating and moving into the workforce in pretty large volumes in Pakistan. The question now is how to keep them in the workforce and in the economy.”

Prabhu praised leaders from Texas A&M and the Bush School; she said that the council, founded in 2012, looked at different universities to partner with in recent years.

“Texas A&M came up in that search, and the breadth of resources, analytical thinking and deep work that’s happening on the economic side, the agricultural side as well as in women, peace and security made combining forces with Texas A&M a sort of unparalleled opportunity,” Prabhu said.

Four A&M scholars and leaders are on the U.S.-Pakistan Women’s Council executive committee, including A&M President Michael K. Young and former president Elsa Murano, who is the director for the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture.

Panelists and other speakers at the symposium, held inside the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center, focused their remarks on a variety of topics, including mentorship, media representation, access to economic resources and other forms of support of Pakistani women and girls.

 In his brief speech to the summit’s attendees, Young welcomed those gathered to A&M and then said that Pakistan, which he said has played “an extraordinarily important role in the world,” possesses one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world.

“The gender gap in Pakistan is significant, as well,” Young said. He said that 12% of Pakistan’s businesses currently have women participating in ownership, which he said is lower than the global average of about 34%.

“It does not matter how rich a country is – a country cannot afford to waste half of its assets. Certainly not the United States and certainly not Pakistan,” Young said. “It’s these collaborations and created conversations today that will lead to the innovative ideas to enhance the opportunities in the lives of all of our friends in Pakistan and, additionally, our lives as well.”

Sania Nishtar, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, delivered a remote keynote address from Islamabad via video. In her remarks, Nishtar said there is “abundant excitement and energy here in Pakistan around this initiative.”

Nishtar outlined a number of pro-equity proposals and initiatives that she said had support in the Pakistani government, including the “girls learn, women earn” campaign.

“This campaign will be run from December onward to the International Women’s Day [on March 8, 2020],” Nishtar said. 

“Particularly, we will be promoting a set of legislative measures…to enforce a minimum wage for women,” Nishtar said. Other legislative actions in Pakistan, she said, would include efforts to raise standards for treatment of women in factories and recognition for women doing rural labor. Nishtar said that these efforts and others are designed to increase economic opportunities and job access for women in Pakistan.

Nishtar said that Pakistan’s participation in the council and broader initiative represented “a paradigm shift” in her country’s approach toward “a true and sustainable partnership” that, she anticipated, would lead to growth, investment and greater opportunity for women and girls.

“Our government is very conscious that we need to reimagine the role of women in the workforce that is being rapidly transformed by technology and digitalization,” Nishtar said.

Ervin Massinga, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Pakistan Affairs, delivered remarks on behalf of the State Department near the outset of the symposium.

 “The U.S. has long valued its over 70-year relationship with Pakistan,” Massinga said. The United States established diplomatic relations with Pakistan after it gained independence in 1947. “Both countries benefit from cooperation on issues ranging from gender equality, education, business and counterterrorism.”

Massinga said that the recommendations, highlights and notes from Thursday’s symposium will be used in the coming year.

“I cannot possibly summarize the expertise and passion in this room, but you represent some of the brightest minds and experts working on advancing women in the economy in the United States and Pakistan,” Massinga said.

Other speakers and panelists included Ubaid ur Rehman Nizamani, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington; D.C.

Dr. Sumera Haque, the executive director at Johns Hopkins’ Women’s Health Center; Leslie Cruz, CEO of STEMConnector; Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO of WEConnect International; and Duraid Quershi of Hum Network in Karachi, Pakistan participated in a mid-morning panel that explored, among other topics, the role of mentorship in helping to overcome the “belief gap,” or the assumptions about what a young person can achieve based on their gender, race, nationality or some other part of their identity.

Maliha Khan, a panelist at one of the afternoon sessions, said that young girls often have high aspirations before myriad pressures are put on them in their adolescence.

Khan works as Chief Programmes Officer at the Malala Fund, which was founded by internationally renowned Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai. Khan said the fund currently works in eight countries, with plans for several more in the works.

“Our mission is working so that every girl has access to free, safe, quality education for twelve years,” Khan said. “It isn’t enough just to get girls into primary school – you have to get them through to the end. On the quality bit, it’s how does that education equip them to be active citizens and active participants in the work force.”

“One of the things that symposiums like this do is to show people that Pakistan isn’t just  everything you see in the news. There is lots of interesting and vital work that’s going on, and Pakistanis are normal people like everybody else,” Khan said.

The symposium was organized locally by Tessa Pennington, a master’s candidate at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Raymond Robertson, a professor and the director of the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics and Public Policy at the Bush School, served as the symposium’s moderator and emcee.

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