Revolution in SAARC Trade and Investment COPAIR & SCWEC to stimulate social entrepreneurship through E-Women

The introduction of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) to enhance commerce and trade activities has become the need of the time. Revolutionary ideas are being brought about by organizations and individuals to increase commercial activities. Women as marginalized segment of society are in a greater need to be empowered through the use of ICT to attain economic independence and contribute to national development. This study highlights the significance of SAARC in contributing towards introducing development goals and providing assistance to governments and organizations. The joint venture of SCWEC and COPAIR presenting a revolutionary idea of introducing ‘E-Women’ is an example that has been discussed in this study.

In the emerging democracies of South Asia, a large number of women are prevented from attaining economic independence and exercising their civil rights due to a range of formal and informal obstacles. Rules and laws, cultural and societal practices are among the most powerful challenges that women face. Studies show a direct correlation between women empowerment and economic development and that ICT ensured empowerment of women. Shamimul Islam in his studies conclude that for South Asia to become developed, the women that are the 48% of around 1.7 billion population of the world, should be empowered.

Shamama Arbab, a successful entrepreneur from Pakistan, while reflecting that women’s empowerment goes hand in hand with economic growth for all and that women’s success is everyone’s success, asserted that, “The largest untapped reservoir of capability and talent is women,” and that countries around the world benefit from having a business climate that is conducive to tapping into those reservoirs of talent.

Selima Ahmad, the founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), while talking about the significance of becoming financially independent, emphasized that when a woman creates wealth in her family, she can earn the respect of her family and society at large. This in turn allows her to take a bigger role in social and political dialogue. For this purpose, education serves as the key that helps unlock this hidden potential.

Although various organizations and institutions have taken strong initiatives to improve the situation, the perpetual lack of government support limits their efficacy.  The initiatives taken by SAARC Chambers Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC) in collaboration with Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) in Pakistan require clear policies from the government of Pakistan regarding entrepreneurial activities through the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICT). Furthermore, along with clearly spelt out national policies, the growth of ICT in South Asia requires long term planning to bring about reforms in economic and political institutions in order to mainstream South Asian women.

The difficulties encountered by women in obtaining finance including their right to own property which has been restricted and having no access to marketplaces. Despite the fact that a number of programs have been launched to address these issues by strengthening women’s chambers of commerce and business associations, building a network of such organizations from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, women’s standing in society and their political representation is not equal to that of men.

SAARC plans to advance financial matters, cooperative self-assurance among the nations of South Asia, and to speed up socio-economic growth in the region. The SAARC has created relations by creating changeless political relations with the UN as an observer, the EU and other multilateral bodies.

The core areas of cooperation among the SAARC countries are agriculture and rural development; health and population activities; women, youth and children; environment and forestry, science, technology, and meteorology; human resource development; and transport. Though there exist certain differences among SAARC member states, such as, geographical and population imbalances, they have many factors in common – rural economies, low income, population pressure, unemployment, geographically neighbor states and dependence on external debt, to name a few.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been increasingly promoted as a key solution for comprehensive development, poverty eradication and the empowerment of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women and minorities in the SAARC countries. ICT is a significant area of concern for women empowerment and growth of a country.

E-Business means interaction with business partners, where interaction is enabled by information technology. E-Business is changing the way we do business. For example, communicating with partners via e-mail, e-brochure, webpage etc. E-payment is a subset of e-commerce transaction to include electronic payment for buying and selling goods or services offered through the Internet. Similarly, e-learning encompasses learning at all levels, both formal and non-formal, that uses an information network, the Internet, whether wholly or in part, for course delivery, interaction and/or facilitation.

The areas of communication and transport deserve urgent attention of policy-makers in order to develop strategies for cooperation to accelerate development, and member states should also redouble their efforts to catch up with the comparable economies and increase their efforts to become meaningful ICT economic power.

Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, despite great effort by various initiatives taken by organizations remain without a comprehensive policy to address the increasing trend of ICT in every aspect of people’s lives. In fact, the mere absence of an ICT ministry in the country displays that Pakistan has to travel a wide distance to attain the progress it requires.

There exists a draft ICT policy document, but probably due to the absence of a powerful implementer, it has remained with no noticeable progress in implementation. This needs great effort on part of not only the people but also the policy making bodies in foregrounding ICT by pronouncing it as the most important aspect of change through development. In comparison, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have clearly delineated policies that have been incorporated in education sector to provide students with a strong base for a long time now.

The Indian National Policy on Education that was modified in 1992, stressed the need to employ educational technology to improve the quality of education. The policy statement led to two major centrally sponsored schemes, namely, Educational Technology (ET) and Computer Literacy and Studies in Schools (CLASS) that paved the way for a more comprehensive centrally sponsored scheme – Information and Communication Technology at Schools in 2004.

The Government of Sri Lanka first recognized the need for the development of ICT through the National Computer Policy of 1983 (COMPOL). This first attempt was taken by the Natural Resources, Energy and Science Authority of Sri Lanka (NARESA) on the instructions of President J. R. Jayewardene. A committee appointed by NARESA produced the National Computer Policy Report (COMPOL).

The “e-Sri Lanka” project launched in November 2002 was tasked with the development of an ICT Roadmap for Sri Lanka. The ‘E-Sri Lanka’ roadmap resulted in the implementation of the Information and Communication Technology Act which ensued in the establishment of the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka, (ICTA), repealing the relevant section of the Science and Technology Act which established CINTEC.

Thereby, ICTA has been operational since 1st July 2003. The mandate of the E-Sri Lanka policy is to build a national information infrastructure, create a framework for the promotion of software and ICT enabled industries, reengineering government and developing ICT human resources.

In October 2002, the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh approved a National ICT Policy which later became known as the ‘National ICT Policy 2002’. This was the first declared national policy on ICT. The ICT policy touches upon almost all facets of national life that could benefit from the use of ICTs, most of the time-bound goals and objectives are either past the time-frame mentioned in the policy document, or have already been achieved, or are no longer relevant due to other policy decisions of the Government. Needless to say, there is some distance to go before that level of development in ICTs is achieved.

In view of this, the ICT stakeholders felt the need to revise the current ICT Policy in line with the national goals, objectives and capabilities. The subject was raised in the Better Business Forum headed by the Chief Adviser where a decision was taken to review the current ICT Policy and recommend revisions as necessary.

ICT contribute broadly to readjusting social rules for interaction, offering new channels for establishing and accessing connections and relationships. Globally ICT transforms the way production is organized and information shared. ICT offers flexibility of time and space, a way out of isolation, and a potentially increased access to knowledge and productive resources even in remote locations.

ICT also has the potential of providing tools that may break constraints on voice, particularly public voice, and social control including surveillance of women’s physical and social mobility. Access to ICT can increase women and girls’ access to the public space, and strengthen their public as well as private agency. It can be a particularly effective tool to reach groups of women and girls who for different reasons are not participating in public or social life. Women all over the world are increasingly turning to the internet to exercise their political and social rights.

Access to ICT is crucial for women and girls to be able to participate in society on equal terms with men and boys. There is a growing recognition of the need to talk about human rights in general and women’s rights in particular as being relevant not only offline, but also online.

Online gender-based violence such as stalking, harassment and hate speech is becoming an increasingly challenging risk and a limitation to women’s use of the internet for the purposes of participation and accessing services and information. Women and women’s organisations that use the internet for political purposes meet these threats, as well as less public women who use the internet in their daily personal, community and working lives. In many contexts, ICT represent new ways of doing things and as such, it may provide new opportunities in areas with less firmly fixed gender biases that would help empower the marginalized population that is the women.

SAARC Chambers Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC) was established on March 29, 2001 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the objective of developing and promoting women entrepreneurs in the South Asian region. The Council is working towards facilitating cooperation and networking among the women entrepreneurs of the SAARC region.

SCWEC provides an effective platform for strengthening the intra-regional development of women entrepreneurship for economic development thus helping to exchange information on entrepreneurial skills and building trade links among the women of the SAARC region.

By conducting workshops, round table conference, seminars, training programs and annual events, SCWEC has come up with identification of some best practices for replication as regional projects that can potentially result in better opportunities for SAARC entrepreneurs to strengthen their trade activities.

SCWEC is committed to the development of women entrepreneurship with tangible goals of increasing business opportunities, building markets, job creation as well as strategic networking and growing woman run enterprises into mainstream business.

Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) is an independent, non-governmental registered organization established in the year 2002 with an aim to provide strength to global peace through dialogue and diplomacy by sharing knowledge, research, analysis and policy development in the areas of diplomatic relations, economic-diplomacy, cultural-diplomacy, trade and investment -diplomacy and peace building initiatives. It has been working largely on issues regarding human rights, empowerment of women and concerns of youth in Pakistan as well as cross-culturally.

With a key focus towards promotion of Pakistan’s relations with the international community by holding dialogues and meeting with national and international policy makers and drawing their attention on particular issues, COPAIR aims to not only make voices of the victims heard across the globe, but to provide them a platform to upgrade and enhance their status.

COPAIR has taken an initiative to introduce a new culture of ‘E-Women’ to empower women in Pakistan that aims to employ the internet as a main source to provide holistic help to the marginalized community especially women in Pakistan to express themselves effectively. This effort is a joint venture of SCWEC and COPAIR who will be working in collaboration to bring about the much awaited ICT based revolution in the lives of women in Pakistan.

The Pakistani woman is lagging behind in comparison to other SAARC countries due to lack of initiative and policy planning at government level. However, to rectify this situation both SCWEC and COPAIR have formulated a plan to launch the idea of ’E-Women’ for Pakistani women.  The primary aim of this program is to empower the Pakistani female into optimizing her potential through use of information communication technology to become linked with the outside world without leaving the home.

This E-Women initiative will entail a comprehensive program of providing online training for trade and assistance by experts to boost their confidence in themselves. Through this, women can take part in running e-businesses that require only an internet connection. Further another great step that has been launched is of E-Mall where both buying and selling can take place through the internet.

Furthermore, this connectivity is not only specific for connecting locally but to other SAARC regions. For this the concept of ‘E-SAARC’ is also being introduced that would further reduce distance and diffuse borders. This venture is bound to bring about a revolution in the lives of women, especially those who do not have access to internet, marketplaces and lack of facilities and training along with financial and societal constraints.

Women, a large segment of Pakistani society are still living a marginalized life in this era of technological advancement and rapidly growing entrepreneurial ideas and initiatives. For this purpose, it becomes imperative to bring the women into the mainstream by providing them support to bring about the much needed change through ICT. For this purpose, SCWEC and COPAIR have come up with a program that will provide the Pakistani women with a platform to participate in trade and investment activities to not only earn, but to play their role in nation building.

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About Dr. Lubna Umar 10 Articles
The author is the Editor of Mélange Intl. Magazine and The Asian Telegraph & Research Associate Center of Pakistan & International Relations (COPAIR).