This education start-up gives Pakistani women a second chance at a career
“To be an IT graduate and sit at home was... a curse,” says Ambreen Salman, a former software developer who quit her 9-5 after a varied career in banking, education and the media to tend to her family’s needs.
“However, my priority was my mother,” she continues. “She needed me more than I needed to work. She would get very sick in my absence. My children were also getting disturbed."
“The elderly need a lot of care -- they need to be given their medicine, juice, soup, etc on time. A nurse or domestic servant can't do this -- only a beti or bahu can. So I gave up my professional life for her.”
38-year-old Swaleha Lakho has a similar story to tell. Once a physiotherapist at Karachi’s top hospitals, she gave up her practice after marriage and was at a loss when years later, her gynecologist recommended a change in routine to speed up her recovery from a medical condition.
“One of my sons is severely asthmatic,” she shares. “If he spends 10 days in school, he spends the next 10 days at home. It’s not easy to return to work when you have to make frequent hospital visits...”
Mahrukh Asim knew banking wouldn’t cut it anymore when she decided to restart work.
“Most jobs require a seven to eight hour commitment, five days a week and there’s lots of paperwork to do. I could have left the house if I wanted but nothing compares to being able to earn and stimulate your mind while staying at home and taking care of your family,” said the 36-year-old.
Pakistan’s static stay-at-home culture
Like many places in the world, the dynamics of urban, upwardly mobile families in Pakistan tend to be heavily gendered.
Traditionally, men are expected to earn and fulfill their household’s financial needs; women are charged with 'invisible' labour such as childrearing and housekeeping and thus become homebound, often at the expense of their own careers and ambitions.
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A 2007 study from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics estimated that the average Pakistani woman spent substantially more time engaged in unpaid labour (287 minutes per day) compared to her male counterpart (28 minutes per day). More up-to-date figures suggest that reality hasn’t changed.
In the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report published in December 2018, Pakistan ranked second to last in its Gender Equality Index largely due to the slow increase of economic participation of women.
World Bank estimates in 2017 put Pakistan’s female labour force participation at a mere 24.9%.
"The elderly need a lot of care and a nurse or domestic servant can't provide it. Only a beti or bahu can. So I gave up my professional life for my mother." — Ambreen Salman
While societal attitudes keep educated women at home, it doesn’t help that the job market in Pakistani major cities isn’t conducive to women’s later reintegration in the workforce, with daycare and flexitime schedules a rare facility in local workplaces.
As a result, many women spend up to a decade or more out of the workforce with few avenues back in.
Read more: Pregnant and fired — a Pakistani woman’s workplace dilemma
Pakistan has thus bred generation upon generation of educated but unemployed women in its urban centres. However, some change is afoot.
A new world of work
Today's urban Pakistani women are harnessing technology and embracing alternate careers to restart their professional lives within the comfort of their homes and schedules of their choosing.
By tapping into the scant economic opportunities that offer flexibility to work remotely, many previously home-bound women are being able to pull off the tricky home-work balancing act.
Ambreen, for instance, now works from home as a complaint management agent for a logistics company while also works at the British Council's testing department when exam season comes around.
Last year, she signed up as a maths teacher at Dot & Line, where she’s crossed paths with women like Swaleha and Mahrukh who’ve all got a second chance at a career.
“I see myself as a business partner with Dot & Line,” she enthuses. “They’re giving me financial freedom. It’s up to me to decide what days I want to teach, how many students I want to take on. I’m not bound to operate according to their parameters.”
Dot & Line began as the Dot & Line Club, an after-school creative space for children founded in 2015 by Maheen Adamjee and Lina Ahmed.
The club was headquartered in Defence; however, after noting an interest from parents in further parts of Karachi and concluding that affordability and accessibility are keeping them from enrolling their children, they launched the Dot & Line Centres in Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad to provide the same quality learning experience with a focus on mathematics in the homes of their Teacher Partners.
After a year in development, Dot & Line Centres enrolled its first batch of students in August 2018, for which about 60 women like Ambreen, Swaleha and Mahrukh have received training to teach home-based maths lessons with the help of Dot & Line’s custom-designed app.
While the Centre program was launched with the aim of providing affordable, high quality maths classes, another incidental outcome has been the financial and psychological empowerment of its teachers.
Co-founder Lina says, “There are over half a million women in Pakistan who are educated and have typically had some work experience before they stop working to focus on other important commitments such as their homes and children."
"We look at this large force of women as incredible untapped potential that simply disappears from our economic workforce and we empower them to work from the comfort of their homes with our world class blended learning product.”
But why do women need to work anyway?
When they talk about how their newfound vocation has enriched their life, the teachers of Dot & Line try to express the fulfillment of a somewhat intangible need.
“It gives me a sense of purpose”, Swaleha puts it, “You want something to look forward to in life.”
Ambreen says, “I get immense personal satisfaction from teaching. I’m getting what I have striven for all my life.”
Another teacher Maria, who took a seven-year hiatus to focus on her then newly married life, says, “it’s a mix of all things I wanted for myself — I love maths, I love kids and teaching was a childhood dream of mine.”
"There are over half a million women in Pakistan who are educated and have typically had some work experience before they stop working to focus on other important commitments such as their homes and children. This large force of women have incredible untapped potential that simply disappears from our economic workforce." — Lina Ahmed, Dot & Line co-founder
Whether they see their employment as the fruition of decades worth of educational pursuits, an outlet for their passion or a source of personal pride, the intrinsic rewards of work experienced by the teachers are undeniable. And then there is the obvious financial benefits of paid work.
The teachers reveal that with household expenses generally taken care of, they spend their earnings on themselves and their children.
Some admit that they're more careful about how they spend money earned by their husbands, sharing that they can take their kids out for outings or expedite pending housework with more freedom now that they have money of their own.
But that’s not all they’re gaining from it.
New faces, new friends
Another unexpected outcome of the Dot & Line Centres program has been the formation of a warm, supportive community of teachers that have befriended each over training sessions, meet-up events and a very active Facebook group.
An official platform for communication about app updates, changes to the syllabus and other curricular announcements, the Facebook group quickly grew into a space for teachers to share class activities and student work, troubleshoot problems, swap ideas, information and the occasional joke.
And from these mostly practical exchanges has sprung a genuine camaraderie that simply shows how glad they all are to be there and to know each other.
When Swaleha shared in a long, emotional post how teaching has been a source of positive change in her life, there were many to encourage her to keep at it and applaud the eloquence of her words. When another teacher went the extra mile to represent Dot & Line at a neighbourhood gala, the praise for her initiative just kept coming.
In a society where many women's caretaking responsibilities tend to cut them off from the wider world, a digital respite like this could mean a less lonely and insular existence.
Lina agrees, “The heart of Dot & Line’s story has always been about the incredible synergy women are able to create when they support one another."
A brand of their own
Of course, an added plus of being affiliated with Dot & Line is the benefits of a sophisticated organisational structure. Dot & Line is run by a team of about 20 people that includes a dedicated team responsible for helping the teachers’ business thrive.
One of the services it provides its teachers is to train them where they’re lacking.
“I was looking for a platform to refresh my skills. As a physiotherapist, I’d be writing emails and reports. But when I hosted my first parents’ session, I realised I didn’t know how to speak to the parents! But they groomed me and now I can lead the interaction with confidence,” says Swaleha.
There’s also the prestige associated with an aspirational brand. Working with a professional organisation compared with an informal set-up lends a certain legitimacy to what they do.
“I could have just opened my own tuition centre but I enjoy working with an organisation. I host events, I coordinate regularly with parents. On a lighter note, I wouldn’t be interviewed by a publication if I had just opened my own centre,” shares Mahrukh.
While its teacher's testimonials demonstrate Dot & Line's success as an innovative endeavour to reintegrate women into the formal sector, it also underscores how much work remains for Pakistan to increase the economic participation of its female population.
Pakistan has a long way to go in challenging a culture where women's financial dependence is a given, a culture that presumes that only 'needy' women whose needs aren't fulfilled by the men in their lives have to work for money, a culture where women are not conditioned to desire financial empowerment as a non-negotiable priority instead of a bonus lifestyle choice.
Only when these ideas will be dismantled will we see its effects trickle into women-friendly policies in the job market.
This article was originally published on March 22, 2019.