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Breaking gender barriers in Pakistan’s building industry

Within the UKAid-funded Humqadam programme, IMC has built and rehabilitated classrooms in over 450 Pakistan's schools. We have been working alongside SmarTek, a firm led by Shahrukh Khan, the first woman CEO in the country’s construction industry.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

The building industry in Pakistan is dominated by big companies, generally led by men.

It is hard for small and medium-sized contractors to get a foot in the door because of huge investments and cash requirements. Entering the market is even more difficult for women-led companies as stereotyped gender roles are deeply embedded in Pakistan’s society.

Breaking the glass ceiling certainly takes more than a person’s resolve. However, when a programme with the right vision and ethos, such as the UKAid-funded Humqadam programme, meets with a woman ready to accept the challenge, the situation changes. One such woman is Shahrukh Khan.

Shahrukh Khan and Humqadam: a success story

Shahrukh Khan is the CEO of construction firm SmarTek and the first female CEO of a construction company in Pakistan.

When Shahrukh registered her business in 2007, she had no prior experience of the sector, just a drive and passion for social change and entrepreneurial spirit.

‘The first contract I received was of Rupees 4 million (£ 30,500) and I had to sell my car to fill that order.’

After years of setbacks and discrimination, even the trailblazing businesswoman had had enough and was on the verge of quitting the industry altogether.

It was at this point that the Humqadam programme entered the market to build and rehabilitate classrooms in public schools across the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

Ignoring the humble size of her company and her alleged disadvantage of being a woman, Shahrukh submitted her bid and was awarded a contract with us. She completed construction in three schools and was then awarded contracts to work on four more schools in Lahore, Punjab.

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Today, SmarTek is on the fast track to expansion. With half of its employees being women, the firm is quickly acquiring new clients and was ranked as the 16th Fastest Growing Company at the AllWorld Network in 2013-14.

Its services range from construction and turnkey design solutions to project management for remodelling, designing, constructing and renovating.

‘The direct implication of working with Humqadam has been SmarTek’s upgrade in the Contractor Category at the Pakistan Engineering Council.’

Shahrukh has also represented her firm at various international forums such as 10,000 Women Programme at Goldman Sachs and Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

Making a difference beyond the classroom

Humqadam, which is the largest education infrastructure programme funded by UKAid in Pakistan, has built more than 1,300 classrooms and rehabilitated 900 in over 450 primary and secondary schools.

Through the provision of an improved learning environment, the programme aims to increase retention and enrolment rates, especially among girls, who account for the majority of Pakistan’s 24 million out-of-school children.

Government Higher Secondary School Khudian Khas in Kasur, Punjab, one of the three schools that SmarTek has helped to build within Humqadam.
Government Higher Secondary School Khudian Khas in Kasur, Punjab, one of the three schools that SmarTek has helped to build within Humqadam.

Humqadam is also having a wider impact across communities. We are actively engaging local people, as we believe that community ownership over rehabilitated schools can increase enrolment and retention rates.

Local people are closely involved in the programme, through the formation of Committees for School Infrastructure (CCSI), which are trained to provide oversight during the construction process and beyond.

‘Humqadam’s principle of community and stakeholder engagement pursued by Humqadam is unprecedented in the construction industry. The community’s daily oversight and active participation was impactful and provided us with guidance to meet the community’s needs in the best possible way.’

Walking through one of the completed schools, Government Higher Secondary School Khudian Khas in Kasur, Punjab, Shahrukh misses no opportunity to talk to teachers and students about her work.

Getting a woman CEO into schools raises young girls’ awareness of the opportunities available to them in the construction industry and serves as a positive example.

Shahrukh Khan has come a long way and what she is doing will also go a long way towards dispelling preconceived notions about gender roles.

Things are changing slowly but surely. Sharukh’s story shows just that.

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