Our Perspective

Self-belief, personal motivation, and family support drives women’s engagement in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas


This is the second blog update for the Positive Deviance Pilot project in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas implemented by UNDP. If you haven’t read our first blog entry, you can find it here

In October 2017, our innovation Positive Deviance pilot project really began to gather steam. Our implementing partner, Humanitarian Development Organization Doaba (HDOD), had been brought on board in view of their extensive experience working in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As explained in our first blog post, FATA is Pakistan’s most excluded region – and this exclusion is felt most acutely by women whose everyday lives are deeply constrained by traditional tribal values that leave little space for their engagement in public life and discourse.

Despite these constraints, FATA has produced some exceptional women, from Maryam Bibi of Khwedo Kor (a FATA and KP-based women’s forum), to Toorpakai – Pakistan’s highest ranking female squash player who hails from South Waziristan, and Ayesha Gulalai, the first female from FATA’s South Waziristan to become a Member of the National Assembly. Alongside these, there are other women – teachers, health workers, nutrition assistants and social organizers - who are forging their paths in FATA and it is those that the project wished to learn from.

Initially, HDOD’s mapped female positive outliers in the three selected agencies in FATA: Khyber, Kurram and D.I.Khan who are, for example, working in hospitals, basic health care units or schools. Twenty-one positive outliers in Kurram were identified as well as 20 in Khyber and 20 in D.I. Khan and detailed interviews (using a questionnaire with a mix of open and close-ended questions) were conducted with each by trained community mobilizers who had been fully sensitized on the nature of the positive deviance approach. The preliminary results proved immediately interesting.

Initial findings in all three locations showed that the main hindrance to women’s participation in public life came from the Pashtun traditional view that although women are respected, their public participation is not approved under Pashtunwali (the Pashtun cultural code). Women felt that the greatest threat to their participation came from their communities; whereas the strongest support came from their families. Interestingly, it was the older generation, the parents, who were more supportive of their daughter’s endeavors (71% in Kurram, 70% in Khyber and 75% in D.I.Khan of positive outliers identified their parents as key supporters), whereas in Khyber 80% of female positive outliers said their husbands had not supported them, and 58% in Khyber also noted the same. Conversely, it is thought-provoking to note that in D.I. Khan, family members, including brothers and husbands were strongly identified as primary supporters for women’s engagement in public life – this may well be due to the geographic location of this region which lies much closer to the neighboring, and less conservative, province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). From UNDP’s work more broadly supporting recovery and rehabilitation processes across FATA, we have often seen that families which were displaced during the conflict in the region, and who settled in KP were exposed to increased female participation in public life – the economic and social benefits of which they were often able to witness directly. Upon returning to FATA, they may perhaps bring this new mindset with them.

An inspiring finding was that women identified their own self-belief and motivation as the strongest determinant of their engagement in public life; 91% of positive outliers in both Kurram and Khyber, and 95% in D.I. Khan identified their belief in themselves as the main factor for pursuing their goals.

Women want to be heard – they consistently identified cultural constraints, community conservatism, and a lack of education as the key factors constraining them. Women want a voice in determining their futures, and the ability to advocate for their political and socio-economic rights. They see the government as being primarily responsible for ensuring their protection and participation and that access to education was a critical channel for enabling this.

Our next blog will update you on the validation stage; where we take the findings of the interviews with positive outliers back to their families and communities for validation and for them to identify which strategies could be scaled up and replicated by other women in FATA. This will be followed by the iteration phase. Stay tuned!


Blog post Goal 10 Reduced inequalities Goal 5 Gender equality

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