IT is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the challenges that Pakistani women face. After all, Pakistani women have won Nobel Prizes and Oscars; they have scaled Mount Everest and play cricket in international tournaments; one is a war-ready fighter pilot, another is an elite police commando. Women have served as this country’s prime minister, federal ministers, and speakers and members of national and provincial assemblies. Turn on the television, and between female news anchors and feisty heroines in serialised dramas, you’d think gender inequality was yesterday’s news.
But a few celebrated women and celebrities cannot make up for the reality of women’s experience in Pakistan. Female labour force participation is gradually increasing, but hovers at about 25pc, up from 19pc a decade ago, according to World Bank statistics. Woeful female labour force participation statistics point to other poor indicators in terms of women’s educational attainment, nutrition levels, poverty, health and family planning.
Despite its obsession with economic revival, our current government has not prioritised boosting female employment, a known antidote to ailing GDP growth figures. A policy focus on female employment is urgently needed given the rapid rate of urbanisation in Pakistan. More than 50pc of the population will be living in cities within the next decade, and urbanisation will change the role played by women, forcing more to participate in the workplace and contribute to dual-income households to compensate for the increased cost of living in cities.
Women, Business and the Law 2016, a new World Bank report, points to some of the challenges Pakistani women seeking employment face. Pakistan’s Constitution contains clauses on non-discrimination and gender equality, and there is legislation regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. But there are no laws mandating equal remuneration for work of equal value or requiring non-discrimination based on gender during hiring. There are no quotas for women on corporate boards. Married women need to include their husbands’ name, nationality and address when registering a business.
Women are also notably absent from constitutional courts, which has an impact on women’s access to justice overall. There is growing evidence to suggest that women judges can make a difference in cases where gender is an issue, often ruling in women’s interests.
The issue of justice is relevant because most working women in Pakistan are employed in the informal sector, which provides them with an income, but not necessarily empowerment. Informal employment denies women access to adequate compensation, appropriate working conditions, job security, and legal recourse.
There is no shortage of incentives for the government to introduce policy reforms to encourage and regulate female employment. Not only does increased female labour force participation drive economic growth but it also leads to broader improvements in society. Research has shown that women with access to and control over resources are more likely than men to invest in the welfare of their families. Women spend more on their children’s education and health, and increased female employment positively correlates with school enrolment statistics, child survival, and nutrition levels.
The advantages of giving women greater access to resources have been indirectly acknowledged through poverty alleviation schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme and microfinance initiatives that target women. However successful, these initiatives are unfolding in the absence of a broader political context in which female employment and empowerment are policy priorities.
It is critical that in its efforts to improve Pakistan’s economy, the government puts increased female employment at the centre of the agenda, not least because threats to improved female workforce participation are emerging. Regressive ideas about women’s social roles are in danger of becoming more mainstream. On a facetious level, this takes the form of Junaid Jamshed appearing on a televised morning talk show and telling a female host that it’s for the best if women are not taught how to drive; on a more sinister level, the threats manifest in the form of the Council of Islamic Ideology endorsing underage marriage, as it did last year.
The government should start by setting ambitious female employment targets, and introducing reforms to ensure women have the right to equal pay and non-discriminatory hiring. As he tours the world seeking to generate FDI, the prime minister should focus on sectors such as light industry and services, which tend to boost female employment. Given that the one point on which Pakistan scores well, thanks to quotas, is female representation in parliament and at the local government level, there is no excuse for inaction.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2015