Gender equality is not only an intrinsic human right but also an economic imperative. No country can ever progress by leaving half of its population behind. Therefore, investment in building human capital of women is smart economics.
Gender equality and women’s empowerment is a global agenda. Despite several international conventions and covenants including Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), gender inequality remains the biggest challenge of this century. World Economic Forum’s report Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), 2017 asserts that at the pace at which the world is moving towards bridging the gender gap, it will take 200 years to achieve gender parity in the world.
As Pakistan ranks second last on GGGI, it will take us even longer to achieve gender equality. Gender equality is not only an intrinsic human right but also an economic imperative. No country can ever progress by leaving half of its population behind. Therefore, investment in building human capital of women is smart economics.
Empowerment of women works as multiplier with domino effects on other development goals, such as population control, better family health, etc. Women’s empowerment is a multi-dimensional concept. It is a process as well as an outcome that enables women to make their own choices in life. Educational qualification, level of skill development, economic independence, and freedom from violence and gender consciousness are some of the key dimensions of the concept of empowerment. Although every aspect of empowerment is important, economic independence takes precedence as financial freedom not only equips women with more social and spatial mobility but also changes their position within power contests of the public and private realms.
Women in Pakistan have been contributing to the economic growth through their free domestic labour within the household economy and through paid work in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. However, women are not recognized as economic agents by the state and the society. Sex-role ideology, that defines women’s role in the private arena of home and men’s role in the public sphere provides a rationale for the family and state to invest less in women’s human capital. Consequently, when uneducated and unskilled women enter the job market, they have no options but to join the informal sector of the economy as low-paid workers with none or little legal cover of labour laws. Only 3% women in Pakistan are engaged in the formal sector of the economy, 15% are self-employed and the majority are home based workers. 77% of them earn less than minimum wage, compared to 42% of men in Pakistan.
Increasing numbers of women are entering the job market due to rising poverty, unemployment, high inflation and changing gender roles. It is imperative for economic growth of the country to utilize the productive capacity of women at an optimal level. The preconditions of women’s economic participation are well-placed in the country as literacy rate amongst women is improving. Between 2004 and 2014, there has been a 432% increase in girls’ enrolment at universities. There is hardly any gender gap at the post-graduate level. Fertility rate has almost halved and marriageable age has increased to 21 years. Women are excelling in every field and asserting their voices and agency.
It is important for the government to leverage women as a resource to accelerate economic development of the country. Evidence-based policy interventions need to be developed to facilitate women’s economic empowerment, which will not only benefit women and their families but the entire society.
As the large majority of women are working in the agriculture sector in crop and livestock production, and in the cottage industry, targeted interventions are required to support women in playing their roles more effectively and efficiently in these sub-sectors of rural economy. Women’s access to productive resources should be improved by ensuring their land and inheritance rights. Rural women should be given greater access to extension services, financial resources, information and the technical know-how. Small scale value addition agro-industry should be established in rural areas and rural women should be given the opportunity to run it.
In urban areas, educated professional women face glass ceiling phenomenon in public and private sector jobs. Despite women’s higher educational qualifications, they are under-represented in the decision-making positions in the public sector. 10% quota for women in public sector jobs should fill higher Basic Pay Scale 20-22, and efforts should be made to eliminate gender-based vertical and horizontal occupational segregation in the job market.
Formalization of the informal sector of economy where women workers are crowded will go a long way in strengthening women’s economic role and sense of job security. This will bring protective legal cover to women’s work and will improve working conditions and efficiency gains.
Entrepreneurship is another viable solution to address unemployment, poverty and women’s economic empowerment issues in Pakistan. There is a growing interest amongst younger women in urban areas in entrepreneurship. However, women entrepreneurs continue to face barriers due to social norms that associate business activities with men, lack of access to information, skills in financial management, marketing and access to credit that women face to start up a business. New-age technologies, business advisory and financial support should be extended to start-ups. This will positively affect poverty reduction and social inclusion efforts of the country.
Finally, economic participation and empowerment of women should not burden them any further. A national policy on work-life balance should be developed. It is important to have such a policy to facilitate women to strike a balance in their family and professional lives. It is high time that we focus on accelerating the progress towards women’s economic empowerment. According to International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) estimation, Pakistan’s GDP can boost up to 30% by closing the gender gap in economic participation. Pakistan has also set the target of 45% increase in women’s participation in the workforce in Vision 2025. In the absence of efforts to translate national commitment into a comprehensive plan to bridge gender gap at the national and provincial levels, this will remain a distant goal.
We must understand as a state and a society that economically empowered women along with their own liberation, liberate not just their families but the society as well.HH
The writer is a former Director of Center of Excellence in Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University and a human rights activist.
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