Today’s world is still marked by pervasive gender inequality. Despite their increasing labour force participation rates in many countries, women are still disadvantaged in the labour market in terms of their share in employment, remuneration and working conditions. A significant proportion of the female global workforce earn their livelihood in the informal economy, for instance, ‘dependent’ wage earners in informal and formal enterprises, and as self-employed or own-account entrepreneurs in a wide range of workplaces (i.e. at home, in shops, on streets).
When it comes to Pakistan, women make up 49.2 per cent of its population but their contribution to the economy is disproportionate. A large number of women are in informal, underpaid and unregulated work and therefore they are given little or no form of compensation. In this scenario, women specific economic programmes have become the need of the hour to empower them financially. With this, they can earn a living from the convenience of their homes in order to look after their family and contribute to the country’s economy simultaneously.
Saima Bibi lives in a village near Lahore who was left to look after her children when her husband passed away. “After my husband died, I was left alone to look after my three children. Like most of our relatives, we didn’t have any savings and whatever my husband had earned had already been used for his burial. I was distraught and did not know how we would survive,” she narrates. “Fortunately, God opened up some doors for me and the village was visited by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) team and now I earn 20,000 PKR per month.”
Saima Bibi was trained by the BISP team which is empowering women economically across villages in Punjab in collaboration with Nestle’s 'Rural Livelihood Program'. Moreover, the nutritionists in the team have helped these women to use ordinary food items to make healthier means. “I am not only supporting my family but now my children are healthier and go to private schools as well. Now, I tell other women about the importance of healthier diets using the stuff we have in our kitchens. I save some money every month so that we can supplement our meals with meat. I am glad to have learned about the importance of a healthy meal,” enthuses Saima.
According to UN, a higher percentage of women are in informal employment as compared to men in developing countries. Their skills are wasted and they are not contributing to the economy. This wastage of human resources need to be studied and steps taken to generate jobs to utilise their skills. To support this, UN Women has been working towards building up financially worldwide. In Pakistan, it has generated a few programmes (formal and informal) that aim to help women carve a better future for their families and themselves.
“Never has a moment been so pleasant for me than the one when we 3 sisters brought our PKR 42,000 monthly salary to a home where there was nothing except starvation,” tells 26-year-old Shenaz, who at one point was stitching clothes from home.
“My elderly parents are unable to work and my house consists of door-less rooms with no boundary wall. My sisters (Mehnaz and Shazia) and I joined a local company with help from UN Women. This was the first time we worked outside our house. With the factory providing pick and drop, we felt more secure in venturing out from our village to the city. Learning and working in the formal sector has been quite an eye-opener - working alongside men and earning the same as them,” adds Shenaz.
“Following job training, and with our collective income increased to PKR 42,000, we have re-paid PKR 25,000 borrowed to meet our urgent necessities. We have added doors to our rooms, plastered our once unplastered floors and will now build a boundary wall and install an entrance gate. We have also bought a refrigerator and other household essentials. Our substantial financial contribution to the family income has helped us realise that women can equally assume the responsibility of running a household. This realisation has boosted our confidence in our own capabilities and talents,” shares Shenaz.
While there are international organisations that are also working in this regard, the government should be putting in more effort to alleviate the struggles of women like Saima Bibi and others, who can start contributing to the economy. The economically empowered women will have a voice on matters that are important especially their health and the finances. Men also need to understand that women, who make almost half of the population, should have a voice to make important decisions, especially the issues that directly affect them.
With 20 per cent representation in each house of the Parliament, women parliamentarians contributed 33 per cent of parliamentary business. These women parliamentarians should begin making efforts to ensure that educated women get better and meaningful jobs. Most of them are employed in vulnerable positions in which they don’t have many chances to improve their economic condition. They should work towards ensuring that more women and girls receive a proper education which is in line with the developing technology and digital transformations, so that they can join the mainstream jobs.
In the parliament, the process of legislation done for women is low. There is still a lot that needs to be done to change the status of women in Pakistan, and laws made to ensure that they are paid equally for the same amount of work as men. Many women are exploited even if they have skills. It is sad that they have to remain quiet to save their jobs.
Apart from government sector, private organisations should offer women more salaries as a compensation for the facilities that are unrecognised (like maternal and paternal leaves, daycares at work, medical insurance etc).
Moreover, our MPAs and MNAs should work to reduce unemployment of women and generate more jobs. Pakistan’s cottage industry needs to be revived with funds being allocated. The legislation needs to be woman-specific, focusing on the plight of the women which gives them basic rights like equal pay; strict action on sexual harassment especially at work place.
More women especially in rural areas need to be brought online to give them opportunities to gain skills in order to compete in the global market. Pakistan is an agricultural country and a large part of the population, including women, is engaged in this sector. The farmers - men and women - need to be given more control over their lands and the produce. Women farmers have to be recognised and given modern training in agricultural skills as well as compensated.
Lastly, more plans like BISP should be formulated so that help can reach women in other parts of the country like Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan to harness their skills and improve their lives for a prosperous nation.