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March 9, 2018

‘Despite progress, still a long way to go for women in Pakistan’


March 9, 2018

Women in Pakistan have attained heights of excellence bringing honour to the country as Nobel laureates, nuclear physicists, Oscar winners, parliamentarians, fighter pilots, major-generals, CEOs, mountaineers, writers, doctors, film makers, engineers, and so many others.

However, the numbers are infinitesimal when considered against the backdrop of our 200 million population. In Pakistan, only 20 percent of the women participate in the labour force.

These statistics were cited by Nargis Rehman, chairperson of Pakistan Women’s Foundation for Peace, while presiding over a panel discussion held at a hotel on Thursday to commemorate International Women’s Day.

Quoting the World Bank’s data for Bangladesh’s exports from 2011 to 2017, she said that the country’s exports went up by 445 percent and the country earned $30 billion with the main item of export being textiles and textile made-ups. Fifty percent of the workers in Bangladesh’s textile industry were women.

In Pakistan, 2013 onwards, said Rehman, there had been a 20 percent drop in exports, mainly in the textile sector. During this period, she said, Pakistan had taken loans from donor institutions amounting to $35 billion with the annual debt repayment being so high that Pakistan’s dollar reserves faced the danger of being depleted to a precarious level.

As such, she said that our endeavour should be to push up textile exports which, apart from redeeming our financial position, would also give a chance to women to participate in the workforce as the textiles and textile made-ups industry depended a lot on women workers.

She said that more than 50 percent of the work in Pakistan’s agricultural sector was done by women but they were not given their due emoluments, healthcare, or education. “We have to give our women workers in the labour force a safe environment, social justice, laws that are implemented, skills training, soft loans, and entrepreneurial opportunities,” Rehman said.

She said that many pro-women bills had been passed by the legislature, such as the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill of 2010, the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices of 2011 and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Law in 2012, but queried as to whether there was a viable mechanism for implementing these laws.

This was followed by a panel discussion and suggestions from the other participants. Noted banking figure Ayesha Aziz, narrating her own background, said that she came from rather a conservative background but that she persevered in her career and did not give up despite frequent opposition, both latent and otherwise from male colleagues.

What our women needed to do, she said, was that they must muster the confidence and the courage to ask for their due promotion and raises, something that most women did not have.

Sindh’s first woman Superintendent of Police (SP) Shehla Qureshi, said that we needed to do was change the societal mindset and make it clear that there was nothing which was exclusively men’s domain and that women were as capable of excelling in fields claimed exclusively by men as their domain.

Human rights lawyer Zia Awan said that one of the biggest problems was that women had no recourse in case of maltreatment or exploitation. “They have nowhere to turn,” he said. Human rights organisations, he said, had not developed a new cadre of leadership. Ombudsmen for cases of harassment of women had been appointed both at the federal and provincial levels, but their performance left much to be desired.

He quoted Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan which stipulates compulsory education and said, “Still there are places with no schools for children. We should go to the Supreme Court for this.”

He said that public place harassment of women was most commonplace and cited the case of multiple mirrors in buses which revealed the contours of the women passengers’ physiology. “We also need to change the laws of inheritance for the benefit of and justice to women.”

Besides, said Awan, domestic women workers must be provided healthcare in social security hospitals. Surgeon Rufina Soomro narrated her family background which, she said, was rural and rather conservative but she said that by hard work and determination, she got to the station in life that she held.

She said that lots of people, including her dear ones had reservations about her going into surgery but that she was determined to succeed. The problem, said Soomro, was that in our society, the familial values were rather inhibitive and lots of girls who became doctors often had to give up working, sometimes on account of opposition from the husbands, but more often it was opposition from the in-laws.

Justice (Retd) Shaiq Usmani said we had achieved a lot, pointing to the lady police officer and the lady banker he was flanked by, and said that we should carry out introspection of where we had failed.

He said that the impending population time bomb was a very grim reality and for that one of the things we had to do was to restrain ourselves. “We have to restrain ourselves to forestall catastrophic results,” he said.

He said we had to give serious thought to population planning institutions and centres and limiting the family size, even if we had to resort to legislative measures. As for child molesters and child rapists, Justice (Retd) Usmani said that they be administered severe and exemplary punishment.

Later, awards for achievements in various fields were distributed. The recipients of the awards were Shehla Qureshi, Nazish Khan, Dr Naseem Salahuddin, Dr Rufina Soomro, Maimoona (for boxing), Mariyam Saeedullah, Ayesha Aziz, Mehtab Akbar Rashdi and Attiya Dawood.

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