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Opinion

May 6, 2018

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Women in poverty

Almost half of Pakistan’s population comprises women, yet there have been rising concerns that women in Pakistan are subjected to be socially and economically more vulnerable.

This is mainly due to the pervasiveness of gender disparity and intersectionality between various forms of inequalities within society. The rampant trends of household inequalities shape the distribution of economic resources among individuals and households.

The socially constructed roles pertaining to males and females which have prevailed in Pakistani society for centuries have confined a woman’s social practices. Consequently, she is more likely to suffer poverty of opportunities and financial insecurities. Such gender discrimination towards women inherently lead to lack of political, economic and social rights for them.

Academic findings show that limited control over household income and assets, food, healthcare, education and other opportunities which characterise poverty affect women more than men, while women’s efforts to overcome poverty are further constrained by discrimination in access to these resources.

Integrating the perspective of gender in the development paradigm of a country is the fundamental requisite to achieve sustainable development goals. The Global Gender Gap Report, 2016 has measured the degree of equality and distribution of resources and opportunities between men and women to be achieved by countries encompassing economic and political participation of women, and provision of education and health facilities to its female population.

Pakistan’s score on the index is quite alarming for the country’s policymakers and development experts. According to the 2016 index, Pakistan is the third worst country with low access to economic opportunities, education and health services. However, women participation in the political arena of Pakistan is stronger than many South Asian countries – remarkably about a fifth of the National Assembly seats are held by women.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2017-2018, Pakistan witnessed a decline of up to 24.3 percent in poverty levels. There is no denying the fact that various policies and initiatives have been adopted by the government to eradicate absolute poverty. However, gender differences in processes generating poverty and economic outcomes in every aspect of development initiatives, remained unaddressed. As a result of such disparity, women face greater disadvantage in the labour market, which forces them to work in the informal sector – in precarious conditions and without any pay.

Naila Kabeer, a renowned social economist, highlights the importance of integrating gender analysis into every aspect of development initiatives. She proposes introducing a gender perspective into the concepts of poverty and inequality. She argues that households headed by women are more prone to face additional risks and constraints due to their limited labour supply, fewer wage earners and the difficulty women face in obtaining credit and other productive resources. Households where women ares the only breadwinners are more likely to fall into the poverty trap. This is mostly because they are either involved in unpaid work or end up working on relatively low wages than men. Furthermore, their multiple roles also often limit their ability to seek full-time paid employment. Therefore, gender discrimination at the lower end of the economic spectrum pushes women to live and stay in poverty.

According to an estimate, the women labour force’s participation in Pakistan is only 22.7 percent, with most of them working as unpaid labourers or domestic workers on low wages and legally unacceptable working conditions. Education plays an important role in this whole notion of economic poverty, gender inequality and development. Since female literacy rate in Pakistan is 45 percent as compared to the male literacy rate. 69 percent, they end up working low status jobs and are more likely to rely on their male counterparts for financial support.

Generally, the indicators of poverty are captured on the basis of household information, disregarding the acute differences between genders and generations. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the asymmetric patterns of power and resource distribution that prevail within households. Moreover, poor individuals are more vulnerable to health hazards, economic downturns, natural catastrophes, and even man-made violence, than any other group. In such circumstances, mostly women and children are placed at the receiving end by systematically being denied nourishment, medical care, education. Such inequalities, within the context of a family, which cause differences in accessing economic and social resources, worsen women’s poverty and makes them more vulnerable to high poverty risk.

Various studies draw attention to different types of inequalities, such as cultural, economic and political. They argue that it is the mutual and intersecting nature of these inequalities that reinforces the persistence of social exclusion over time. We can trace the effects of these inequalities across regions by looking at how different social groups, characterised by intersections of gender, ethnicity and class are equal in relation to one another.

Contemporary development projects pay no serious attention to the transformation of productive and social structures, such as decent employment, changes in gender relations and equal access to health and education. Progressive redistributive policies to reduce inequalities, protect women’s rights, increase opportunities for women and provide them with social protection are some other components which need to be addressed with utmost seriousness.

The writer is pursuing an MPhil in development studies at the Lahore School of Economics.

Email: [email protected]

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