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Opinion

June 17, 2015

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All power to women

Pakistan is not a country known for equality between men and women. Yet, in recent months and years, a number of events and developments have taken place, some quite macabre, which make one suggest that even in misogynist, patriarchal, conservative, ‘Talibanised’ Pakistan, women have acquired a social and political standing closer to that of men, compared to any time in their past.
This is not to suggest that they match any of the usual socioeconomic indicators chosen to highlight gender parity or gender differences – far from it – but, nevertheless, a fresh look at the status of women in the development and in the political economy framework needs to be made. While the inequality between men and women is fundamental and persists, it is changing in Pakistan’s case.
There is an assumption that used to be made in Pakistan, that even ‘terrorists’ do not ‘kill women’. While men mistreat their sisters, wives, daughters and other women members of their families, it was assumed that women were not killed as targets outside the domain of the honour killing-type of murders which take place in Pakistan. However, over the last few years, numerous women have been targeted and assassinated. The murder of Benazir Bhutto tends to stand out amongst many, but numerous others, including that of polio workers, dissipate the myth that these killers ‘don’t kill women’.
Assassinations or target killings – and attempts of murder – of women in the last three years alone, testify to this gender equalisation in death phenomenon, where women are recognised as important political/social actors with agency which, while a bit ‘dark’, is a huge manifestation of the process of the recognition of women as equals.
It is not just in death that women find themselves being given a status similar to men but increasingly also in life. Uncontested, reserved seats in the different spheres of parliament have allowed a large number of women to become part of

Pakistan’s political process and acquire a public/political identity. In 2001 and 2005 in an earlier model of elected local government, 35,000 and 25,000 women were elected and nominated to Pakistan’s third tier of government, giving women a public and political status and identity for the first time ever in such large numbers. Moreover, numerous legislations aimed at protecting Pakistani women have been passed in parliament over the last five years.
Despite the fact that women’s status is far worse than men, two facts from recent data are surprising. One, that in some key categories women perform unexpectedly better than men, and two, that the rate of change in women’s improvement as a comparison with that for men, is faster/higher – ie women are improving their situation, if one can use these statistics to suggest improvement, faster than are men. Of course, starting from a low base, even small absolute improvements are greater in comparison. A small selection of data support these trends.
The life expectancy at birth for women, a proxy for a number of indicators, in 2005-06 was 63.8 years, while for men it was 63.9 years. But this had changed quite remarkably by 2012-13 to 66.5 years for women and to only 64.6 years for men. Data from girls’ and boys’ enrolment also shows that girls’ enrolment at primary school level, while still less than it is for boys, is rising faster than it is for boys. Girls’ enrolment at the primary school level increased by 34 percent between 2002-03 and 2011-12, while in the same period it increased only 13.5 percent for boys.
What is even more surprising is that this pattern is reinforced even for middle and secondary level, where for the latter girls’ participation has increased 53 percent over the decade – about the same as it has for boys.
Also surprising is that in Arts and Science Colleges in Pakistan, over the period 2001-02 and 2012-13, the enrolment for boys doubled, and for girls it went up by as much as 82 percent. A quite astonishing figure is for university level where boys enrolment has increased by 258 percent over this decade, while for girls the increase has been 432 percent! Today there are more girls enrolled in Pakistan’s universities than boys, 52 percent compared to 48 percent.
Despite these positive trends, the data comes with many qualifiers which include stark regional, provincial, district and class specificities and differences. Nevertheless, there is little denying the argument that over the last two decades or so, the gender gap has shrunk, and is shrinking further.
So how can one explain this shrinking gender gap in a country where girls schools have been bombed, school children brutally murdered while at school, women activists killed and shot at, and where the ‘headline news’ story is one only of rampant Talibanisation, especially targeting women and girls and their agency?
In many ways, the evidence to support such change suggests that these developments regarding the shrinking gender gap, should not have taken place. A poor economy, lower development expenditure, low total investment, etc, suggests that a spend-more-money-and-improve-outcomes scenario, seems less true to explain the trends mentioned above.
Some possible explanations include reasons such as, a greater focus towards girls’ education, with donors and the different provincial governments, realising that a crisis exists, giving greater preference and emphasis to closing the gap. Over the last few years, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence which suggests that this might be the case. Far greater research is required to show the extent of donor support and intervention and its nature to see whether girls and women have received support.
Other possible explanations include the growth of the middle class in Pakistan over the last two decades, where a premium has been posted on educating both boys and girls. This rise of the middle-class argument also helps make the point that since more women have acquired the ability to work, many more women have been seen to be role models for educating girls and for other working women with greater visibility in public spaces, and the phenomenal growth in the media, have all played an important role.
The estimate that in Punjab at least around two-thirds of children attend private schools is indicative of a growing trend of the market determining education with the rise of this nefarious middle class willing to pay for quality education. In addition, one cannot deny the significant trend of the urbanisation of Pakistan, which makes location and access to schooling far easier. However, this does raise a question as to why girls/women should be able to benefit disproportionately more than men, unless one hypothesises that most boys were already in school and the base effect favours girls.
Also, more schools, or better access to them, might just make it easier for girls to be first-time students, since much of the empirical evidence shows the high correlation between school distance and girls’ enrolment. Moreover, one cannot deny the fact that, over two generations, numerous women’s organisations and activists have also played a critical role in fighting for women’s rights in terms of legislation and empowerment and in achieving numerous successes.
Further research is required to explore this intersectionality – focus on girls’ education, women’s empowerment and agency, more public spaces, an increasing debate about women’s rights, focused donor programme, etc – which helps explain this perplexing issue of the greater enhancement of women’s condition in a country better known for killing them.
The author is a political economist.

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