Friday October 07, 2022

Feminism makes economic sense

January 10, 2016

The development strategy of the PML-N government is often criticised by opposition parties and the mainstream media. But these mainstream segments of the body politic and media lack a feminist appraisal of the federal government’s development strategy. Instead, the opposition and media seem to be obsessed with the loaded notion of ‘merit’.

No matter what the issue, they reduce it to the lack of ‘merit’ in state and society. These ‘merit-wallas’ never mention gender, class and institutional dimensions of the existing problems in this country. Instead, they bypass these tough questions by solely focusing on ahistorical notions of ‘corruption’ and ‘merit’. In other words, these ‘merit-wallas’ are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the class and gender hierarchies in our society that constraint and regulate an individual’s behaviour.

This gender-blindness by ‘merit-wallas’ has severe ramifications. In a highly unequal and male-dominated society like Pakistan, boys have an unfair advantage over girls because of patriarchy and systemic discrimination against women. Therefore, gender-blind policies and a gender-blind critique of those policies simply reinforce gender discrimination in our society. In order to correct these gender disparities, the solution lies not in the ahistorical slogan of ‘meritocracy’ but in affirmative action policies. The blame then lies not only on the government but on all major stakeholders in contemporary system, including the mainstream media.

Let’s take the example of education in Pakistan. Even a cursory glance at statistics reflects stark gender disparities. According to Unicef’s 2013 report, only 83 girls are enrolled for every 100 enrolled boys of ages 5 to 9 in Pakistan. And it is not just at the primary level of education where gender disparity exists. Ov average, girls are under-enrolled at all levels of education vis-à-vis boys in Pakistan. Although every administration in Pakistan has claimed that it is ideologically committed to a notion of gender equality in education, yet discrimination against girls continue to exist.

Different explanations have been offered to explain gender disparity in education. One major hypothesis is that feudal and/or semi-feudal norms and traditions are at the root of gender discrimination. This argument is very popular among the liberal segments of our society. But this hypothesis is rather weak. Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) has higher female enrolment at the secondary and higher levels of education vis-à-vis boys. The social formation of AJK can be characterised by semi-feudal and/or tribal norms and traditions.

Moreover, the major shortcoming of conceptualising gender discrimination via feudal or semi-feudalism lies in its implicit assumption that capitalist development processes can end gender discrimination on their own. However, without active state intervention, gender discrimination cannot be challenged solely through market forces. In almost every developed country of the world, the state takes the responsibility of providing education to everyone at least up to grade 12. In those societies, private education only serves a portion of the elite segments of society.

In Pakistan, the common assumption seems to be that private education can be an alternative to public education – but this would exclude a majority of the population in Pakistan which can’t afford quality private education.

It is argued that economic returns to education are low for girls in Pakistan and so parents allocate fewer resources to female education. Traditionally returns to education are captured by paid work. Because female participation in the labour force is low in Pakistan, returns to education are substantially low if conceptualised through paid market work alone. Economists have used this explanation to rationalise low investments in female education. Moreover, because traditionally after marriage girls live in the homes of their husbands, even if they do paid work their parents can’t benefit financially from the income generated by girls.

On the contrary, investment in boys’ education can be seen as insurance for parents because boys are expected to take care of their parents. Thus if one conceptualises gender discrimination in education through this channel, there is an obvious market failure – that social returns to education are substantially higher than private returns. The state must correct this market failure by stepping in. This could be done by increasing private returns to female education. From the policy perspective this implies that the government needs to financially incentivise parents – especially at those at the low end of the income spectrum – to educate their daughters.

Ending gender discrimination in education is not only morally right and just but is also a socially optimum strategy. Learning and Educational Achievements in Punjab School (LEAPS) was a collaborative project of the World Bank and the government of Punjab in which extensive primary data was collected from more than 100 villages across Punjab from 2003 to 2006. The empirical evidence shows that children of educated mothers spend more time on studying outside school per day as compared to children of mothers with no education. Moreover, children of educated mothers perform better on standardised test scores than children of uneducated mothers.

This empirical evidence suggests that gender discrimination against women in education has a long-lasting negative impact on future generations as well. Therefore, ending gender discrimination through a set of feminist policies would enhance efficiency in both social and economic terms. An immediate task for all provincial and federal governments would be to launch an aggressive education policy targeting gender equality in school enrolments. This cannot be achieved until strong affirmative action policies are introduced for young girls, especially those who come from low income and rural households.

Moreover, those segments of the body politic who are obsessed with the notion of meritocracy must be reminded that meritocracy requires a level playing field for all. In contemporary Pakistan, where discrimination against girls in education is widespread, the notion of meritocracy is nothing but a farce. For low-income households, productive assets like capital and land are beyond reach and their best bet of upward social mobility is education. But because girls are not given a fair shot at education, upward social mobility in Pakistan is a male phenomenon – if it even exists.

One of the stated objectives of the PML-N government is to improve economic efficiency in all sectors of the economy. And the federal government’s privatisation drive of state-owned enterprises rests on this claim. But at the same time, PML-N government continues to overlook an inexorable aspect of inefficiency in education: gender discrimination against girls. Unless the issue of gender discrimination in education is addressed, any claims of improvements in economic efficiency would be incomplete.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the department of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Email: