Gender-based violence, economic empowerment and legal safeguards in Pakistan
s nations come together for the 16 Days of Activism campaign to tackle gender-based violence, the urgency to address this complex issue is increasingly evident. The global campaign, which originated from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991, begins on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and runs until December 10, the Human Rights Day. This period encompasses several key dates, including World AIDS Day on December 1 and International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, emphasising the intersections between gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination, challenging societal norms and advocating for policy changes. In Pakistan, the campaign serves as a platform for organisations, activists and individuals to raise awareness and take action against gender-based violence. Female-focused organisations and activists adopted the campaign early on to collectively mobilise communities, governments and institutions to commit to ending violence against women and promoting gender equality.
Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah laid the foundation for gender equality in his famous speech on August 14, 1947, stating, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.” The Quaid’s vision takes inspiration from the injunctions of Islam and is reflected in the Constitution of Pakistan wherein women have been guaranteed dignity (Article 14); equality (Article 25); the right to acquire and hold property (Article 23); the right to obtain an education (Article 25A); the right to access public places (Article 26); safeguards against discrimination in appointments (Article 27); and full participation in all spheres of national life (Article 34). Regrettably, the ideals remain a distant dream for many of our women.
Despite some progress, gender disparity persists in Pakistan, casting a shadow over our commitment and progress on women’s empowerment. This is reflected in poor education, health, lack of economic empowerment, labour force participation and overall well-being outcomes for women. Recent figures indicate that 37 percent of girls are out of school compared to 27 percent of boys; labour force participation is a dismal 21 percent; and maternal and infant mortality rates are higher than the South Asian averages. A significant driver of women’s marginalisation is the lack of economic empowerment. Research in Pakistan highlights the connection between economic autonomy and women’s empowerment in decision-making within households. Increased workforce participation for women correlates with higher levels of education. Global statistics reveal that for every additional year of education, women’s wages can increase by 10-20 percent.
Women’s labour force participation rates vary significantly worldwide, with South Asia notably lower at approximately 23.3 percent. Pakistan is the lowest in the region, at around 21 percent. There is therefore a clear need for greater economic inclusion.
Women’s work is characterised by a pervasive gender wage gap, with women earning, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by men globally. The gender wage gap in Pakistan is high compared to the South Asian average, at an estimated 34 percent, and much higher than the global average of 23 percent. In some sectors and professions, this gap is even more pronounced, highlighting persistent inequalities in remuneration.
In 2022, the parliament made significant amendments to include gender-based harassment, which may or may not be sexual in nature but demonstrates a prejudicial or discriminatory mindset or behaviour.
Despite the necessity for women to join the workforce, particularly on account of the high cost of living in Pakistan, formal employment remains elusive for many women. Many prefer home-based work under exploitative conditions, earning a fraction of the fair market value. This is due to two primary obstacles: the absence of an enabling environment at workplaces, including proper childcare facilities and the prevalence of hostile work environments. Surveys indicate that the lack of suitable childcare discourages women from seeking employment outside their homes. Furthermore, the absence of women-friendly facilities and the pervasive culture of harassment hinder women’s professional pursuits.
Pakistan has undertaken comprehensive, systemic changes to address intersectionality of economic empowerment, safe workplace environments and women’s economic empowerment. In 2010, the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act was enacted to provide a safe and secure working environment for women by defining harassment, establishing complaint mechanisms and ensuring due process for the complainant and the accused. The Act and the federal ombudsperson’s secretariat established under the law have been a ray of hope for complainants of harassment, regardless of gender.
In 2022, the parliament made significant amendments to include gender-based harassment, which may or may not be sexual in nature but demonstrates a prejudicial or discriminatory mindset or behaviour. In a recent judgment, Justice Ayesha Malik held that gender-based discrimination at workplace is tantamount to harassment and that the relevant law is not limited to sexual behaviour.
With the amendment and the recent decision, redress for harassment and gender-based discrimination have increased vastly. The workplace includes not only offices and organisations but extends to any place where a woman is employed, visits for work or is likely to be present in connection with her employment. This also includes public spaces such as highways and performance facilities. Courts, gyms, sporting facilities, studios, concerts, gigs and educational institutions are all mentioned to cover any situation linked to work or activity outside the office. The scope of the definition of an organisation has also been expanded to include nearly all arrangements for employment.
Dealing with an issue that attracts social stigma and invariably results in stigmatising the victim is always challenging. Women are further discouraged from reporting due to fear of retaliation from harassers who are often in positions of power. This not only results in a lack of reporting of this serious crime but also when people do gather the courage to report, it is often much later. The law now permits complainants to file a complaint at any time, including after they have left the job. The superior courts recognise this challenge and have, in multiple rulings, condoned delay to encourage reporting of harassment. The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, stands as a comprehensive legal framework designed to create safer working environment for women in Pakistan.
By defining harassment, implementing robust inquiry mechanisms and empowering an ombudsperson to enforce compliance, the act not only aims to eradicate workplace harassment but also fosters a culture that embraces dignity, respect and gender equality. The establishment of special laws and forums serves as a catalyst for social change, emboldening marginalised individuals to raise their voices against injustice and demand a more equitable society for all. Through such measures, Pakistan can pave the way for a future where all citizens, regardless of gender, can thrive in a safe and inclusive environment.
The writer is an expert on women’s rights and empowerment. As a federal ombudsperson against harassment, she focuses on redress and protection of women’s property rights. As founding chairperson of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, she has led policy and legislative reform efforts for gender equality