How to address gender disparities?

The state must establish its writ in ensuring the rights of women

The World Economic Forum recently published its Global Gender Gap Index Report which ranks countries with respect to gender disparity. Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries. Only Iraq and Yemen fared worse than Pakistan. Despite some extraordinary measures undertaken in recent decades by governments in Pakistan to reduce gender disparity, such a poor performance comes as a huge disappointment and requires serious soul-searching.

Indices are like black boxes. Before looking for the reasons behind Pakistan’s dismal performance on gender parity front, it would be enlightening to peep into various components of the Global Gender Gap Index. Global Gender Gap Index examines the gap between men and women across four fundamental categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Looking at the gaps, rather than the levels, has the advantage that the country rankings are independent of the development level of a country, and are determined exclusively by gender disparities.

What are the drivers of such gross gender disparities? Research has highlighted several factors, such as individual characteristics, social norms, and economic deprivations. However, the failure of the state is the most critical reason behind gender disparity. Why does the state directly and indirectly create and exacerbate gender disparities?

In Pakistan, a clear manifestation of gender disparity is the preference for the sons. This is an age-old norm with roots in the distant past.

Discrimination against women continues to take many forms. While some types of discrimination, such as discrimination in the distribution of inheritance rights, are evident and are routinely reported and observed, some other forms of discrimination may not be as visible. Sons getting quality education while daughters end up in low-quality schools or no school at all, is a common form of discrimination. Research has highlighted that gender of the family member influences the quality of food consumed within a household.

Human beings are assumed to be rational. Though this assumption has remained the subject of many a lively polemic and academic debate, human irrationality, and bounded rationality being presented as alternative assumptions about human nature, we might like to stick to the assumption of human rationality for illustrative purposes.

Discrimination against women continues to take many forms. While some types of discrimination, such as discrimination in the distribution of inheritance rights, are evident and are routinely reported and observed, some other forms of discrimination may not be as visible.

If human beings were not assumed to be rational, then no one can be held accountable for one’s actions. In social sciences, a rational person is assumed to have specific attributes, such as an aversion to taking risks, a distinct preference for profit and a responsiveness to incentive system, etc. It can be shown that when the state fails to play its expected role, the rational human beings respond in predictable ways, leading to undesirable socio-economic outcomes.

The problem arises primarily from unequal power relationships. In social sciences, power is the ability to influence or control the behaviour of others. Economic independence is the most obvious measure of power. A vast majority of women are economically dependent on men (fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons). The state has a crucial role to play in maintaining the status quo in economic power relations. When opportunities are denied to women, their dependence further increases. For example, the share of women in government jobs is abysmally low. The female labour force is disproportionately concentrated in the informal sector.

Most women have to brave circumstances to achieve the things which most men take for granted. For example, going through harassment on one’s way to school or college is a daily fact of life for a large number of young women. Taking a stroll in the park is a big challenge because of social taboos or because the facility has been encroached upon. Women’s physical mobility is also severely curtailed. While men can drive bikes, a woman on two wheels is still considered as deviation from the norm.

In many cases, men nearly exclusively occupy the business place. In a nutshell, the opportunities to excel in the business world are highly constrained for women. They are more likely to be employees than employers. This situation has a lot of economic implications.

When the state does not defend the rights of the women, the dynamics of gender-based power relations change. When the state fails to punish a man guilty of harassing a woman on her way to school or college, parents make a “rational” decision to take their daughters away from school or college, or, marry them off early.

Adverse consequences of child marriages, and how different health and mental conditions get transmitted to the next generation, is beyond the scope of this article. In more extreme cases, when the condemned rapists evade the law with impunity and are seen roaming freely, and when the victim is stereotyped, then rational people have to make a decision to restrict their women relatives to the four walls of their homes.

Gender disparity also stems from the fact that the state fails to take care of the needs of senior citizens. Pension for the government employees is perhaps the only notable form of social security for senior citizens in Pakistan. Except in a few instances, where government employees retire from top positions, pension in most cases is not sufficient to meet the needs of senior citizens. One reason why pension is not enough to meet basic needs is high “dependency ratio” in Pakistan.

Older adults have to face a host of health challenges at this time. It is for this time that some people think they should invest in their sons more than their daughters because they believe that daughters will go to their own homes and sons are the only sources of support to fall back on in old age.

Investment in education requires resources. Resources being scarce, it is a ‘rational’ approach to invest more in the education of the sons rather than daughters. How realistic the expectations of the parents vis-a-vis their sons may be is another story. There are so many instances of sons miserably failing to take care of their parents, while daughters take care of their elderly parents remarkably well.

What is the way out? Sadly, no magic wand can fix this problem overnight. But many effective long-term solutions exist. The state needs to re-evaluate and redefine the incentive system so that everyone has access to a minimum living standard. The elderly people should have no reason to doubt the state’s assurance that they will have a minimum living standard. Failing this, the whole incentive system would be distorted and girls will continue to be considered a liability while the sons will be regarded as an asset.

Secondly, the state must establish its writ when it comes to protecting the rights of women. As long as harassers and rapists go scot-free, parents would always be racked by fear and will not be able to send their daughters to schools, colleges or workplaces. It is the functioning of state institutions that can considerably address the issue of gender imbalances. The short-term intervention may come from a host of stakeholders, such as NGOs and advocacy groups and even academia to sensitise the society about the enormity of discrimination against women.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, and can be reached at [email protected]


Women rights in Pakistan: How to address gender disparities?