Road to equality

Are we doing enough to improve the status of our women?

Many women, and some men, celebrate the International Women’s Day on March 8 as a reminder that women, 50 percent of the world’s population, stand for something. It is a reminder of women’s contributions in every sphere of life, private and public. Women take a moment feeling proud of their achievements in these various roles and in the progress they have made towards being recognised as equal human beings. Or as almost-equal citizens. It is also a time to take stock of how far we have come and how much further we need to go, to reach that equality women have long struggled for.

In Pakistan, we feel somewhat satisfied to see that women are more visible today than they were a few decades ago; that they are getting educated in far greater numbers; that their health is generally improving; their participation in the workforce has shot up over the decades and their representation in the legislature and the executive has improved significantly. With the Pakistan Foreign Service opening to women only in 1973, we have already had a woman foreign secretary, Tehmina Janjua, and many women career diplomats posted abroad, despite being single.

But how far have the women of Pakistan really come? One objective way of measuring their trajectory would be to look at the human development indicators, which measure life expectancy, expected and mean years of schooling and, gross national income per capita (GNI). Fortunately, Pakistan has made impressive strides and is now placed in the medium human development category—positioning at 152 out of 189 countries and territories. Our Human Development Index (HDI) value has increased by about 38.6 percent between 1990 and 2018. People have started to live longer by 7 years, mean years of schooling have increased by 2.9 years and Pakistan’s GNI per capita has increased from Rs 3,195 in 1990 to Rs 5,190 in 2018 (nearly 62.4 percent).

Unfortunately, these indicators show different outcomes for women and men. For example, the overall Human Development Index value for women is 0.2 points lower than men, meaning that they are much more disadvantaged. The years of schooling that women on average get are about 1.5 years less than men. The difference in their gross national income is about Rs 7,035 with women getting Rs 1,570 against men’s gross national income per capita of Rs 8,605. However, they now live about two years longer than men, which can be good news.

Addressing barriers for women requires measures on war footing

This leads to the natural question: Are we doing enough to improve the status of our women? The obvious answer is no.

In the past decade and a half, a series of laws and policies have been passed to improve women’s conditions and access to rights and freedoms. Provincial and national laws have been passed to curb early and forced marriages, to improve women’s access to inheritance and property, to give them greater representation in jobs, increase their financial inclusion and prevent violence against women in private and public sphere. A few very welcome measures include social protection for women under the Benazir Income Support Programme, and promoting women’s economic participation through the umbrella Ehsaas Programme. In the recent past, gender-based-violence courts, improved and increased women’s shelters and one-stop violence against women centre in the Punjab, women’s desks in police stations and mass awareness campaigns on women’s rights and freedoms did bring some much-needed relief for women.

Read more: Know your feminists

While these developments should have led to an overall improvement in women’s status, violence against women is not abating in numbers or in the quality of responses of the police or judges. Similarly, women’s participation in the workforce stands at an abysmal rate of less than 24 percent. Access to inheritance is impeded due to institutional corruption and backlogged justice sector institutions, exacerbated by women’s weak financial positions. Women are increasingly being pushed into the informal labour sector. Of the over 12 million estimated home based workers, over 80 percent are women and their numbers are increasing by the day. Despite a law for home based workers in Sindh (not in the other provinces), and policies in the federal and the Punjab government, implementation is non-existent because the writ of the state to regulate the capitalist enterprise is weak. We also see that increasing higher education for women is not resulting in an increased share of formal work force because women choose to work in informal settings due to social pressures and unsafe workplaces.

Addressing barriers for women requires measures on war footing. A starting point should be enacting missing legislations on home based workers; raising the age of marriage to eighteen years for girls; prevention of domestic violence across Pakistan; protection of women from cyber violence and counting the work of women in agriculture. An equally important step would be to promote women’s mobility so they can go for education, and to make their workplaces free from harassment. We need to declare a national emergency against gender based violence, in all forms.

The tirade against Marvi Sirmed by our very popular playwright Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar uncovers the extent and prevalence of misogyny. The backlash against the Aurat March shows that laws are not enough to address women’s subordination. For changing the harsh, controlling mindset against women, the state should introduce measures, beginning with our curricula, to address the issue of women’s equality; implement mechanisms for capacity-building of judges, prosecutors, police officers, medical personnel and other officials for strict application of legal provisions on gender-based violence against women; and strengthen dedicated women’s institutions such as the national and provincial commissions on the status of women.

The writer is a gender and policy advisor

Road to equality: Are we doing enough to improve the status of Pakistani women?