Placards versus report cards

Simple-looking placards carried in the Aurat March offer deep insights into the grim state of gender inequality in Pakistan

Thousands of women took to the streets CARRYING placards and banners to protest against patriarchy on the international women’s day last week. Some of the banners displayed slogans, like “Cook your food yourself,” “No excuse for domestic abuse,” “Protect women’s rights by paying labourers the wages they deserve,” “Girls deserve the fundamental right to education,” “Consent is important,” “My body, my choice,” and many more.

Most of the placards focused on a one-point agenda-empowering women. One fails to understand why a section of the society on twitter and Facebook go against the narrative.

Simple-looking placards carried in the Aurat March afforded deep insights into the grim state of gender inequality in Pakistan.

Statistics about gender inequality reveal the gravity of the issue and its possible repercussions for economic development. The numbers raise an alarm about the society’s apathy towards violence against women — from domestic violence and the so-called honour killings, forced marriages, workplace harassment to institutional discrimination.

The worst aspect of domestic violence is that it has become part of our social value system. The Demographic and Health Survey 2017/18 showed that 42 percent of women justified a wife beating by the husband. The statistics also show of that men were more likely to hit a wife if she argued with her husband, left house without seeking permission and refused intimacy.

Domestic violence is more prevalent in rural areas and socio-economically deprived regions. The victims have difficulty in reporting abuse due to a systematic bias.

According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls marry before reaching the age of 18 years, 3 percent are married off before the age of 15. The country is known to have the sixth-highest number of child brides in the world. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 sets the minimum legal age for boys (18 years) and girls (16 years) and denounces the solemnisation of the child marriages all over Pakistan.

In 2014, the Sindh Assembly adopted the law and increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and made it a punishable offence.

Watta satta (exchange of brides), and pait likhi (marrying off girls before they are born)are for from extinct.

In Pakistan, the female labour force participation is the second lowest (after India) in South Asia as only 23 percent of females (age 15 and above) are economically active. On top of that, the Global Wage report 2018/19 shows that Pakistan has the highest gender wage gap amongst 73 countries examined in the report. The mean hourly wage paid to male workers is 39 percent higher than that paid to female workers for similar education and experience. The national gender wage gap is more than twice the world average. Women make up 90 percent of the bottom-most of low-wage earners.

A qualitative study conducted at LUMS in 2017, found massive prevalence of gender inequality at workplace at several levels. Gender segregation at the macro-level adversely affects the women’s mobility and choice of career.

According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls marry before reaching the age of 18 years, 3 percent are married off before the age of 15. The country is known to have the sixth-highest number of child brides in the world.

The social disapproval for complaints against sexual harassment at workplace promotes gender inequality at the meso-organisational level. Women who defy the prevailing norms have to bear with lost opportunities such as promotions and training. At the micro-level, women who have more children and less family support are sometimes themselves involved in promoting gender inequality by shifting more demanding assignments to male colleagues.

The pervasive gender inequality at workplace reveals the poor implementation of Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, and non-compliance with international declarations, such as the 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Beijing Platform for Action (1995), and the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In Pakistan, we have another report card (or performance card) in education.The Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey 2014-15 shows that 49 percent of females are literate whereas literate males constitute 70 percent of the total. The Annual status of education report 2019 indicates grim gender disparities in the access and leaning levels of children aged 5-16.

Among out-of-school children, girls overtake boys. The reasons include fewer girl schools, lack of transport, poverty, resistance from community, and unavailability of female teachers. Girls perform far behind their male counterparts on all indicators, including reading at least a sentence in Urdu/Pushto/Sindhi, reading at least words in English, and solving the simple athematic problem.

The National Action Plan (2001-2015), formulated in pursuance of Dakar Framework for Action (2000), aims at promoting universal education to all, and particularly to women and girls.The poor state of education in general and gender-based differentials, in particular, reveal the ineffectiveness of the laws and policies in motion.

It is observed that deep-rooted cultural bias against women to holding assets is a major hindrance towards achieving women empowerment. The 2017/18 Demographic and Health Survey showed that only 3 percent of women and 72 percent of men own houses. Only 10 percent of women can decide on their healthcare independently.

Women usually take decisions jointly with husbands or under the influence of the family. Moreover, 39 percent of women do not take part in any decisions related to their health, household purchases, and visiting family and friends.

In Global indices of gender parity, Pakistan ranks at near the bottom most. According to the World Economic Forum report 2020, Pakistan stands at 151 (only two levels up from Yemen) in Global Gender Gap Index. Furthermore, the country positions at 133 out of 162 countries in Gender Inequality Index, which measures the loss in development resulting from gender inequality in health, empowerment and labour market.

In The Country of First Boys, Amartya Sen, advocates gender equality through his famous “capability approach”. The approach suggests that all human beings should have equal access to opportunities. It argues that greater freedom and choice provide impetus to economic development.

The approach identifies gender discrimination as a means to capability deprivation. The restricted access to community and society’s resources badly affect women’s capabilities and, hence, constrain the process of sustainable development.

The writer is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Karachi. She can be reached at

Placards versus report cards