Women at a loss

January 17, 2021

As the world moves into 2021, a woman still has many hurdles to cross to succeed in Pakistan

World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI) notes that a female child born in 2020 will be 44 per cent less productive than those born in the pre-pandemic years. HCI measures the contribution of health and education to the world’s citizens’ productivity and economic potential.

As per recent World Bank reports, a female child born in Pakistan today has 59 per cent fewer chances of reaching her full potential. The number is the lowest amongst all countries in the region, and most others in lower-income groups. If the HCI measures are believed, Pakistan is wasting nearly 60 per cent of its human potential.

Moreover, Pakistan ranks 154 out of 184 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), another UNDP measurement based on life expectancy, education and per capita income. The rankings are a definite cause of worry for a country grappling with several socio-economic concerns. The most troubling part is that when the HCI and HDI rankings for Pakistan are discounted for gender inequality, we find ourselves among the worst performers in the nations’ league.

The startling number of out-of-school children is a prime issue for Pakistan, especially when it comes to girls’ education. Only 27.6 per cent of women have earned secondary level education. This compares poorly with 45.7 per cent achievement for their male counterparts.

With millions of young women unable to continue their education online, young mothers deprived of routine antenatal checkups, coupled with reduced family income in the year 2020, the future appears even bleaker.

The year of the pandemic’s spread has significantly impacted the lives of women everywhere, with the United Nations calling gender-based violence in 2020 a shadow pandemic.

There have been news reports of a surge in domestic violence, honour killings and gender-based violence during the lockdown that has led to an increase in depression, aggression and violent behaviour within households.

With a notable increase in rape cases during the first quarter of 2020, the reported number stands at 1,868. The lockdown, otherwise an effective strategy for containing Covid-19, could not prevent female kidnappings — the number of kidnapped women in the last half of 2020 was a staggering 6,720.

The shift to remote learning and working systems during the pandemic further proved that women are not safe in cyber-spaces, as cases of online harassment increased manifold in the last year.

In the pandemic year, 4,737 women suffered sexual violence, and 1,843 faced severe domestic violence. Unfortunately, most social welfare helplines at the provincial level were shut down during the Covid- -19 lockdown in Pakistan. The police helpline and the Ministry of Human Rights Helpline, which remained available, received approximately 40,000 calls a month seeking a referral, legal advice and actual physical recovery.

National Disaster Management Authority of Pakistan also has a dedicated Gender and Child Cell to support the most vulnerable population during emergencies. After the Sheikhupura gang-rape incident in December, one can only hope that a better emergency helpline system for women and children is established.

As the world moves into 2021, a woman still has many hurdles to cross to succeed in Pakistan.

Female participation in the labour market continues to remain low (21.9 percent compared to 81.7 per cent for men).

One of the primary reasons for women lagging in entrepreneurial ventures is a lack of access to finances. The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has noted that only 3 per cent of small and medium business loans go to women. Only 19 per cent of the microfinance loans go to women.

The Ehsaas programme aimed at supporting women from the low-income background is a step in the right direction.

Notifications such as the Policy for Counteracting Harassment Issues in Educational Institutions, bills like the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Amendment Bill 2019 show the government’s intent to sensitise institutions to the predicament of Pakistani women.

In a significant move at the start of the 2021, Lahore High Court has directed the Government of the Punjab to abolish the virginity tests.

In 2021, actionable research will play a pivotal role in informing policymakers to make better decisions regarding increasing gender equality. Decisive policy changes are pivotal for Pakistan’s improved performance in the HDI and the HCI.

Policymakers and researchers must work together this year to find effective ways to protect and promote the country’s female population. Programmes focused on promoting equality overall should be a focus of research now. Social protection schemes will also help foster a culture of safety and openness and reduce the ever-widening gender gap.

A focus on women empowerment in 2021 is critical to the country’s socio-economic growth. The hope remains that Pakistan, through dedicated effort, will see a change for the better in women’s safety and gender equality measures.

The writer is associated with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute’s Policy outreach and advocacy unit. She can be contacted at zahra@sdpi.org.

Women at a loss: In 2021, woman still have many hurdles to cross to succeed in Pakistan